Palo Alto's new plan for improving its popular park system has something for just about everyone.
All that's missing is a way to pay for these things.
On Monday night, the City Council tackled this problem during a wide-ranging discussion of the new Parks, Trails, Open Space and Recreation Master Plan, a vision document that is now being finalized after about two years of resident surveys, demographic analyses, park evaluations and heavy lifting by the Parks and Recreation Commission. The council lauded the vision document -- the city's biggest recreation plan in half a century -- even as members acknowledged the biggest obstacle to implementation: funding.
To address this dilemma, Mayor Greg Scharff proposed on Monday night bringing a funding measure to the voters in 2018, the next general-election year.
"Parks is something everyone gets behind in Palo Alto and everyone wants," Scharff said Monday, during a joint session with the Parks and Recreation Commission. "There's unlimited demand, almost."
In developing the plan, the commission also wrestled with this problem and proposed several ideas for paying for the proposed improvements. In addition to a bond, the list of options identified in the plan also includes the creation of an assessment district, higher user fees, new public-private partnerships and the creation of an endowment fund fueled by donations.
Commission Chair Keith Reckdahl told the council that the city should also seek more partnerships with local nonprofits (including various "Friends" groups) and with organizations that use the parks, many of which are more than willing to pay for the privilege.
"Groups are willing to do it," Reckdahl said. "If they play soccer and they use the fields, they want good soccer fields and are willing to pay for it."
The city has a long history of funding park improvements with a little help from its Friends groups. The Magical Bridge playground at Mitchell Park was made possible by a contribution of about $3.5 million from a group called the Friends of the Magical Bridge. The playground at Heritage Park and the renovation of Lytton Plaza were also each funded by Friends of the respective parks.
While some capital projects will be funded through the General Fund, the plan also includes a laundry list of big-ticket items that would require new revenue sources. These include the renovation of Cubberley Community Center, which could potentially house a new gym; the construction of Baylands Athletic Center next to the city's newly remodeled golf course; the development of a 7.7-acre parcel in Foothills Park; and acquisition of parks in high-need areas.
"We're not going to get Cubberley built with donations," Reckdahl said. "We have to think about a parcel tax or bond measure to pay for some of these projects."
Scharff agreed and suggested Monday that funds from a potential 2018 measure could supplement contributions from community partners in paying for desired improvements.
"We might be able to raise a lot of money and we can have money to match the funding from the groups you were talking about," Scharff said, referring to Reckdahl's proposal.
Councilman Greg Tanaka was less enthusiastic about the potential measure. He supported exploring other revenue opportunities, possibly by selling naming rights to individuals or companies or by raising use fees for local amenities. One proposal that he said should be considered is charging more for non-residents to visit Foothills Park. Current policy limits visitations to Foothills Park to city residents, though anyone can easily access it without parking near the preserve.
"Before I'd support a bond measure or additional taxes for residents, I'd really like to see that we've exhausted all ideas," Tanaka said.
The council didn't make any decisions Monday pertaining to park funding, though the subject is sure to re-emerge when the council formally approves the plan. Council members gave the document rave reviews Monday, even as they disagreed over some details.
Councilman Tom DuBois urged stronger policies discouraging the renting of public parks for private uses. The topic caught traction last month, when Palantir rented a playing field at Cubberley Community Center and erected a giant tent to host an employee party.
DuBois said the city should have a "high bar" for allowing exclusive private use of public facilities and suggested incorporating that into the plan. The council supported his proposal by a 7-2 vote, with Councilman Adrian Fine and Tanaka dissenting.
Tanaka said renting out facilities could help the city get the needed revenues to fund the projects it wants.
"I'm not supportive of minimizing private exclusive use," Tanaka said. "I think we should think about that carefully."