After three decades of languishing in obscurity, a parcel of land next to Foothills Park is about to become the newest addition to Palo Alto's expanse of parkland and, quite possibly, a scenic entryway into the hilly preserve.
The City Council on Monday voted 8-0, with Greg Scharff absent, to support dedicating a 7.7-acre parcel of land that just two years ago, most council members didn't even know existed. The land was granted to the city by the family of R. Hewlett Lee in 1981 and has remained mostly dormant ever since, functioning only as a nursery for Acterra and a storage area for John Arrillaga, the billionaire philanthropist who owns property on either side of the flat site.
The parcel first made headlines in 2012, when Arrillaga offered to buy the land from the city for $175,000, an offer that was based on an appraisal that the city had conducted, City Manager James Keene said Monday. The city informed Arrillaga that "there was no way the City would entertain consideration of selling the property at that appraised price and that additional/offsetting parkland may need to be a factor, in addition to a higher sale price," as part of any consideration by the city of selling the site. Arrillaga then offered to build playing fields for the city near the Baylands golf course, though that proposal ultimately fizzled.
On Monday, the council took a strong stance toward keeping the site as parkland in perpetuity when it directed staff to draft a park-dedication ordinance for the parcel. Once the ordinance is approved, it would take a vote of the people to allow any alternate use of the site. The dedication, council members agreed, would be consistent with the Lee family's gift, which included a deed specifying that the land would be used for "conservation, including park and recreation purposes."
Councilwoman Karen Holman, who proposed dedicating the site in a memo co-signed by Councilmen Pat Burt and Greg Schmid, said the dedication is appropriate at this time, as it would have been many years ago. Most officials, she said, didn't even know about the property before the Arrillaga offer.
"It was quite a revelation to learn of this and a happy revelation," Holman said Monday.
The rest of the council shared her view, though members expressed a variety of opinions about where to go from here. Some, including the three memo authors, advocated asking staff to explore different options for the best uses of this land and bring the alternatives to the Parks and Recreation Commission for vetting. Others, including Larry Klein and Gail Price, favored analyzing the 7.7-acre site as part of broad master plan focusing on local parks, trails and recreational opportunities. The master plan, which the council discussed earlier in the meeting, is now in its early stages and is expected to be completed in 2016.
Ultimately, the proposal to study options for the site in the broader context of the master plan failed by a 4-4 vote, with Mayor Nancy Shepherd and Vice Mayor Liz Kniss joining Klein and Price. Burt, who argued in favor of analyzing the site separately, said lumping it in with the rest of the parks "really pushes this back off the table to some indefinite action at some point in the future rather than really moving it forward to finally bringing it in as part of Foothills Park."
This split notwithstanding, the council was united on the issue of dedicating the parkland. Though the site is now fenced off and features as its only amenities two signs ("No Trespassing" and "Beware of the Dog") council members and local environmentalists waxed enthusiastically about the prospect of transforming it into a scenic extension into the Las Trampas Valley, along Buckey Creek.
"It's like the uncovering of a gem," Schmid said. "In a city where we added 8,000 people over the last decade, to have the opportunity to add a gem of a park to that city is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
Geoffrey Paulsen, grandson of Russell Lee, spoke in favor of dedicating the parkland, saying it would provide a wonderful opportunity to enhance the trail network in Foothills Park.
"This provides you with an opportunity to create a creekside stroll down a valley that would be a magnificent opportunity for decades and centuries to come," Paulsen said. "It's a flat area so it's amenable to access by elderly and disabled (visitors) and you pass a variety of habitats."
The dedication of the site as parkland would offer a second layer of protection for the land from potential development. As Klein pointed out, the land deed already restricts it for conservation purposes. Even if a developer somehow gets around this restriction, the dedication ordinance would make sure the people would have a say in changing how the site is used.
"This property now becomes the most protected property we can possibly have," Klein said.
The council's decision to dedicate the site drew big smiles from local conservationists, who turned out for the meeting to support the proposal in the memo. Enid Pearson and Emily Renzel, former council members and leading conservationists, both lauded the planned dedication. So did Barron Park resident Winter Dellenbach, who called the site "precious" and noted that "once it's gone, it's gone."
"This gift wasn't given for playing fields in the golf course," Dellenbach told the council. "It was given for open space and parkland."