Foothills Park: City does NOT want to hear from most of you | A Pragmatist's Take | Douglas Moran | Palo Alto Online |

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By Douglas Moran

Foothills Park: City does NOT want to hear from most of you

Uploaded: Jul 27, 2020

Palo Alto's Parks & Recreation Commission (PRC) has scheduled a special meeting to have a two-hour panel discussion on "Foothills Park Access", to be held on Tuesday July 28. However, the ^announcement^ was published only 4 days before (Friday), suggesting that the City is hoping that residents won't hear of it in time. The membership of the panel is not announced -- another very bad sign. When a panel has been selected to be heavily biased in one direction, withholding who will be speaking prevents public pressure to have a balanced presentation.
Update: The panel has been announced. Details in ^news item^ or ^this comment^.
Update: Councilmember Lydia Kou has a ^survey^ seeking resident input on this issue, which is on the agenda for the August 3 City Council meeting (^ + Issues + Future of Foothills Park^).
There is no Staff Report or other background document attached to this agenda item, suggesting that the City wants to inhibit informed participation by the public. This has all the hallmarks of a highly partisan public relations event being disguised as a legitimate government function.

The City not wanting to hear from residents is a long-standing one, going back to the earliest of my blogs (#5 in 2013) and before. However, the extent to which identity politics and intersectionality are involved is dismaying. On the other hand, the amount of push back is encouraging.

In an earlier blog, I presented my beliefs that the proposal was not yet adequately developed -- not ready for a decision.(foot#1) In this blog, I address the politics that this has degenerated into.


A very small portion of Foothills Park (FHP) is an urban-style park with green grassy areas and a few picnic facilities (^satellite view^). That portion is often very under-utilized. The vast majority of the park is a nature preserve with hiking trails (switch to "Map") and is labeled that way on many maps (^Google Map example^). This is a fragile environment, likely to become increasingly so with climate change.

The City's discussion of changing the admission policy for Foothills Park may have been started by the low utilization of the urban-style park. While many people have repeatedly expressed serious concerns to the City about destructive over-use of the nature preserve, the reports generated by hearings and other public outreach barely mentioned these concerns, failing to even outline any ways in which those concerns might be addressed.

The current policy limits access to Foothills Park to residents and their guests, and to hikers passing through the park on the many trails ("the restriction"). The City Council was scheduled to consider a pilot program to allow a limited number of non-residents' daily access, but this agenda item was bumped from the end of June to an unspecified date in August (Council was on break in July).

However, the recent public debate has not been on the proposed pilot program. At some point, the discussion was hijacked by those who want the policy revoked, with many characterizing the policy as on-going racism in Palo Alto.

----June 7 Letter to City Council signed by 90 prominent individuals including public officials----

The coverage of this ^letter^ (PDF) in the Palo Alto Weekly started a substantial public debate. This and subsequently articles contain almost all the prominent arguments, with many of them in the online comments.(foot#2)

When I read the letter, I expected it to frame the issue from the signatories' perspective. Instead, it came across as little more than empty ^virtue signaling^. Before moving on to a discussion of the predominant arguments, I will ask what can be inferred from the text of this letter.

Start with the second thing that jumped out at me. It was the second sentence of the second paragraph: "This policy sends a terrible message to our neighboring communities--particularly those which do not enjoy the same socioeconomic advantages that Palo Alto does--..." Whoa! Not my experience. Let's check some data. Median household income seems a good comparable: (source ^^):
• $277K: ^Los Altos Hills^
• $276K: ^Woodside^ (ignore the map placing it in Sacramento)
• $270K: ^Portola Valley^
• $232K: ^Los Altos^
• $154K: ** ^Palo Alto^ **
• $147K: ^Menlo Park^
• $135K: ^Mountain View^
• $ 65K: ^East Palo Alto^
The disparity between the letter's statement and the data suggests that there is a reality-distortion field at play.

However, city boundaries are not good proxies for socioeconomic status. For example, my neighborhood -- Barron Park -- contains some $7-9M houses as well as affordable housing of many types: older apartment buildings, Below-Market-Rate units, and the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park. Similarly for East Menlo Park: Although it is gentrifying (Facebook), it is more like East Palo Alto than central and western Menlo Park. In East Palo Alto, the median household income for "Asian" residents was $162K -- slightly higher than that of the median Palo Altan.

Many people still think of East Palo Alto as a predominantly Black city. However, the demographics have substantially changed. It is estimated to currently be 60-70% Hispanics, African-Americans 12-15%, and Pacific Islanders 11%, Whites 7-30% (huge range). There are many differences between the various estimates, with most of them have totals well over 100%, even those having an explicit category for "mixed-race".

Note: I don't like using racial and ethnic identities as major categories for these considerations because they are meaningless. For example, it bundles together CEOs of Chinese or Indian ethnicity with Hmong tribesmen from the rural highlands of Laos. However, many of the participants in these discussions have already demonstrated that they regard race and ethnicity as primary determinants of who people are. Therefore, you need to be prepared to address their claims.

Now, addressing the first thing that popped out at me. It was in the preceding sentence in the letter: "a crime punishable by jail time for non-residents to enter Foothills Park." This is disingenuous, if not outright deceptive. Has anyone actually been jailed, or is that just a hypothetical? Yes, ^subsection 22.04.150(a) of the Palo Alto Municipal Code^ does state that violating the restriction is a misdemeanor, and ^Subsection 1.08.010(a)^ specifies that a misdemeanor is punishable by a fine of up to $1000 and/or up to six months in jail. First, misdemeanor charges are routinely used as threats of punishment to induce compliance. Because of the over-crowded court dockets and jails, police say they are ignoring minor misdemeanors because they aren't worth the time. And the courts have long favored fines and community service as punishment, even for some felonies that have been plea-bargained down to misdemeanors. So while it is possible to be sent to jail for this offense, has anyone actually been so punished? Having seen no mentions of this be the advocates, I presume the answer is "NO". So why does the letter present this as the leading outrage over the restriction?

If the signers of the letter were actually worried about unreasonably punishments, why didn't they advocate for reducing this violation from a misdemeanor to an infraction where the maximum punishment is a $250 fine?

The letter's signatories called on the City Council to: "Direct staff and the PRC to craft, within the next 60 days, a 21st Century policy that demonstrates our City’s commitment to equality, openness and resource protection." The 60-day timeframe says that this is not a serious proposal. The PRC (Parks & Recreation Commission) managed to meet 6 times (^source^) in the previous 9 months (Sept - May). Even in normal times, it isn't uncommon for meetings to be canceled because Staff hasn't completed preparations. Now with the budget cuts' Staff reductions, more delays can be expected. Notice that at least 19 (21%) of the signatories are 12 are former Mayors or Council members, 4 are current and former members of the PRC, and 3 sit on a similar Commission (Human Resources). You might think they would be well-aware of the time it would take.

The phrase "a 21stCentury policy" deserves its own mention as an example of the "Because it's the current year" argument. If a 22-line letter resorts to this argument, could much thought have gone into it? Or maybe the signatories didn't feel the need to have a persuasive presentation?

In calling for the repeal of the restriction, the letter is also deceptive in leading the reader to believe that that is the recommendation of the PRC: a pilot program. However, in calling for the PRC to quickly "craft" a new policy, the signatories are effectively calling for ceasing consideration of the proposed pilot program.

Given the number and prominence of the signatories, I expected a carefully drafted and edited statement. When reading such, you should be on the lookout for signs of what is being glossed over: the awkward phrasings and words that don't need to be there. In this letter, the prominent example is "visitors who are prohibited by uniformed City staff from entering a public park." "By uniformed City staff" is utterly unnecessary, so why is it included? Are the (park ranger) uniforms problematic or worse?

Although the letter is very careful to avoid explicitly calling the policy racist, elitist, or exclusionary, various news articles -- here on Palo Alto Online and in other Bay area media -- have taken the inference, as have commenters on those articles.


In 1959 Palo Alto purchased the land that is now Foothills Park after having sought to make it a joint purchase with surrounding cities. As a result of their refusal, Palo Alto restricted vehicle entry to the park to Palo Alto residents and their guests ("the restriction"). Over the years, multiple attempts to revoke this restriction have been rejected.

The Parks & Recreation Commission (PRC, sometimes PARC) has recommended to Council a one-year pilot program that would allow up to 50 vehicles of non-residents entry for a proposed fee of $6 per vehicle. There would be an online reservation system where the available reservations could be reduced on days where the park has historically seen larger numbers of Palo Alto residents.(foot#3) ^Parks & Recreation Commission Report and Recommendations^

Aside: I found the proposal for the pilot program to be grossly inadequate. It didn't try to predict how many of the additional visitors would be to the urban-style park and how many to the trails in the nature preserve. This affects a wide range of maintenance costs. The City Manager would be authorized to fund this pilot program by making cuts elsewhere in the City budget. There were strong objections to this: After months of City Council struggling with where to make cuts in the budget, ceding these decisions to the City Manager could undo the balancing.

----Having a restricted park is wrong/immoral----

Palo Alto has 36 parks, with ^more than 4500 acres of neighborhood parks^ and ^almost 4000 acres of open space^ (the Baylands, Pearson-Arastradero, Esther Clark, Foothills). Although Palo Alto has less park space per resident than is recommended in national guidelines, it has more than most nearby cities -- cities that allowed substantial housing developments without a corresponding increase in park land.

All of Palo Alto's many parks, except Foothills Park, are freely open to non-residents and are reportedly heavily used by those non-residents. Yet many of the comments advocating revoking the restriction on FHP are written as if all of Palo Alto's parks are restricted. Since those comments are anonymous, they could be from people with no knowledge of the situation.

The advocates of revoking the resident+guest restriction on Foothills Park declare that restriction to be wrong, racist, elitist, exclusionary, ... I don't remember seeing any that went beyond personal belief.

On the other side, I have seen anonymous comments that claim that a few cities in the Bay Area have a private park, but without enough information to try to confirm such claims.

----Do the advocates hope to achieve anything practical?----

Revoking the restriction on FHP access is being advocated as allowing socioeconomically disadvantaged and marginalized groups from visiting. But how many such people are actually going to do so? FHP is a long drive up a twisty road where bicyclists can suddenly appear around a curve. The need for high alertness can be stressful. Is the FHP setting attractive enough for a picnic that a low-income family would spend an hour on the drive (both ways) rather than at a nearby park even though it is crowded?

Or would most of the people who would benefit be from high-income areas? I don't know, and I don't see evidence in the Parks & Recreation Commission report that they considered this question.

----Racial arguments & demographic data----

--The (secret) REAL reason for the restriction was/is to exclude non-Whites--

A mind-set that "no evidence" is the best evidence is impossible to counter: Contrary evidence is deception and the absence of supporting evidence is itself supporting evidence: "It must be true, otherwise why would they be working so hard to keep it secret".

The claim is that because of the racism of the era, there is no way it couldn't have been the primary motivation for the restriction, and for its continuance into the current day. The stated reason -- that the refusal of the surrounding cities to pay meant that their residents couldn't play -- is just a convenient cover story.

When someone makes this claim, ask them why Palo Alto would be seeking to exclude non-Whites in 1959 when in 1954 it had annexed a neighborhood predominantly of Black homeowners: the current ^Ventura neighborhood^.

Tell them that Joseph Eichler was building hundreds of homes in Palo Alto in the 1950s and not racially discriminating. Attempts by some customers to exclude Blacks were soundly rejected by him.(foot#4) Ask them how that happened.
Yes, there was substantial racism in housing -- covenants, red-lining, ... -- but there was also growing rejection of it.

An example of this is in Geoff Paulson's Guest Opinion. (foot#2) (^direct link^). "When the citizens of Palo Alto voted to buy Foothills Park in 1959, lynching was still a frequent practice in the United States." (first sentence in the final section "The time for change is now"). The last lynching in this area was in San Jose in 1933 of two White men suspected of kidnapping and murdering Brooke Hart, the son of a prominent family. Nation-wide between 1950 and 1968, there were 13 lynchings: 9 Blacks and 4 Whites. The last recorded lynching was in 1964 in Mississippi of three Civil Rights workers Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner (2 Whites, 1 Black).(foot#5) One is too many, but how is this "frequent"?

--Blacks are only 2% of Palo Alto, therefore racism--

A too common belief on the Left is than any under-representation of a "marginalized" identity group must be the result of discrimination and hate. Blacks are roughly 13% of the US population, but only about 2% of Palo Alto's. Therefore, that low number must be the product of racism. An example of "There are lies, damn lies, and statistics."

In the 2010 Census, Blacks were 2.4% of Santa Clara County's population, 2.8% of San Mateo's, and 1.8% of Palo Alto's. Between the 1950 and 1960 Censuses, Blacks declined from 2.1% to 1.6% but increased in numbers, from 542 people to 847 people. During the same period, Whites declined slightly, from 96.2% to 95.4%.

--Long-term persistence of housing patterns--

The claim is that the housing patterns established in the time when racial discrimination wasn't illegal persist to this day through influences that are subtle/invisible but strong.

How to explain that Whites are estimated to be under 60% of Palo Alto's population, with ethnically Chinese around 30%, other Asians around 5-8%, and Hispanics 6-7%? Don't be surprised to be told that this doesn't represent much of a change because Asians are "White-adjacent".

--Racism doesn't have to be intentional/conscious--

In the July 7 PA Weekly article (foot#2) (^direct link^), an activist is quoted: " 'The policy that makes it a misdemeanor to enter the park doesn't say anything racial in it,' Ramanathan said. 'But I believe we live in a society that is structured such a way that a policy doesn't need to be explicitly racist to be racist in practice.' " This represents an increasing schism in US society on questions of guilt and responsibility. US laws -- heavily influenced by English Common Law -- have long placed emphasis on intent. However, the Progressive/Social Justice philosophy gives little weight to the intent behind an action, and focuses on how it could be perceived or interpreted. It doesn't have to be a participant, it could be on-lookers or broader society. In Britain, this has become law: You can be arrested if the police decide that what you said might offend some unspecified person, although in Scotland, the police may need to recruit an actual person to say they were offended. Really. Actual case law, including one high-profile case (Count Dankula).

Isn't being offended for someone over their objects patronizing?


One of the advantages of using ZOOM to attend a City meeting is that you don't have to sit on those uncomfortable benches waiting and waiting for your turn to be ignored.

1. Previous blog: proposal not ready:
"^Foothills Park controversy back to Council yet-again on Tuesday: Why, oh, why?^", 2020-06-21.

2. Palo Alto Weekly/Online articles on this issue:
"^'Meet this moment' : Growing coalition calls for Palo Alto to expand access to Foothills Park^", June 8, 2020.
"^Guest Opinion: Please open Foothills Park to all^" by Geoff Paulsen, June 19, 2020.
"^Commissioner resigns after council declines to consider opening Foothills Park to non-residents: Ryan McCauley led the effort to craft a 'pilot program' to allow people outside of Palo Alto to visit open space^", 2020-06-25.
"^Despite calls for action, Palo Alto is in no rush to expand Foothills Park access: City Council votes to defer discussion of contentious issue until after its summer break^", 2020-06-27.
"^Activist group calls on city to 'desegregate' Foothills Park^", July 7, 2020.
"^Guest Opinion: Now's not the time for full Foothills Park discussion^" by Roger Smith, 2020-07-24.

3. Proposed pilot program:
^Parks & Recreation Commission Report and Recommendations^
Update: ^Staff Report (ID #11490) for the August 3 City Council consideration of this issue^.

4. Eichler's inclusive communities:
"^They Like Eich: How midcentury house designer Joseph Eichler made a comeback^" by Leora Tanjuatco, Curbed, 2015-09-23.
Search/find for "racially diverse".

5. "^Lynchings: By Year and Race^" (covers only Whites and Blacks).

An ^abbreviated index by topic and chronologically^ is available.

----Boilerplate on Commenting----
The ^Guidelines^ for comments on this blog are different from those on Town Square Forums. I am attempting to foster more civility and substantive comments by deleting violations of the guidelines.

I am particularly strict about misrepresenting what others have said (me or other commenters). If I judge your comment as likely to provoke a response of "That is not what was said", do not be surprised to have it deleted. My primary goal is to avoid unnecessary and undesirable back-and-forth, but such misrepresentations also indicate that the author is unwilling/unable to participate in a meaningful, respectful conversation on the topic.
A slur is not an argument. Neither are other forms of vilification of other participants.

If you behave like a ^Troll^, do not waste your time protesting when you get treated like one.