From the tranquil expanse of Foothills Park to the energized hive of Johnson Park, Palo Alto has no shortage of green spaces to soothe local nature lovers and delight youngsters.
But as the city develops its new master plan for parks and recreation, the City Council is considering adding parks and modifying existing ones to meet changing demands. Strategies include buying up corner lots and turning them into small neighborhood parks; carving out parks out of existing city-owned land; closing off Arastradero Road to car traffic on the weekends; and changing policies to make nature preserves more accessible to the public.
The new Parks, Trails, Natural Open Space and Recreation Master Plan is a document that staff and consultants have been working on since early 2014 and that the city plans to adopt at the end of this year.
Once completed, the master plan will prioritize new recreation projects; make recommendations for buying up new land; and consider improvements to each existing park.
During its discussion, council members readily acknowledged that Palo Alto's park system, which includes 37 parks and about 4,000 acres of open space, is already the envy of many. But just because it isn't broken, doesn't mean it couldn't use some fixing, members agreed. And with the city's population on the rise, much of the emphasis at the Monday hearing was on making parks easy to access for local residents.
Vice Mayor Greg Scharff noted that the council has a goal of having about 2 acres of park space for every 1,000 residents. But while the population has grown by more than 1,400 residents in the past two years, the city hasn't added additional acres of parkland. One possible answer lies in corner lots, Scharff said.
"There are a lot of corner lots that become available. They would look great as little mini parks," he said.
Mayor Pat Burt noted that in some cases, the city doesn't even have to buy land it can simply use land it already owns. This is what happened when the city created a pocket park, next to the Pope-Chaucer Bridge in Crescent Park, out of a section of the long and skinny Hopkins Creekside Park.
"We carved out a little area for a pocket park for a neighborhood that had none," Burt said. "We did that in Matadero Creek in a similar way. We need to think creatively about city-owned land. In some ways it's already dedicated parkland that's underutilized."
Other council members focused on existing parks and ways to make them more alluring and easier to access.
Councilman Greg Schmid suggested that the Baylands remain underused and also proposed opening up to the public the 7.7-acre parkland next to Foothill Park that was donated to the city by the family of Russel Lee and lay unnoticed for decades before the council annexed it. The council last year agreed to launch a planning process for the site before opening it up to the public. Schmid recommended letting residents visit the site.
"I know we have an important public decision," Schmid said. "In the meantime, shouldn't people be able to walk and see what's there? Have their own dreams of how the space can be used?"
Foothills Park itself is another potential scene for policy changes. Though it's officially open only to Palo Alto residents, several council members suggested relaxing the policy for the sprawling and scenic preserve.
Scharff said the Stanford University community should be allowed to use the park, given that the Stanford Dish remains a popular recreational draw for Palo Alto residents. Burt agreed, noting that the preserve is fully occupied only on the weekends between late spring and early fall. The rest of the time, it is "well-underutilized," he said.
"I don't know in what way it harms us to allow others to use the park when there's no competition for it," Burt said. "It just doesn't hurt us."
As part of the overall park-planning effort, consultants from MIG surveyed close to 500 residents near local parks, organized workshops and issued an online survey that attracted more than 1,000 responses.
According to MIG's report, residents widely supported policies that prioritize making facilities available to Palo Alto residents. They also said they would like to see more types of play experiences and environments, as well as more bathrooms.
"In addition, there is clear preference for features and amenities that support comfort, convenience and longer stays at parks, including water fountains and places to sit," according to the report.
There is also "widespread interest," according to MIG, in bringing community gardens, dog parks and aquatic facilities to new areas of the city.
Another idea that emerged from Monday's discussion was closing off to traffic (at least on the weekends) the portion of Arastradero Road at the Arastradero Preserve.
Jeff Paulson, a member of the Lee family (which sold Foothills Park to the city), said that restricting traffic on Arastradero "would create absolute magnificent and absolutely safe recreational opportunities."
Councilwoman Karen Holman said she was intrigued by this proposal. Though when it comes to inviting more use to Foothills Park, which is more a nature preserve than a park, the city should be very mindful of the impact of more people and activity.
Councilwoman Liz Kniss suggested having more signs around town informing people of the distance between various parks and preserves. People get motivated to move around when they know how far they have to go to get to the next destination, she said.
"This is a city where people like to walk," Kniss added.
The master plan will undergo more vetting in the months to come from the council and the Parks and Recreation Commission, which has already held several meetings on the plan and is set to discuss it Tuesday night.
Keith Reckdahl, chair of the Parks and Recreation Commission, said that one of the commission's main concerns is that the document be "very usable." The goal is to provide crucial data without overwhelming the user with information.
"This is not some theoretical document," Reckdahl said. "This is something we will use to design parks."
The plan will, among other things, consider sections of the city where the demand for new recreational facilities is particularly high.
Councilman Tom DuBois said his priorities in the new plan include acquiring additional space, distributing services across the city and enhancing the city's community centers. Cubberley Community Center, which is now undergoing its own master-planning process as part of a partnership between the city and the school district, will have an important role to play in the process, he said.
Tracy McCloud, center director at the nonprofit Avenidas in downtown Palo Alto, told the council to keep the needs of local seniors in mind as it plans recreational opportunities. Palo Alto seniors are generally very active and have special fondness for activities relating to health and wellness.
The nonprofit, which is preparing for a major expansion of its Bryant Street facility, is "bursting at the seams" and cannot meet all the demand, McCloud said. And while many have said they feel lucky to have so many parks and open space preserves for them to enjoy, there continues to be a great demand for classes and activities that allow seniors to socialize.
"Seniors who live in the southern part of city have very limited options. They are very much in need of local class offerings, as well as places to meet and socialize," McCloud said.