Off Deadline: In a case of good timing, Palo Alto may staff Cooley nature center


Palo Alto's Lucy Evans Baylands Nature Interpretive Center will close for most of a year for an extensive -- some say long overdue -- rehabilitation and rebuilding of the boardwalk leading to a bird-watching platform.

Those $500,000 projects would end the variety of classes, programs and educational exhibits that each year draw thousands of visitors from Palo Alto, the Bay Area and beyond. The bird observatory is considered one of the best viewpoints anywhere for aquatic and marsh-based fowl, in addition to offering a magnificent view of the full sweep of the south bay.

But two occurrences, the impending closure of the Lucy Evans center and the recent dedication of the Cooley Landing Nature Education Center building -- now vacant with no budget for programs -- may help resolve problems of both Palo Alto and budget-strapped East Palo Alto. (See column on the building here)

John Aiken, senior program manager for Palo Alto's Community Services Department, said the concept of moving the baylands programs to Cooley Landing is being discussed at the staff level in both cities. If workable, the plan would go to the East Palo Alto City Council for approval.

The Lucy Evans center currently is the base for about 129 classes and educational camps serving about 3,000 elementary students; visitors number about 80,000 a year. The boardwalk was closed in 2014 due to safety concerns related to aging supports and railings but recently has been partially reopened after some repairs.

The rehab planning is a bit behind schedule, but work is slated to begin this fall, Aiken said in an interview in his office at the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo, which he also oversees. ==I (For details and current status, click here)==

Aiken joined the city staff seven years ago after serving for 27 years with the San Francisco Zoo and has a background in conservation and biology. He is working with other staff members on the baylands projects, including Hung Nguyen of the Public Works Department for project engineering and Emily Farr of the Community Services Department.

Palo Alto's staffing of the new Cooley Landing center would have local benefits to children from East Palo Alto in addition to serving Palo Alto youngsters displaced from the Lucy Evans center. A $10,000 "field trip grant" from Google to the Ravenswood City School District would be available for trips to Cooley Landing, much handier than the earlier alternative of traveling to Palo Alto's baylands center.

The closure of the center won't happen until fall, after officials obtain a plethora of permits from regional and state agencies that have jurisdiction over baylands projects.

Yet nothing's simple when it comes to messing with the baylands these days. This is in sharp contrast to the 1950s, when an estimated 2,000 acres a year of open (but shallow) bay and marshlands were being filled for development, from airports to homes.

Palo Alto last month filed an application for the Lucy Evans center work through a process known as JARPA, for Joint Aquatic Resource Permit Application. That process allows the filing of one application for a bewildering array of agencies, including the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, the Regional Water Quality Control Board, the state Department of Fish and Game and Lands Commission, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Coast Guard.

Aiken is optimistic about both the approvals for the Lucy Evans center and the workability of Palo Alto staffing programs at the new Cooley Landing center for a year or so.

In terms of the work in Palo Alto's baylands, city officials must take heed of two species of birds: the endangered clapper rail that hides in cordgrass shallows and the swallows who nest in the eaves of the Lucy Evans center. The swallows migrate to South America starting about Sept. 1 and don't return until February, Aiken noted -- meaning all work on the center itself must be done during that time.

Fogg Studios of Oakland, which designed the Cooley Landing center, is designing the improvements to the Lucy Evans center, which includes re-siding, replacing decking and railings and bringing bathrooms up to Americans with Disabilities Act standards.

It also includes "swallow management," Aiken said. That includes providing nest shelving to guide where they nest. That translates to where they would be least likely to affect the decking in the way birds do, to put it gently. The guidance will involve installing some steel netting, and possibly removing a portion of the decking so droppings go straight to the marsh.

The second phase, boardwalk improvements, will take longer. A feasibility study is underway involving the city's Parks & Recreation Commission and Architectural Review Board, and Public Works is studying alternatives, including basic repairs or replacement of the piers, possibly with large stainless steel screws that drill down into the mud.

Beyond the details, and being careful of swallows and rarely seen clapper rails (whose cry sounds like clapping), there is a broader vision for the value of the baylands that Aiken and those at the Cooley Landing building's dedication in April see. In today's hectic world, laden with electronics for entertainment and instant-communication technology, young people (and adults) seem to have less time to spend just experiencing the real world around them.

"There are so few places for 'free-range children' any more," Aiken observed.

"Now we realize that it is fundamental to learning and brain development," he said of a growing body of knowledge about mental and psychological development of our children and young people.

Just the phenomena of "having fun with bugs and snakes" and observing natural processes, Aiken said, "is a message of hope and joy."

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at He also writes periodic blogs at

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