With parking and traffic dominating Palo Alto's debate over a new "community vision," the Parks and Recreation Commission is urging the City Council in a memo to pay more attention to local parks, which commissioners say are struggling to keep up with the city's recent growth spurt.
By a unanimous vote, the commission last Tuesday endorsed a memo penned by Chair Jennifer Hetterly and Vice Chair Ed Lauing urging the City Council to more fully consider the consequences of growth and development on the city's parks and recreation facilities. These vital resources, the memo argues, are facing "increasing challenges" thanks to population growth, increased development and changing office-use patterns among downtown employers.
The commission's recommendations include requiring developers to create more park amenities and provide more park-mitigation fees; forecasting impacts of increased vehicle trips on "the prosperity and accessibility of parks, open space and recreation facilities"; and better monitoring the health of local parks in the face of growing demand and use.
The memo notes that the city has fallen behind in its goal (as expressed in the current Comprehensive Plan) of having parks within walking distance (about half a mile) of neighborhoods and employment areas; and at least 3 to 4 acres of park land for every 1,000 people. Some residents, the memo states, lack parks within the half-mile radius and "recent growth in residential development in South Palo Alto and commercial development in Downtown Palo Alto creates uneven burdens on parks in those areas."
The memo notes that between 2000 and 2010, the city's population of senior residents has grown by 20 percent and its population of school-aged children has grown by 22 percent. For these groups, even a half-mile distance is sometimes a long one to cover, the memo states.
"And as vehicle traffic increases, it becomes harder for them to get there safely," the memo states.
It's not just residents putting more pressure on the city's park resources. New companies tend to cram more workers into office space, Commissioner Pat Markevitch said at Tuesday's meeting, and occasionally set up their businesses in neighborhood houses. City officials, she said, need to "put our feet down when it comes to square footage and how many employees can go in there."
"It seems to me that's where the employees and the companies are getting away with a lot of squirrelly stuff that they haven't been in the past," Markevitch said.
The memo cites the higher demand for local parks and facilities such as playing fields, dog parks and restrooms and the "wear of increased usage" at local parks.
"As a consequence, we face increasing costs and challenges to maintain the quality of our facilities, ... increasing conflicts among user groups over how space should be used, and a loss of passive green space as we try to accommodate dedicated uses within limited space," the memo states.
The commission also agreed that the city needs to start collecting and spending more money for park maintenance. According to the memo, the city has been collecting about $600,000 annually in development fees for parks, less than half of the $1.3 million that the Association of Bay Area Governments forecasts Palo Alto would need to spend annually to accommodate the city's population. An ongoing effort to renovate El Camino Park will alone consume 60 percent of the entire Park Development Fund balance, the memo states.
"We're behind. We're not collecting enough money and the current park impact fees are not sufficient," Commissioner Keith Reckdahl said. "We've shown that you do need additional fees -- some way to maintain quality of parks."
While park fees are one method for dealing with growth, another is requiring developers to provide park amenities. Commissioner Abbie Knopper argued that the city hasn't been doing enough of the latter.
"The city has to be mindful and require that if certain commercial developments happens, park space ... has to be included in that," Knopper said. "It just can't be dense housing without park and open space available. And it hasn't been consistent, which is why a lot of people are very upset."
The memo was prompted by the city's ongoing overhaul of its Comprehensive Plan, a broad planning document that, at least in theory, guides local policy decisions. Earlier this year, the city launched an ambitious outreach campaign, Our Palo Alto, aimed at soliciting the community's feedback about the city's vision for its future, with the planning horizon extending until 2030. The council hopes to complete the Comprehensive Plan update by the end of 2015.