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Palo Alto banks on private donors for new public gym | News

As Palo Alto advances its plan to build a public gym, city leaders are banking on local philanthropists to step up and help the city fund the project.

The gym appeared to be on a fast track two months ago, with billionaire philanthropist John Arrillaga offering to contribute more than $30 million for the project. As part of the proposal, he stipulated that he would choose the design of the gym and select the construction team to build it.

Arrillaga, who funded the construction of gyms and athletic fields throughout the Peninsula — including in Menlo Park and at Stanford University — died on Jan. 24. The offer is no longer on the table.

That, however, has not deterred the City Council from reaffirming on Monday its support for the project, which also enjoys the unanimous endorsement of the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission. Last year, the commission evaluated numerous locations for a new gym, which include a 10.5-acre site near the Baylands Athletic Center and an unspecified area in the generally underserved Ventura neighborhood.

Commissioner Anne Cribbs, who served on a committee that studied the gym proposal, said the commission envisioned a two-story facility with at least two basketball courts as well as space for volleyball, pickleball, indoor soccer, badminton and table tennis. The 37,500-foot building would also include storage space, exercise rooms, classrooms, restrooms and changing rooms.

Commissioners, council members and city staff all agree that there is plenty of demand for a gym. The city doesn’t currently have a public gym, though it leases the gym at Cubberley Community Center from the Palo Alto Unified School District. Daren Anderson, assistant director in the Community Services Department, said Monday that city facilities are “almost always reserved in the afternoons and evenings every day of the week.”

“Sports programs, especially middle school athletics and adult sports, are operating over capacity and it’s difficult to expand these programs because they rely on these limited gym spaces and field spaces,” Anderson said.

Council member Tom DuBois, who has been involved in various sports leagues, agreed and said that it’s been “harrowing” trying to schedule teams. Last December, Arrillaga reached out to him to make the gym offer. Even though that offer is no longer applicable, it continues to shape how the city is approaching the project. DuBois said he still hopes the city will pursue a “design and build” approach that empowers a contractor to effectively steer the project from beginning to end, potentially saving time and money.

DuBois also suggested that philanthropic contributions may be required to make the gym dream a reality. For precedent, he pointed to the recently rebuilt Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo, a popular community attraction that became possible through a $25 million contribution from nonprofit “friends” group. This included a $15 million donation from the family of Dick Peery, which also provided $24 million to Palo Alto High School for its new gym in 2013.

While some council members expressed concerns that building a gym with public funding would displace other projects that have been in the city’s capital plan for several years — including a new skate park and a history museum — DuBois suggested that if private funding can be obtained, the gym can move up quickly in the city’s priority list without jeopardizing other planned expenditures.

“If we were able to assemble a significant amount of fundraising then for me the priority of the project would rise,” DuBois said.

His colleagues agreed and by a unanimous vote directed the commission to continue evaluating the new gym, including possible locations and features of the new facility. The commission was also asked to evaluate fundraising opportunities, an assignment that Cribbs enthusiastically accepted.

“I believe in Palo Alto,” Cribbs said. “I’ve been a longtime resident and I believe there are resources in this community to get this gym planned and built.”

The council also asked the commission to more fully explore the local demand for a new gym and to consider additional locations, including Cubberley Community Center. While the Parks and Recreation Commission has been loath to fully explore Cubberley, which for years has been subject to at times tense negotiations between the city and the school district, the situation has changed in recent months as the council dropped its prior plan to rebuild the entire center in partnership with the district and to focus instead on the 8 acres of the 35-acre center that it actually owns.

Other sites that the commission had briefly considered and may revisit include Greer Park and Mitchell Park.

Whatever the location, council members suggested on Monday that they believe the facility would be well used. Stone called the gym a “great idea,” particularly if private funding can be obtained for the project.

“I’m excited to see what can be done there and hopefully create a new model moving forward to get a lot of these capital projects done by really opening up the philanthropy of our own residents,” Stone said,

Monica Williams, president of the Palo Alto Pickleball Club, agreed and urged the council to continue exploring a new gym. Her club now has about 750 members, she said, about half of whom are from Palo Alto. Demand for gym space will become ever more acute as pickleball continues to grow, she said.

“It’s time for Palo Alto to have its own gymnasium for all sports,” Williams said.