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Paly prepares for year of hard hats and rubble to pave way for gleaming athletic center

By Benjamin Custer | 11 Dec 2013

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Palo Alto High School’s main gym, built in the 1920s, features a basketball court with six backboards, four of which cling to the railing of the upper-level stands.

The school’s smaller gym dates to the 1960s and more closely resembles a community room that happens to have a hardwood floor and some backboards that protrude from its walls.

“You simply don’t see gyms … that are that old and functioning at today’s level,” said Bob Golton, facilities and bond program manager for the Palo Alto Unified School District.

Soon, you won’t see them at “Paly.” Atop the desks of school administrators rest stacks of schematic designs for replacing the antiquated gyms with a state-of-the-art athletic center by August 2015. According to plans, the main gym’s seating capacity will double from 800 to 1,600. A weight room will command nearly four times the space of the current version.

“The existing facilities do not have a wrestling room or a P.E. classroom,” said Tom Hodges, director of the district’s bond program management team. “The team rooms they have are very small and cramped. Things that right now they just sort of make do without, now we’re going to actually have facilities for all of these different elements that surround athletics.”

The complex will rise from the same ground where the old structures are located, with an enclosed hallway — accented by a row of arched windows on both sides — connecting two new gyms. The athletic center is designed to wrap around three sides of the school’s outdoor swimming pool.

Other features of the main gym: a sunken floor, a “Hall of Fame” corridor and a large lobby featuring a ticket booth, concession stand and athletic store. A training room, a room for visiting coaches and team locker rooms are planned for right off the main gym floor. There will be P.E. lockers for 600 boys and 600 girls.

Across the pool from the main gym, the new small gym will include a full-size basketball court and two cross-courts. It will be adjacent to the wrestling/multipurpose room and pool locker rooms.

School officials hope to begin demolishing the old gyms as early as June, but must await approval from the Division of the State Architect.

In 2008, Palo Alto voters approved a $378 million Strong Schools Bond to assist the district in building and enhancing facilities around its campuses. The district earmarked a small portion of the bond for moderate improvements to Paly’s gyms.

“We had a $5.4 million line item for a new weight room, wrestling room, aerobics room and some team rooms,” Hodges said. “It was going to be a small sort of connector between the two existing facilities that was going to provide either an upgraded facility or a new facility that the school didn’t have.”

That’s when a local donor — the Peery family — stepped in with the vision to give the gyms a complete makeover, and an offer to cover all costs beyond the allotted $5.4 million.

“We had always planned on a new gym, but not right now,” Golton said. “The Peery family has a history of sending their children and grandchildren to our schools.”

While the total donation won’t be determined until construction is finished, school officials expect the Peerys’ contribution to far exceed the amount afforded by the bond.

“The donor will not be writing a check to the district, but rather will be paying the contractor and architect,” Golton said.

He said the district will use a lease-leaseback project delivery method. Such an arrangement allows school districts to lease property in need of construction improvements to a builder for as little as $1 per year without engaging in a public bidding process.

School officials have taken steps in hopes of mitigating disruption to student activities while construction is underway. As far as finding a place for its displaced sports teams, Paly might not have to look any farther than the other side of El Camino Real. Golton said the school is in the process of securing sufficient gym time at Stanford to accommodate practices and games for freshman, JV and varsity teams during the 2014/2015 season.

While arrangements have yet to be finalized, Paly plans to pay Stanford for the use of its facilities. The schools are no stranger to partnerships. According to Golton, Paly swimmers used Stanford’s aquatic facility during construction of the high school’s pool in 2005/2006, and Stanford has used the high school’s football field for practices.

Hodges said the school also aims to repurpose some of the spaces on campus to accommodate activities displaced by the construction (such as moving dance into the student center); transform existing portables into team rooms and teacher offices; and import portable locker rooms and restrooms for the P.E. classes. The school is looking to install a tent structure near the stadium’s concession building to shelter P.E. classes on rainy days.

The initial plan was to maintain pool operations throughout the construction, but Hodges said that likely will not be the case. He acknowledged that it will prove challenging enough to avoid damage to the pool while razing the surrounding buildings. The school is pursuing an interim aquatic facility.

At the end of the process, the campus will sport vastly improved athletic facilities, which Paly officials see as a community asset. Golton said the school intends to make the complex available to the community when not being used during the school day.

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