After years of anticipation, Palo Alto's nature lovers jubilantly welcomed a new era Friday morning when the city opened up a 36-acre swath of Byxbee Park, essentially doubling the park's size.
City officials, leading conservationists and more than 30 residents marked the occasion with a song about nature and a celebratory hike along the freshly opened path, which leads to the city's newest lookout point.
The area currently amounts to little more than a dirt path leading to grassless knoll, with tractors and survey flags forming much of the backdrop. But in the coming months, it will undergo a transformation as the city adds pathways and native grasses, recreating the pastoral atmosphere that existed at the Baylands site before the city opened a landfill in the 1930s. In the meantime, trails will be marked with flags.
Phil Bobel, the city's environmental compliance manager, said the landfill will officially close July 28, but city officials have already begun the process of opening up new portions of Byxbee Park to the public. A 10-acre site just south of the one that opened Friday is scheduled to become public parkland in December.
Clark Akatiff, who worked at the landfill for 20 years, opened the Friday ceremony with a brief history lesson on the Baylands site and characterized the landfill's closure as an important moment in the city's history. Landfills were once a common site around the Baylands, he said, but most have since been closed and capped.
"This is the last of a breed," Akatiff said. "When this landfill closes, it will be the last of its kind in the area where we live."
The aim now is to "replicate the wonderful prairie that once existed," he said. Mayor Sid Espinosa, who also attended the hike, said that after native grasses are planted in the fall, the place would assume "the pastoral vision that was planned for this park."
Councilman Greg Schmid, who also took part in the hike, called the ridge in the newly opened area one of the most beautiful spots for looking over Palo Alto and the Baylands, particularly during sunset. He encouraged those in attendance to show the site to their friends.
The city expects to convert the entire landfill to parkland in 2013. Officials plan to spend much of next year sealing and capping the area.
Friday's tour was organized by former Councilwoman Emily Renzel, the coordinator of the Baylands Conservation Committee. The city also plans to have an official opening ceremony for the 36-acre site in early September.
In the meantime, the city is still considering building a new waste-to-energy plant on a 10-acre portion of Byxbee Park. Voters will decided in November whether to make this dedicated parkland land available for the new facility, which would process yard trimmings and food scraps and convert them into electricity.