What began as an effort to build a reservoir at El Camino Park in Palo Alto transformed into a broader overhaul Monday night when the City Council approved $2.5 million in new improvements, including a synthetic turf, expanded parking and a dog exercise area.
The council voted 6-2, with Councilwomen Karen Holman and Gail Price dissenting and Mayor Yiaway Yeh absent, to add a host of amenities to the park, which lies near the Menlo Park border. The project is intended to leverage the current work to build a new reservoir, which city voters approved in 2007. The 2.5-million-gallon tank would provide water for Palo Alto if the Hetch Hetchy system that currently supplies the city were to become damaged in an earthquake.
The council agreed that the emergency project provides the city an opportunity to pursue broader improvements at the park, including the creation of an amenity that has been sorely lacking in the north part of the city: an exercise area for dogs. The city currently has three dog parks, in Greer, Hoover and Mitchell parks. Staff and council members have long acknowledged the dearth of open spaces for dogs and had agreed to keep that in mind any time the city improves its parks.
In this case, the dog area would be one of many amenities. The project approved by the council also includes a turf field for soccer and lacrosse, a grass field for softball, pathways in to the north and 26 new parking spaces (bringing to total number to 68).
But it was the dog park that proved to be the most controversial piece of the project. The Parks and Recreation Commission had endorsed all the proposed improvements except the one for dogs and the expanded parking lot, arguing that the city shouldn't spend nearly all the funds in its $2.8 million park-development-fees fund on one project.
Park development fees are collected from developers for the purpose of improving parks, as compensation for the increased demand for city facilities and services that new residential and commercial buildings brings.
The dog run, which would be the size of half a football field, would include a wood-chip base, benches, a water fountain for humans and a special spigot for dogs, according to Daren Anderson, the project manager.
Holman and Price opposed the project, though for different reasons. Holman argued that the dog run's proposed location on the north side near San Francisquito Creek would make it a difficult place for dog owners to reach.
"I wouldn't take my dog there because I think it's poor access for a dog park," Holman said.
For Price, money was the swaying factor. Given the city's limited resources, she said, the council should defer its discussion of a dog park "to a future time when we can complete environmental (analysis) and identify the appropriate funding."
But others argued that the city shouldn't let the opportunity for a new dog park slip away. Councilman Larry Klein said the city is not a dog-friendly one, despite the huge number of dog owners. Deferring the project, Klein said, creates a likelihood that it would never happen.
"I think this is an exciting opportunity to get an excellent community asset completed," Klein said. "Yes, it's expensive, but we have an opportunity here that we don't have elsewhere, so we should spend the park-impact fees."
Klein's colleagues agreed, though with some reservations. The project is complicated by the anticipated relocation of MacArthur Park restaurant, which stands nearby at 27 University Ave. The city is working with philanthropist John Arrillaga on a proposal to build an office building and a theater at the restaurant's site, which would necessitate a relocation of the historic building that was once served as a meeting point for families of World War I soldiers.
Greg Betts, Palo Alto's director of community services, said Monday that the city is evaluating three new locations for the historic building: the former Camp Fremont on Willow Road in Menlo Park; the Palo Alto Municipal Golf Course, where it would replace the current clubhouse; and El Camino Park. Though the project is still in an early conceptual phase, several members said Monday they were hesitant to sign off on the proposed El Camino Park improvements while the fate of MacArthur Park remains in the air.
"What's to say that a major building there wouldn't call for a major redesign of the park which wasn't on the table when we first started going with these plans," Councilman Sid Espinosa said. "I have difficulty reconciling these plans."
Ultimately, however, he sided with the council majority. He referred to the city's prior commitment to pursue spaces for dogs during park renovations.
"If we don't put it in now, we won't get it, so I think it's good to take that bold step and make that commitment" Espinosa said.