Palo Alto eyes major changes to Cogswell Plaza
City seeks to deter 'unsavory activity' by changing landscaping, adding tables to downtown plaza
Seeking to spruce up and revitalize one of downtown's most neglected open-space areas, Palo Alto officials are planning to add new landscaping, furniture and lighting to Cogswell Plaza.
The plaza, which once hosted the city's "Brown Bag Concert" series, has been getting little use in recent years, despite its prominent location one block north of University Avenue.
Those who do patronize the plaza often engage in what the city's landscape architect, Peter Jensen, called "unsavory activities," often involving drugs, alcohol and urination. The problem has gotten worse in recent months, Jensen said, since El Camino Park across from the Stanford Shopping Center closed to accommodate construction of a new reservoir.
Among the major problems with Cogswell, located at Lytton Avenue and Ramona Street, is the landscaping. Jensen said the hedges and shrubs at the periphery of the plaza screen plaza visitors from view and make it hard for police to catch perpetrators. The city's $150,000 renovation plan would remove these shrubs, improving visibility and bringing more attention to the plaza's crop of oaks and redwoods.
Jensen said the goal is to encourage more daytime visitors — including people from the adjacent Avenidas senior center — to spend time at the plaza.
"Right now, it's really an unused outdoor space in downtown — which is unfortunate because there's not a lot of outdoor space that's open in the downtown area," Jensen told the Parks and Recreation Commission Tuesday night (Dec. 13).
The proposed improvements include removing the old shrubs and hedges and installing low-growing plants. In a report, Jensen said the new plantings will "give the Plaza a fresh clean look, require less water and maintenance and will grow to an appropriate size to allow clear lines of sight through the space from one side to another."
The plan also calls for removal of a turf area in the north section of the plaza and installation of a circular seating area with game tables; repair broken sections of concrete pathways; install trash receptacles and make lighting improvements.
Jensen said staff hopes to begin renovations in the coming year.
In their first look at the renovation plan, commissioners expressed enthusiasm for the project, which they agreed would vastly improve the long-neglected plaza. Commissioner Edward Lauing called Jensen's proposal a "great plan" and said the current situation definitely calls for more lighting. Commissioner Sunny Dykwel agreed, calling the existing plaza "aesthetically not pleasing" and stressing the importance of removing the "trip hazard" at the plaza.
The only debate Tuesday evening centered on whether the plan should include more tables or more benches. Chair Daria Wash advocated for benches. Visitors to Cogswell Plaza, she said, tend to come either alone or in small groups and do not need tables to accommodate them.
"People who really enjoy that park are sitting on the bench, and a few more benches might make it more attractive at lunch," Walsh said.
Commissioner Jennifer Hetterley disagreed and said she prefers to sit at a table, rather than on a bench, when visiting a park.
Jensen said staff has been talking to Avenidas about the proposed plans and has the full support of the senior facility. The improved plaza, he wrote in the report, "will allow a larger user group to utilize the Plaza, promoting employees and visitors to eat lunch and enjoy the Plaza, and allow a space for members of Avenidas to congregate outside."
Walsh said she supports having the senior facility involved in the plaza's redesign but urged staff to consider the needs of all residents.
"I do want to think about it as a park for the whole city and make sure we remember that," Walsh said.
Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at email@example.com.