In a moment acknowledged to be three decades overdue, an enthusiastic City Council on Monday night officially dedicated as parkland a flat, undeveloped and long-forgotten parcel next to Foothills Park to ensure the land will be used for "park, recreation or conservation purposes."
The dedication is in conformance with the wishes of R. Hewlett Lee, who gifted the parcel to the city in 1981.
In a 7-0 vote, with Councilman Pat Burt and Councilwoman Gail Price absent, the council passed an ordinance specifying that the site will be used as parkland and endorsed a staff proposal for figuring out what to do with the land. The site, an extension of Los Trancos Open Space Preserve, had been lying in obscurity until 2012, when developer John Arrillaga privately offered to buy it from the city for $175,000. Arrillaga, who owns land adjacent to the 7.7-acre parcel, leased the parcel from the city between 1996 to 2005 to store construction material while building a home.
The city's negotiations with Arrillaga over the unused parcel took place at the same time as the city was considering his proposal to build an office-and-tower complex near the downtown Caltrain station.
Though both plans ultimately collapsed, the secret nature of the negotiations triggered a community backlash and, more recently, a scathing report from the Santa Clara Grand Jury about a lack of transparency. The Grand Jury report, which came out in July, bore the title, "The City of Palo Alto's Actions Reduced Transparency and Inhibited Public Input and Scrutiny on Important Land Issues."
The silver lining came on Monday, when the council cheerfully added to the city's 4,000-acre open-space empire a stretch of land that almost no one knew existed before Arrillaga made his offer. The 8.3-acre parcel includes a half acre site used by Palo Alto nonprofit Acterra for a nursery. In the coming months, city staff, the Parks and Recreation Commission and ultimately the council will consider what to do with the remaining 7.7 acres.
The park dedication came after three council members, Karen Holman, Pat Burt and Greg Schmid, wrote a colleagues memo in March urging the move.
"This has been a long time coming," Holman said Monday. "We can bemoan that it's been a long time coming or celebrate that it's here. Where we are is celebrating that it's happening.
"We're not making any more land. It's really a landmark time that we have in front of us now that we're dedicating the 7.7 acres."
Schmid called the vote "an important step" and said he "enthusiastically" supports the addition of parkland. Councilman Greg Scharff was equally jubilant.
"It's not every day we get to dedicate an extra 7.7 acres of parkland," Scharff said.
Vice Mayor Liz Kniss, who recently toured the site, was more subdued in her enthusiasm. The site, she said, is difficult to access and, in its present state, not particularly inviting.
"It does not look like a piece of pristine parkland," Kniss said. "It is currently rather like a dustbowl."
Though the dedication guarantees the site will be used for park or recreation purposes, the restriction still leaves the city with a wide range of options, from walking trails to playing fields. City staff will ponder possible uses with the parks commission in the coming months and return to the City Council with a recommendation by early 2015.
In addition to the dedication, the council approved a letter of thanks to the Lee Family for expanding Foothills Park through its donation of land to the city. The letter notes that an average of 100,000 visitors come to Foothills Park annually to picnic, hike and appreciate its wildlife offerings.
"More than just a gift of land, the creation of Foothills Park has helped to establish the deeply held value of stewardship of parks and open space lands that Palo Altoans cherish so dearly."
Signed by Nancy Shepherd, the letter states that the 7.7 acres of land deeded to the City "will further enhance the recreational, conservation and stewardship opportunities for visitors to enjoy."