Opponents and supporters of the controversial proposal squared off at City Hall on Monday night, with each side painting the debate over driving and hiking as a matter of life and death.
For Palo Alto's regular Dish hikers, dozens of whom attended the City Council meeting, the plan proposed by Stanford University in partnership with the city would do nothing less than cut off access to the immensely popular nature preserve, which attracts a reported 600,000 visitors annually.
Jacques Adler, a regular Dish runner, told the council that he has had four bypass surgeries and was told by his doctor that he probably wouldn't have been alive if not for the regular exercise he'd been getting. The council can help save citizens lives by keeping Dish access as is, Adler said.
But for residents who live on Stanford land near the Dish, it is the existing situation, not the proposed one, that requires fixing. Cars routinely clog up Stanford Avenue, numerous speakers told the council, and drivers regularly make illegal U-turns and other hazardous maneuvers, a troubling trend given that Nixon Elementary School is just a few blocks away from the main gate. By removing 33 of the 60 Stanford Avenue spots and creating a new parking lot on Coyote Hill Road, a largely undeveloped area a little more than half a mile away from the Dish, the city will improve safety and prevent a future accident, proponents of the plan said.
Tim Assimes, who is on faculty at Stanford and whose children go to Nixon, called Stanford Avenue an "accident waiting to happen." He said that while he supports opportunities for leisure and exercise, he will not support these opportunities "at the expense of the safety of our children."
"I think the Stanford perimeter trail project is a good compromise," Assimes said. "It improves access to the gate without increasing traffic."
Many of the residents on campus, Assimes said, support the plan, which is part of a broader proposal by Stanford and Palo Alto to enhance trails around the Dish and make various pedestrian and bike improvements on El Camino Real. But if an accident occurs near the popular Stanford site, he said, faculty will rally and "close the gates."
James Mark, a physician who has lived on the Stanford campus since 1965, stressed the issue "is not access or convenience."
"As far as I'm concerned, it's safety," Mark said.
Other Stanford residents wondered aloud why so many hikers vehemently oppose walking an extra 10 to 20 minutes to get to the Dish.
Several Palo Altans, meanwhile, countered by wondering why Stanford has decided to place a parking lot next to what one speaker called a "path to nowhere," a location that (as another pointed out) would require them to cross traffic-heavy Page Mill Road.
Critics of the plan also brought props — green signs that read, "Palo Altans for Dish Access." At least one Stanford campus resident took issue with this message.
"Stanford is not eliminating Dish access for anyone, and I think that's very misleading," Dee Dee Schurman told the council.
The debate over Dish parking was prompted by a successful joint application by the city and university in 2012 for grant funding to pay for a slew of trail and bike projects. The money, which was distributed by the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors and was initially contributed to the county by Stanford as part of its permit requirement for campus development, will help pay for Palo Alto's proposed bike bridge over U.S. Highway 101 and for a new system of trails around the perimeter of the Dish, a project that campus residents have long-coveted.
Because the subject was not on the council's agenda, members did not discuss it Monday. But after both sides had their say, Vice Mayor Liz Kniss told the speakers, "We have heard you," and pointed out that top city staff heard the comments as well. The debate is now likely to resurface at a future council meeting.
TALK ABOUT IT
Is the proposed parking lot on Coyote Hill Road a good idea? Dozens of people are already discussing this topic on Town Square, the community discussion forum on Palo Alto Online.