Since it opened its diamond to the community more than six decades ago, the Palo Alto Little League field on Middlefield Road has become hub of big dreams and cherished memories for generations of local sluggers.
That, however, was not enough for the south Palo Alto field to win a designation to the city's Historic Inventory. Instead, the city's Historic Resources Board rejected on Wednesday a proposal from a nearby resident, Jason Yotopoulos, to officially recognize the field in the city's Historical Inventory.
In voting 5-1 against the designation (with Beth Bunnenberg dissenting and Patricia Di Cicco absent), board members acknowledged the beloved status of the Little League field, which opened in 1952 in a ceremony featuring Ty Cobb and Glenn "Pop" Warner. Board members David Bower and Roger Kohler each recalled playing at the field, with Kohler calling it "quite a landmark."
Nevertheless, the board members questioned both the merits of the proposal and Yotopoulus' motivation for making it. The fact that Palo Alto Little League, which owns the property, opposes the historical designation was a major factor in the board's decision. Amy French, Palo Alto's chief planning official, said this is the first time that she's aware of that a proposal for historical designation is coming forward against the property owner's wishes.
Though state and federal laws prohibit the designation of properties on their respective historical registries without the owner's approval, Palo Alto has no such prohibitions. Under local law, an interested party can seek a historical designation over the owner's objections, said Cara Silver, assistant city attorney.
In this case, however, city staff argued that the field has already undergone so many design changes and renovations since its founding that its historical integrity is compromised. Members of the Little League board of directors made a similar argument and provided the board with then-and-now photos of the baseball field, underscoring the differences.
Yotopoulos maintained in his application that the site's "cultural landscape is often overlooked when one just looks at the buildings." The ballpark, he told the board, is one of the first in California and represents both the spreading of Little League baseball to the West Coast. It also, he argued, epitomizes the ability of a visionary community to finance a ballpark that, 62 years later, remains as successful as ever. It was intentionally placed in a residential area and it ended up being "an anchor" to the community as the local development pushed southeast in the 1950s, he said.
"The field is truly exceptional and still treasured to this day," Yotopoulos wrote in his letter to the board. "It is difficult to overestimate what Little League was to the community in the '50s; it was the focus sport locally for youth. This meant that the community rallied around this property, with merchants sponsoring teams, dinners being planned around evening game schedules and a full roster of majors, minors, weekend games, even full local radio and newspaper daily coverage of the games."
Also speaking in support of the site's historical significance was Herschel Cobb, grandson of the legendary slugger Ty Cobb. Herschell Cobb made case for giving the field a historical designation, calling it an "important part of a community." Once these types of community resources are gone, he noted, they are gone forever.
"The basic idea that you have a site here that's been of historic significance to members of the community is kind of undoubtable," Cobb said.
Yotopoulos also cited a 1998 study by Dames & Moore listing the ballfield as one of the site that can be "potentially eligible" for historic designation. But the board generally agreed that while the ballpark may one day get a historical designation, now is not that time.
Board member Martin Bernstein said Little League's opposition alone should be enough to halt the designation process. The photos provided by Little League further underscored the idea that the ballpark's historical integrity has been greatly compromised over the past 60 years.
Mark Priestly, secretary of Little Leagues board of directors, was one of several board members to argue against the designation. Almost everything at the ballpark has been replaced or modified, he said. And the field needs to continue its evolution, he said, something that might become more burdensome if the site is deemed historical.
"We can't be stagnant. We can't be a museum," Priestly said. "We need to be able to evolve, which is what we've done."
Others, including Little League board president Kristin Foss, questioned Yotopoulos' motivation for seeking the historical designation. They noted that he is one of the major opponents of a proposal by Verizon to install a cellular antenna on a 65-foot light pole in the ballpark. That proposal has split the adjacent neighborhood, pitting whose who want better cell service against those who see the new cell equipment as a visual blight.
Yotopoulos, an SAP executive who lives across the street from the field, has spoken out at recent public hearings against Verizon's plan for the ball field the latest iteration in the telecom giant's two-year quest to upgrade its wireless equipment. His and his neighbors' opposition to the plan prompted the Architectural Review Board to defer its expected approval of the Verizon plan until Oct. 16.
Yotopoulos readily admits that he opposes the Verizon plan, though he maintained on Wednesday that his purpose in seeking the historical designation has more to do with a "due process." The board, not Verizon's consultants, should be the arbiters of whether the site is historical, he said.
This wasn't enough to assuage the board's concerns.
"I am deeply troubled by the fact that Mr. Yotopoulos has a strong problem with the cell tower and that it's very clear in our documents that it probably drives a large majority of his energy to getting this property designated as a historical site," said board member Bower.
Bunnenberg urged the board to continue its discussion until after it considers other options for historically recognizing the site. Simply saying that the ballpark is not historic would "close the door" on the discussion, she argued.
"It would be a rush to decision to make a judgment that this property is not historic," she said.
The rest of the board, however, had no problem recommending against the designation, with Margaret Wimmer joining Bernstein in voicing concerns about infringing on the property owner's rights. Not having the property owner's consent, she said, makes it "very difficult to support the application."
"I think it is a potential future candidate" for historical designation, Wimmer said. "But at the moment, it's clouded with some other issues."