After seeing a spike in visits to Foothills Park, the Palo Alto City Council moved on Tuesday to sharply curtail the number of people who can enter the scenic preserve.
Responding to reports of heavy traffic and environmental damage over the past month, the council agreed to lower the cap on visitors who can be at Foothills Park at one time from the current level of 750 to 400.
The new cap is well below the park's historic limit of 1,000 visitors, which the council reduced to 750 for 90 days as part of its November decision to remove a residents-only restriction at the park. It is also below staff's recommended cap of 500 visitors, though the council gave city staff leeway to potentially raise the limit to 500 if conditions allow.
The move is one of several that the city is preparing to institute as it seeks to limit access to a park that has seen a surge of visitors since Dec. 17, when the council officially repealed the residents-only requirement and opened it to the broader public. Daren Anderson, assistant director at the Community Services Department, said the number of people who visited the 1,400-acre preserve between Dec. 17 — the day the park officially opened to everyone — and Jan. 2 was 33,647, a roughly six-fold increase from 2019, when the park saw 5,687 visitors, he said.
Council members acknowledged on Jan. 19 that some of this can be attributed to the high publicity that Foothills Park has been receiving over the past year for being the only park in the region that was closed to nonresidents. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the trend, with open space areas throughout the region also seeing more visitors.
Council member Greer Stone noted that Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District preserves have also seen attendance increase by about 200% during the pandemic.
"We're not just seeing the influx of visitors to Foothills, we're seeing it in other preserves and parks throughout the area. … We don't know what's going to happen when the novelty ends with Foothills Park, but we do know that with COVID-19, people's desire to get out of their house is going to continue in the near future."
Council members Greg Tanaka and Lydia Kou, who had both voted against removing the ban on nonresidents, pushed for more stringent restrictions and higher parking fees. Kou said she had hoped to see a limit of 300 visitors and called the 400-person limit a "compromise." Tanaka supported setting the parking fee at $10, making it one of the most expensive parks to visit in the region. While council member Eric Filseth initially supported the $10 fee, the council ultimately voted to 6-1, with council member Alison Cormack dissenting, to institute a $6 fee, the level recommended by city staff, and directed its Parks and Recreation Commission to further refine the city's policy of park admittance and fees.
Cormack supported retaining the limit at 750 visitors, giving staff leeway to lower it as needed, and deferring the discussion on fees until the Parks and Recreation Commission vets the issue. She recalled volunteering at the park in recent weeks and called it a "wonderful, positive and welcoming environment."
"Many people said they used to live in Palo Alto and they're so glad to be able to come back here again," Cormack said.
While she acknowledged the traffic problems at the park since the Dec. 17 policy change, she argued that much of the impact has been addressed by the city's recent decision to bar entrance to the park on mornings and afternoons when the number of visitors hits the 750-person limit, which has only happened during weekends and holidays.
During Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the park reached its capacity at about 9:45 a.m., Anderson said, and the entrance gate remained closed until about 2 p.m. The park had about 1,600 visitors that day, he said.
Jeff Greenfield, chair of the Parks and Recreation Commission, told the council that the crowds and impact are "more significant than most people have anticipated."
"The visitor experience now is quite different — perhaps best epitomized by a mass of cars circulating in search of a parking space, kind of similar to Golden Gate Park on a busy weekend," Greenfield said.
But while Cormack favored a lighter regulatory touch, others argued for more stringent measures. Kou supported starting with a small cap and then gradually widening it, as circumstances allow. Tanaka argued that the entrance fees for Foothills Park should help make the park "revenue neutral," a restriction that does not apply to any other parks or open spaces.
While the council majority stopped short of adopting the most extreme proposals on the table, members agreed that the city needs to take immediate action to address the impacts of crowds on the park's delicate ecosystem. Filseth said he has recently visited the park and confronted an "amusement park" atmosphere with cars everywhere and people disregarding park rules.
"I saw people walking down hillsides," Filseth said. "I saw someone throw their trash on a hillside. I saw dogs off leash chasing squirrels through the underbrush. I saw kids throw rocks at water fowl."
While Filseth said he would support a $10 fee for entrance, Mayor Tom DuBois and Vice Mayor Pat Burt both pushed for $6, which would be better aligned with other parks in the region.
"A $10 fee is going to be viewed as onerous by residents and by nonresidents alike and it will, I fear, smack of a backdoor attempt at exclusivity, and leave us open to that accusation," Burt said.
The city hasn't set a date of when the new rules will go into effect. City staff will return to the council next week with an emergency ordinance listing the changes.