When Palo Alto officials set out to build a massive underground reservoir at El Camino Park, their goal was to give residents an emergency water supply, not to provide new play spaces and park amenities.
But city recreation officials are now trying to use the voter-approved project as an opportunity to reinvigorate the park by adding lacrosse striping, a scoreboard, a grassy nook for picnics and a dog-exercise area.
While funding remains a major obstacle, the City Council agreed with the Parks and Recreation Commission on Monday night that park improvements at El Camino should be a high priority.
Discussion of El Camino Park improvements dominated Monday night's joint session between the council and the commission, which had already spent several meetings compiling a list of potential park improvements. On Oct. 20, the commission submitted a memo calling the park an "underused asset" and urging the council to use the reservoir project to improve the park.
"The Palo Alto Parks and Recreation Commission understands that improving El Camino Park is just one of many infrastructure projects facing the City," the memo stated. "Nonetheless, the planned reservoir project construction at El Camino Park creates an unusual opportunity to optimize resources and minimize disruption by making park improvements in conjunction with reservoir upgrades."
The council agreed that the opportunity for park improvements should not be squandered, though members acknowledged that finding the funds to make these improvements could prove tricky. The reservoir is funded by a voter-approved bond and city officials are prohibited from using the bond funds for projects not relating to water improvements.
City officials estimate that the construction of the reservoir will commence in the middle next year and will take about two years to complete. The reservoir would have the capacity to store 2.5 million gallons of water.
The council agreed Monday that some of the commission's proposed improvements could be implemented at little cost. The Utilities Department, which is implementing the project, has already agreed to include several of these improvements including lacrosse striping, a pedestrian access point at the south end of the park, and a redesigned softball field in the project's design.
Other improvements, such as a new scoreboard and new field lights, could also ultimately be installed in the near future, council members indicated. Councilman Greg Scharff, whose children played Little League baseball at El Camino Park, said he supports the types of improvements the commission is recommending.
"There's definitely a shortage of field space to do this kind of stuff," Scharff said, referring to youth sports. "It can't be that expensive to install a scoreboard."
Councilman Larry Klein said the city should start thinking of ways to fund the proposed improvements. He proposed sending the list of proposed park improvements to the city's new Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Task Force. The task force, which is charged at evaluating the city's infrastructure backlog and considering a possible bond measure to fund infrastructure improvements, is scheduled to hold its first meeting in December.
Parks and Recreation Commission Chair Daria Walsh said the commission is worried that the task force will take more than a year to complete its task, by which time it could be too late to implement the park improvements
"If by that time we don't have the money, the opportunity is lost," Walsh said.
The council asked for more information about the estimated costs of the commission's park projects. Once these estimates are in, the council will decide wither to fund the park projects through a bond or through the city's capital-improvement program.