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No quick fixes for Palo Alto's new 'parkland'

City agrees to pursue hydrology study before restoring 7.7-acre site

What was once a quarry that few in Palo Alto knew existed is now a quandary at the center of the city's debate about future recreation needs.

The site – a 7.7-acre parcel next to Foothills Park – is the latest addition to the city's vast collection of parkland. It is also an unintended benefit of the most embarrassing land-use imbroglio in Palo Alto's recent history.

Donated to the city in 1981 by the family of Russel Lee, the undeveloped land found itself under a public spotlight in 2012, when developer John Arrillaga made a private offer to the city to purchase it as part of broader negotiations over a proposed development at 27 University Ave. That proposed development, which featured four office towers and a theater, fizzled after a loud public outcry. But the 7.7-acre parcel next to Arrilaga's property was quickly dedicated as parkland by an enthusiastic City Council, which is now trying to figure out what to do with this land.

On Monday night, the council agreed that its options in this regard are very limited. The soil on the site ill-suited for planting new trees, said Daren Anderson, manager at the Community Services Department. While some trees have survived there, their growth had been stunted by the poor soil condition and they required a significant amount of compost, Anderson said.

Another limiting factor is Buckeye Creek, a channelized creek that originates in Foothills Park and flows through the site. The creek, according to Anderson, has experienced significant erosion and down-cutting over the years, causing sediment to accumulate at the site during rainy seasons. This sediment would have to be removed before anything can be done. It also doesn't help that the site is surrounded by private properties and that only about 2.1 acres are flat and deemed by staff as "usable."

During the course of several community meetings and ranger-led tours, residents offered numerous ideas for restoring and enhancing the site, including creating a campground or picnic area and de-channelizing the creek to restore the meandering creek flow. But given all the natural limitations, Palo Alto officials agreed that the best thing to do in the mean time is nothing at all.

While a few council members proposed creating a trail and setting up benches in the near term, the majority ultimately went along with a staff recommendation to keep the site closed for the time being. Rather than begin any construction or cleanup work, the city will perform a hydrology study to analyze Buckeye Creek and help inform the city's decision on the best use of the land.

"Completing the hydrology study first will allow us to understand how the possible solutions to correct erosion and undercutting can impact the 7.7 acres in advance of working on the site," Anderson told the council.

The Parks and Recreation Commission had discussed possible uses for the site over several meetings earlier this year and voted unanimously in February to pursue the study and to keep the land closed to the public until the study is done.

The council on Monday concurred with this recommendation, but only after some debate. Though everyone supported the new study, Vice Mayor Greg Schmid and Councilman Greg Scharff each made a case for re-opening the parkland to the public while the study is in progress.

Both said that allowing residents to walk around the site would help spur a meaningful public conversation about what it should be used for. Schmid noted that under current conditions, a resident can only walk for about 50 feet before hitting a fence that obscures the view of the site. By keeping the site closed off, public participation in determining the future use of the site would be "minimal," Schmid said.

Scharff agreed and noted that it could take five years or more for the city to conduct the analysis of Buckeye Creek and secure the needed permits to work around the creek. He argued that the city should invest the roughly $50,000 it would take to put up the needed fencing that would separate the site from the adjacent private residences and to build a basic loop trail and two benches. The equipment, he noted, could be reused in the future as part of plans that come out of the analysis.

"I'd like people to be able to see it," Scharff said. "I think it's important to open it to the public."

Schmid concurred, calling the investment a "bargain" and "well worth it."

The rest of the council disagreed and went along with the recommendation from staff. A report from the Community Services Department noted that "best management practices for opening new park land involve designing and preparing the area prior to opening it up to the public, whereby recreation uses, public access and areas for conservation and habitat restoration are thoughtfully and intentionally defined." That's what was done with Byxbee Park and for the Pearson Arastradero Preserve, the report stated.

The council ultimately voted 8-0, with Liz Kniss absent, to approve the study, which staff expects will take about a year. Once the study is complete, the council will revisit the topic and consider whether to open the park to the public in the near future.

Councilman Pat Burt said opening the site now would be "premature." Mayor Karen Holman concurred, though she also said she was sympathetic to Schmid's and Scharff's argument.

"It's land that we own," Holman said. "It's supposed to be open to the public."

After the council agreed not to reopen the space to the public just yet, all members voted to support the study. Councilman Eric Filseth, who made the motion to support staff's recommendation, said he sees no reason to rush the site improvements.

"The most important thing is that the land be preserved, which it is," Filseth said. "We're going to have it for a long time. ... We might as well take our time and proceed deliberately on this because it's not going anywhere."

Comments

2 people like this
Posted by Phil Chlora
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 1, 2015 at 10:22 am

>> The soil on the site is rocky and ill-suited for planting new trees, said
>> Daren Anderson, manager at the Community Services Department.
>> While some trees have survived there, their growth had been stunted
>> by the poor soil condition and they required a significant amount of
>> compost, Anderson said.

There are a lot of permaculture groups in California and around
the Bay Area. This area would make a good permaculture development
project to teach and demo permaculture ideas, and maybe grow food
while repairing the land and teaching students sustainable land
management techniques.

Definitely getting people out there is key. Maybe first, offer a photo
contest of who can take and share the best photos to let the rest of
Palo Alto see and know this resource through photography.


1 person likes this
Posted by Jonathan Brown
a resident of Ventura
on Sep 1, 2015 at 11:00 am

No one is suggesting that this could be a site for vehicle dwellers which could then be banned elsewhere in the city. And we could offer them (and anyone else who applied) permaculture jobs and agriculture training along the lines of Phil's idea!


2 people like this
Posted by MapNeeded
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Sep 1, 2015 at 11:25 am

Is there a map available showing foothills park and the new parcel?


Like this comment
Posted by anon
a resident of Monroe Park
on Sep 1, 2015 at 11:43 am

Aerial map on p 2 of
Web Link

It is not included in the trail map of the park ... but this provides the context. It is the continuation of Las Trampas Valley, beyond the Oak Grove Picnic area in the upper left part of the map, along Buckeye Creek.

Web Link


10 people like this
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 1, 2015 at 11:45 am

You all seem to forget that last year a large number of people were invited to review this property and provide suggestions for its use. And we all did. Those suggestions - where are they? Do not go into a "let's start over" mode like no to time has already been invested in this.

This particular area is well suited for a special events area for children's camping, holiday hay rides, rental for parties and events.
There is already building there for the park Rangers - it is not without some plumbing.
Build a special events BARN with a kitchen, bathrooms, space for gatherings both in and outside. Since there are no trees then this is already set up for that purpose.
You can make this area pay for its self with very little investment. A BARn for special events is a perfect response for this area.


Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 1, 2015 at 2:03 pm

Previous article from Nov 25 -- Web Link

More background from Aug 19 a year ago -- Web Link

@Phil, here's a photo I posted in an earlier thread, taken on the Oct 18 tour -- Web Link -- the west end of the 2-acre flat portion. Acterra's plot is near the east end.


13 people like this
Posted by only half joking
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 1, 2015 at 4:55 pm

[Post removed.]


15 people like this
Posted by LOL
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 1, 2015 at 5:01 pm

[Post removed.]


5 people like this
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 2, 2015 at 8:56 am

One problem pointed out by the rangers is the overflow on the creeks. Not a problem up to now but if an El Nino is especially brutal than that area will have some problems - but assume that the whole of that geographic area will have problems.

The theory posted that we should wait 5 years sound like you are waiting for someone to die. Who would that be?

Excuse me but that is a waste of good property. And though many are attempting to downgrade it so people will not pay attention - forget it.

It is in horse country, a special events location for hayrides; children's parties with some farm animals; Children's supervised pony rides; a Barn with kitchen and bathrooms for larger events like fund raisers, etc. I am not proposing a permanent location for animals since that is lion country. But the stables can bring in animals for special events.

So what is all of the hesitancy about here? Is someone waiting to make a trade for something else?
Someone needs to step up to the plate and project a plan that includes some ability to deal with El nino type events. If you thought this was dry before than widen a creek area so kids can explore a creek.


Like this comment
Posted by Gus L.
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 2, 2015 at 9:30 pm

Interesting...
That "Private Residence" next to the area is John Arrillagas Compound...
Arrillaga didn't have any problem building on his Quarry...
Web Link


Like this comment
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 4, 2015 at 9:28 am

There is now another story on this location concerning the tree farm. Both need to be read together to get a fuller picture of this property.


Like this comment
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 4, 2015 at 9:09 pm

Given the history of this site, the city should definitely put a fence around the new parkland. It's going to have to eventually, it might as well be now.


Like this comment
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 4, 2015 at 9:24 pm

It's public park land, dammitt! Why not open it to everybody and debate how to use it for a century or two?


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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