Three years after Palo Alto officials formally added a 7.7-acre parcel to Foothills Park, they are finally preparing to open it up to city residents.
Located a short walk from the Oak Grove Picnic area, the fenced-off area currently has little to offer a typical visitor, aside from a half-acre nursery that is run by the environmental nonprofit Acterra. The flat portion of the parcel, which includes the nursery, is about 2 acres. Much of the remainder consists of hills, an easement and Buckeye Creek, which flows through the site and into a culvert.
The City Council became aware of the obscure area in 2012, after developer John Arrillaga, who owns the neighboring property, offered to buy it. Rather than sell it, the council voted in 2014 to dedicate it as public parkland and added it to Foothills Park.
While some council members argued at the time that the new parkland should be immediately available to the public, the council ultimately agreed to fund a hydrology study for Buckeye Creek before deciding on the best way to use the land. Community Services Department staff is planning to bring the study -- and its recommendations -- to the City Council in November.
One recommendation of the new study will be to widen Buckeye Creek to create a 1.2-acre flood plain to address erosion, according to a report from Daren Anderson, manager of the Open Space, Parks and Golf Division. The goal is to address erosion; during rainy seasons, staff has to remove up to 600 yards of sediment from the creek.
While the creek-widening project is expected to take several years, staff plans to concurrently work with the community and the Parks and Recreation Commission to determine the optimal uses for the rest of the parkland.
But residents probably won't have to wait that long to experience the new park property for themselves. Community Services staff is recommending that the public be allowed in later this fall, when the council considers the hydrology study. The Parks and Recreation Commission briefly discussed this recommendation last week and will formally vote on it later this month, before it goes to the council.
Opening the land to the public will allow the city to solicit public feedback for improvements, Anderson said at the Sept. 26 meeting.
"It's so difficult on a 15- or 30-minute tour -- or just an aerial photo -- to envision how that land really can be used," Anderson said. "We also feel that the value of opening it up to the public is ... (they) can learn and provide valuable feedback when it comes time -- which will be soon -- to decide how the public and the commission and the council wants to use it."
Options will probably be severely limited. As parks Commissioner Jeff Greenfield observed at the meeting, the land is "really is not the most pristine area of Foothills Park." The hilly portions make it difficult to create looping trails or any paths beyond one that simply leads in and out of the site. Greenfield agreed that opening the parkland for a "simple walk-through" is an appropriate use.
"The best thing to happen to this area is to flood out the creek plain and add some more riparian environment there and add some plants supporting that as well," Greenfield said.
Given the parcel's topographical and hydrological challenges, Community Services staff has also been leaning toward not adding benches and trails. The site's proximity to the Oak Grove picnic area makes them less necessary, Anderson said.
"The more we looked at it, the more it seemed prudent not to (add amenities) -- to just leave it as an open property, much like when you walk in through an open area in front of the Interpretive Center -- a huge, lawn area where we can just let people go," Anderson said.
Commissioners didn't formally vote on the recommendation to open the site to the public, though they indicated that they will support it. Commissioner Ryan McCauley said his priority is to provide public access as soon as possible. Greenfield agreed.
"Keeping it simple and opening it up as is is the most appropriate use for the area; it's the most expedient and is in keeping with the council's direction," Greenfield said.
• Watch our 2015 interview with Anderson at the Foothills Park site here.