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[whitespace] Sports center on shaky ground

The city-owned sports center has been viewed as both a boon and a hindrance

Cupertino--Many Cupertino residents, particularly supporters of the new library project, view the aging sports center facility as a millstone around the city's neck, a weight that has drained crucial money from the new library. For them, the code-deficient building represents the city's punishment for rushing into the purchase of a private structure built long before current regulations concerning handicapped access and seismic safety were in place.

The city's government sees the matter differently. It has long held the goal of creating a gathering place for the community and believes the sports center acts as a key component in establishing just such a space around Memorial Park. Together with the new senior center, the park, and the Quinlan Center, the sports facility offers citizens of Cupertino an opportunity to congregate and recreate, according to city representatives.

This comes at a cost, however. The city has already settled one lawsuit over the building's lack of compliance with regulations related to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

A paraplegic Cupertino resident sued the city in 1999 to increase accessibility for the handicapped. As a result of that suit, the city installed a temporary lift that allows a wheelchair to go from the main lobby to the tennis courts.

Though these improvements were made to increase accessibility for handicapped members, the structure still does not meet either seismic or accessibility standards. For those reasons, the city currently regards the center as a major threat of litigation.

The city bought the sports center from the De Anza Racquet Club on April 1, 1990, for $7.9 million. It would cost the city $1.7 million to correct the code violations alone, but the building also needs remodeling to fix damage and restructure it for use as a public facility. For instance, the new building will not include a bar and will have more space for fitness equipment and activities.

In March of last year, the city council decided to stop putting money toward constant improvements and repairs to the building, opting instead to demolish the building and start from scratch.

Because of the constant threat of legal action, the city felt compelled to include the complete rebuilding of the sports center on its list of capital improvement projects in the 2001-'02 budget approved on June 18. The city had shelved numerous other projects to free up money for the new library, but retained the new sports center, which will cost an estimated $4 million.

"The sports center's time has come--actions need to be taken," said Rick Kitson, the city's public information officer.

After reviewing its options in regard to the facility, the city decided that raising an entirely new structure offered the best use of city funds.

"For the 30 year horizon, it made no sense to do anything other than build a building that was going to serve the community's needs for the next three decades," said Therese Ambrosi-Smith, the city's director of parks and recreation.

The matter has the city treading lightly. Smith originally balked at the idea of allowing The Courier to tour the center, fearful that publicity could bring more lawsuits with it, but eventually acquiesced.

"There's a certain amount of concern just because we're looking at changing things as fast as we can, and I don't think we want to generate any new complaints," Kitson said.

"That will take money away from what we have to get done," Smith added.

However, many residents have publicly questioned the necessity of owning a sports center. Citizens involved in the new library project point out that 71 percent of Cupertino voters supported a new library building with a construction budget not to exceed $22 million. The decision to buy the sports center, while it had a public hearing, never went before the voters during an election. The same goes for the decision to spend $4 million to rebuild it.

Dorothy Stowe, a member of the library steering committee, asks why the city needs to stay in the fitness business when the Northwest YMCA sits just a few blocks away from the sports center.

"I'm a believer that the city shouldn't duplicate efforts and buildings," she said.

The city has spent a great deal on parks and recreations in the past decade, according to Stowe, and she asserts: "We should be able to spend $22 million to improve our minds."

The lean budget the council approved sets aside $19 million to fund the new library building. Supporters of the project cite figures from the county that show the amount will produce a library that falls well short of the space an independent study recommended for the building. Many believe the new library will operate at capacity as soon as it opens its doors.

The city council has responded by pledging to work with architects for the project to wring every last bit of functionality from the project's constrained budget. Council members also emphasized that the city has no other option but to rebuild the sports center and could not remove the project from its budget.

When the council approved the new budget, most members also recognized the need to find more money for the library project. Council member Richard Lowenthal moved to approve the budget, adding as a condition that the council should hold a special study session to examine new funding possibilities for the library.

That session will take place sometime in late August, according to Kitson. The city has floated several ideas to raise money for the library, including the sale of city property and requesting corporate donations, but has not yet made any concrete decisions.

Former Cupertino Mayor Nick Szabo has suggested the city should consider supplying additional funding for the library through a general obligation bond, much like the city of Saratoga did. However, the measure that Cupertino voters approved specified that the money for the new library would come from the city's general fund, thus the city council has rejected the idea of a bond.

"Whether they would change their minds for the increment that we're looking at here, I don't know," said Carol Atwood, the city's director of administrative services. "As far as the May study sessions, they did not want to pursue a general obligation bond."

The tug of war between the two capital improvement projects reveals a major pitfall of government: the need to balance the desires of different constituencies, while at the same time following the law down to the letter. "This is not an either/or business," Kitson said. He believes residents will appreciate the sports center when the new building is constructed.

According to center's manager, Don McCarthy, it already has around 800 long-term members, and he and Smith think a new facility would only increase those numbers. They point down the block to the new senior center and suggest that a fully accessible facility would make it easier for seniors to come to the sports center for exercise.

Kitson added that residents would appreciate having a low-impact public facility on the site, instead of retail or office space. He reports the previous owner had even discussed turning the property into a trailer park.

Rather than put off the reconstruction of the sports center to ensure the maximum amount of funds for the new library and possibly risking another lawsuit, those involved feel the city should move forward as quickly as possible.

"At this point, the most prudent possibility is to get on with it," Smith said.
Kevin Fayle

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