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 two blocks north of City Hall.

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 closed to accommodate construction of a new reservoir.

Among the major problems with the plaza at Lytton Avenue and Ramona Street is the existing planting at the site. Jensen said the hedges and shrubs at the periphery of the plaza currently screen 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 seniors form the nearby Avenidas Village -- 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 on the project, 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 new 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 that occurred was over 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 and 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.

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Like this comment
Posted by Dennis
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 14, 2011 at 12:13 pm

One of the best features of Cogswell Plaza is that it partially blocks the noise/visual/exhaust pollution of Bryant Street traffic. This is a benefit whether one uses the actual Plaza. Whenever I pass the plaza, it seems to be a place for smokers to enjoy their slow, public suicide.
The real issue is probably the unsavory people who enjoy a respite in the shade of the Bryant end of the plaza, endangering the bourgeoisie comfort of the Palo Alto Way.

Like this comment
Posted by vern
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 14, 2011 at 12:24 pm

What about the people who are now hanging around the back of the new lytton plaza?

Like this comment
Posted by Bill
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 14, 2011 at 7:41 pm

I vote for more benches over more tables. The changes will certainly make the Park more user friendly.

Like this comment
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 15, 2011 at 12:09 pm

Why don't we wait until the giant new building at the corner of Bryant and Lytton is finished, and see if those new people -- office workers, I presume -- use the park and therefore make the homeless and at risk people less noticeable?

I am afraid this is the opposite -- that the developers of the new property are asking us regular folks to subsidize them -- to roust the alleged vagrants such that the prospective new tenants don't see the great unwashed sleeping or smoking or what not across the street from their palacial new prospective digs.

I hope the commissioners poll some ordinary residents and not just listen to the developers. I hope staff -- whose salaries we citizens pay -- do likewise.

This is the same potential problem as Lytton Plaza where a small group of people have a disproportionate influence over what is supposed to be a public asset. For example, there is a proposed ordinance affecting "amplified music" per se which is really an anti-vagrancy act designed to give public safety rationale to hassle the people at the Plaza; this topic is now part of a sub-commission of the Rec commission. Existing noise ordinance is sufficient; the new ordinance may conflict with First Amendment rights.

I worry that this problem is endemic and epidemic, that developers have way too much say over policy in Palo Alto. That they pack council and staff and commissions with their operatives. It is hard if not impossible to get on a commission or council without kowtowing to this small group of powerful people, one of whose offices perhaps coincidentally is located across from Cogswell.

Cogswell Plaza is named for a longtime editor of the Palo Alto Times, which was kitty-corner to the park, replaced by realtors and vcs; the diminution of the press here -- and nationwide -- is a real problem, no disrespect to Gennady et al but they are not the Times Tribune. The real estate interests affect what is reported and how. More so at the other paper.

And further, the plans presented would make it impossible to bring back the Brown Bag; again, why not wait and see. Maybe the developers of the new massive building could underwrite the programming, which would bring people to the park and displace the ones who some find offensive-looking. $150,000 would underwrite about six seasons of Brown Bag.

Like this comment
Posted by A need
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 15, 2011 at 2:05 pm

Lets just make it another Plaza for the Downtown gang to hangout. Turn it into another Lytton Plaza for the druggies; lets just spread them around!!

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