From its inception, Bol Park and its path have been a rallying point for Palo Alto's Barron Park neighborhood.
Many people don't realize as they walk and bike the busy, mile-long path near Gunn High School that Barron Park residents were responsible for its creation.
Resident Richard Placone was at the forefront of that movement in the 1970s. The property was once part of the Southern Pacific rail line. When the railroad abandoned the right of way in 1974, SP's head of real estate told Placone the railroad had "never given away one acre in 200 years, and it was not about to do so now," Placone recalled last week.
But he was persistent. He made contact with someone who knew the assistant to SP's chairman and took the man for a tour of the right of way. Newly acquired Bol Park was at a stage where the grass was coming up, and as the assistant walked along the pathway, tears came to his eyes, Placone recalled.
"As a young man starting at Southern Pacific, he rode that line. It was very nostalgic for him," Placone said.
One week later, the same real estate head who had soundly rejected Placone's request called to tell him the railroad would deed the property to Santa Clara County. When the neighborhood annexed to Palo Alto a year later, the park and path were turned over to the city, he said.
But the residents have always been the park's and the path's stewards, he added.
"It's not an unusual thing for the community to get exercised -- as we have been," Placone said.
A year ago, the residents jumped into action after the adjacent VA Palo Alto Healthcare System removed dozens of mature trees and shrubs along the path as part of an expansion project.
The gaping, 400-foot-long gash in the verdant border along Bol Park path became a rallying cry for nine Barron Park residents, including Placone. He recalled his reaction after residents David Boxerman and Art Liberman discovered the bare swath during their routine walks.
"I was appalled. I can't emphasize enough the shock. ... In a few hours to see magnificent oak trees ripped out, it reminds me of a scene in the Lord of the Rings where they ripped out a forest to feed fires to make war weapons," he said.
Together with the City of Palo Alto and the VA, the group -- Placone, Boxerman, Liberman, Cedric de la Beaujardiere, Frank Crossman, Claire Elliot, Markus Fromherz, Lynnie Melena and Peter Mueller -- planted dozens of native trees and shrubs, which will provide a visual barrier from the VA Hospital complex, among other things.
"We had a determined focus to try to restore the landscaping back to bring the atmosphere of a refuge," Liberman said of the area, which is already dotted with native California bunchgrasses, the kind depicted on the state flag on which the grizzly bear walks.
On Oct. 24, dozens of volunteers planted three species of native oaks and colorful shrubs, including manzanita, ceanothus, toyon and coyote bush. They were aided by local urban-forest nonprofit Canopy and City of Palo Alto Landscape Architect Peter Jensen, who helped develop the planting design and plant choices, Placone said.
Right now, the trees are tall and spindly and the shrubs are only calf or knee high, but in the coming years they will grow stately, providing birds, native insects and small critters with a food source and humans with beauty, Placone and Liberman said this week.
Resources for the project came with the help of City Manager James Keene, who designated $2,000 from a discretionary fund for the plants and assistance from city staff. Senior staff also reached out to the VA, which added texture to a concrete retaining wall to give it a more natural look and offered to provide water at no charge to irrigate the new plantings for two years.
Hospital staff also said the organization might add additional plants to help screen the path, Liberman said.
And the group's work is not yet done, he added.
"The committee is not disbanding. What we've noticed is it's a mixed use. There are people jogging with baby strollers and bicyclists and elderly couples hobbling along with canes. In 1975 when it was first done, nobody contemplated such use. It was never designed for bike/pedestrian traffic," he said.
Early next year the group plans to look at ways to make the path more compatible for its many users. They might also do additional planting, and in places where the terrain creates pooling from runoff, they might find ways to add drains so the water will flow into Matadero Creek, they said.