by Gennady Sheyner
A long-forgotten and largely abandoned parcel of city-owned land next to Foothills Park could be spruced up and added to Palo Alto's verdant empire of dedicated parkland under a proposal offered this week by three City Council members.
The 7.7-acre site, which is currently closed to the public and which can be accessed by a path off Los Trancos Road, last cropped up in council discussions in the fall of 2012, when developer John Arrillaga offered to buy it from the city for $175,000. As part of these discussions, Arrillaga also offered to build three athletic fields for the city as part of the renovation of the Palo Alto Municipal Golf Course.
These talks over the park site occurred largely behind closed doors and during private site tours staff had arranged for council members, which the Weekly learned about from documents obtained through the Public Records Act. At the same time, Arrillaga was seeking the city's permission to build a four-tower office complex and a theater at 27 University Ave., the current site of the MacArthur Park Restaurant.
The proposals ultimately collapsed after an intense public outcry about insufficient transparency and the excessive density proposed for 27 University Ave.
But now, the 7.7-acre site is back on the table. This time, however, the proposal is to open it up to the public rather than sell it to Arrillaga, who owns properties on either side. The land has been city-owned since 1981, when the family of R. Hewlett Lee granted it to the city. The family had reserved an estate on the property, which it owned until 1996.
In presenting the 7.7-acre gift to the city, the Lee family specified that it "shall be used for conservation, including park and recreation purposes." Burt, Holman and Schmid argue in their memo that it's time for the city to honor the direction and restore the site that few council members were even aware of two years ago.
"Most of us didn't even know it existed," Holman told the Weekly. "And it's been fenced off and locked off from community access."
"I think it's appropriate to dedicate the land for the purpose for which it was acquired, which was for conservation," Holman said. "One way to do it is to dedicate it as parkland."
The colleagues' memo describes the site as "a flat plain surrounded by wooded hillsides on both the north and south sides." It calls the land "a natural extension of the beautiful and popular Las Trampas Valley in Foothills Park and, if accessible, would extend that valley for about a fifth of a mile northwestward along the course of Buckeye Creek."
"These acres include an environmentally important riparian corridor. It is time this property becomes dedicated parkland accessible to the public," the memo states.
Currently, the site is only used by the environmental nonprofit Acterra, which raises plants in a greenhouse. The rest is vacant and fenced off.
Holman said that now is a particularly good time to consider options for turning the site into parkland because the city is preparing to put together a Parks, Trails, Open Space and Recreation Master Plan, which will lay out the city's vision for future park improvements. The plan, which the council will also discuss Monday night, would propose five-, 10- and 25-year improvements to Palo Alto's extensive park system. That system includes 32 parks comprising 187 acres and four open-space preserves that total 4,000 acres, according to a recent staff report from the Public Works Department. This would would be the city's first effort to put together a comprehensive plan for parks and recreation since 1965. According to the Community Services Department, that plan called for the creation of the Baylands Athletic Center, the future expansion of athletic fields throughout the city, and the expansion of Greer Park.
The Parks and Recreation Commission has discussed the master plan over the course of several meetings and will shoulder much of the load in putting it together. In a new report, Community Services Department staff wrote that the plan will propose various enhancements, "acquisition of park and recreation facilities and a funding plan for implementation."
"The city currently has no cohesive plan to manage, improve and expand its park and recreational facilities in order to keep the programs, services and facilities relevant to present and future populations; to appropriately balance recreational and open space conservation needs; and to provide adequate funding to meet these on-going needs," the memo states.
As the city considers these long-range goals, Holman said, the 7.7-acre site near Foothills Park should be in the mix.
"This should be considered as part of that master plan," Holman said.