Weeks after passing a resolution pledging to promote diversity and inclusion, the Palo Alto City Council abruptly postponed considering a proposal that many in the community have argued would do just that: allowing non-residents to access Foothills Park.
Citing a heavy workload in its final two meetings before a scheduled summer recess, the council voted 5-2 on Monday night to remove from its Tuesday night agenda a proposal that would have started the process of rescinding an exclusionary policy that was adopted in the early 1960s, shortly after the city bought the park from the family of Russel V. Lee. Mayor Adrian Fine and Councilwoman Alison Cormack both voted against delaying the discussion.
While the topic of Foothills Park access has been a political hot potato in Palo Alto for decades, calls to abolish the ban on non-residents have grown louder over the past few weeks, as calls for social justice and racial equality have grown both in the community and elsewhere in the nation. The city's Human Relations Commission earlier this month urged the council to expand Foothills Park access as part of a broader strategy to promote equality and the Parks and Recreation Commission recommended a "pilot program" last November that would allow a limited number of non-resident visitors to the park.
The city also received a letter signed by more than 90 residents, legislators and faith leaders, urging it to "meet the moment" and abolish the policy, which the letter argues "sends a terrible message to our neighboring communities — particularly those which do not enjoy the same socioeconomic advantages that Palo Alto does — and leaves a bad taste in the mouths of thousands of would-be visitors who are prohibited by uniformed City staff from entering a public park."
The list of signatories includes U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, state Sen. Jerry Hill, state Assemblyman Marc Berman, retired Judge and former City Council member LaDoris Cordell and dozens of faith leaders, local commissioners and past mayors, including Leland Levy, Pat Burt and Gail Wooley.
The city, however, has been reluctant to take up the topic. The Parks and Recreation Commission's recommendation for a "pilot program" has been sitting in the council's queue for seven months. The council's vote to remove the discussion item from the Tuesday agenda means the subject won't be taken until August at the earliest, and possibly later.
The decision drew immediate public rebuke and a threatened lawsuit. Cordell submitted a letter just after the vote stating her disappointment at the council's "willful inaction." She requested that the city attorney direct the city manager to permanently discontinue enforcement of the prohibition and said that if the city declines to do so, she will pursue litigation and seek emergency injunctive relief.
"As a longtime resident of Palo Alto, there is nothing that I want more than for my city leaders to have the political will to place themselves on the right side of history," Cordell wrote. "However, our leaders have failed time and again to do so."
The decision to postpone the discussion was prompted by Councilwoman Lydia Kou, who made a motion to remove from the Tuesday agenda both the Foothills Park item and a discussion of the "public home zone," a new designation that the city is now crafting to encourage more housing construction.
Vice Mayor Tom DuBois supported the motion after voicing his own concerns about the large number of items on the council's Monday and Tuesday agendas. With Foothills Park and the "planned home zone" now scrapped from the agenda, the council is set to consider on Tuesday night the conversion of President Hotel from a residential building to a boutique hotel (a discussion that was moved from Monday to Tuesday) and measures to encourage outdoor dining. It is also set to approve on its "consent calendar" a new contract with a consultant that is helping the city analyze alternatives to redesign rail crossings and an artist contract to paint "Black Lives Matter" on a local street.
Fine strongly opposed delaying both the Foothills Park and the housing discussions. The park item, he said, has been ready for the council's consideration since November and the council has "held off on it." And pushing back the housing discussion "just means Palo Alto is going to be that much more dithering on housing."
"I'm frankly pretty disappointed and wishing we can work as a team a little bit more," Fine said.
Several residents shared his disappointment. Ryan Globus said he was "outraged and disgusted" by the council's latest move to delay the Foothills Park discussion, which came just two weeks after the council passed a resolution in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and vowed to support measures that promote diversity and inclusion.
Globus argued the city needs to take actions to "integrate the city" and alluded to the city's history of "redlining," which kept many Black residents from living in Palo Alto.
"In order to integrate our community, we need to open up Foothills Park and not make it a crime for poor Black and brown people to enter our park," Globus said. "We need to fund the affordable housing that so that many of you say you're so concerned about, so people can live here. … Anti-racism is about changing our policy and taking action, not paint on the street."