The Ventura neighborhood is, in many ways, Palo Alto's fastest changing area.
It has seen more new homes go up in the past decade than any other neighborhood, according to U.S. Census data. And over the past two years, it has been both a magnet for development applications and the focus of the city's most ambitious planning effort, which is known as the North Ventura Coordinated Area Plan.
But there is one area in which Ventura isn't changing quickly enough, according to the city's Parks and Recreation Commission and neighborhood leaders. Ventura, they argue, is dreadfully short on parks.
Even though the city has recently purchased a parcel of land next to Boulware Park, with the intent of expanding one of Ventura's few outdoor recreation spaces, neighborhood leaders and parks commissioners believe much more needs to be done. To underscore the point, the parks commission took the rare step last week of unanimously endorsing a letter that criticizes all three alternatives in the North Ventura plan for having inadequate park space and that urges the council to look for opportunities to create additional park space.
Keith Reckdahl, a Parks and Recreation commissioner who serves on the North Ventura Coordinated Area Plan Working Group, penned a memo out of concern that all three of the alternatives that staff and consultants created through the planning process fall well short when it comes to parks. The three alternatives proposed between 500 and 1,490 new dwellings in the 60-acre portion of Ventura, which is bounded by El Camino Real, Lambert Avenue, Page Mill Road and the Caltrain tracks. Alternative 3B, which is the most ambitious of the bunch when it comes to growth, also proposes 83,800 square feet of new office space.
But while the planning exercise entertains the idea of restoring Matadero Creek — which is currently channelized — to its natural state and building a green corridor around it, the alternatives don't propose any major park spaces. Alternative 1, which has the least amount of growth, features only 1.9 acres of park space, while Alternative 2, which is slightly more aggressive, includes 4.8 acres. The city's Planning and Transportation Commission pinpointed that shortcoming in its own review of the Ventura plans and directed staff to create a new scenario that includes more park space. Alternative 3B, which has about 7.5 acres of parks and open space aims to respond to this concern.
But at the Aug. 24 meeting of the parks commission, Reckdahl made the case that these numbers don't truly reflect the city's goals when it comes to parks. Much of the "park space" in the proposed alternatives consists of driveways, building setbacks and planting strips. That, Reckdahl, argued is not good enough.
"You want to be able to have a picnic, you want to be able to throw the ball with your kid," Reckdahl said. "It's really important to have real parkland and not just ornamental shrubs here and there."
In addition, he said, one of the alternatives come anywhere close to meeting the city's goal of having 4 acres of park space for every 1,000 residents.
"If they were coming in at 3 per 1000, I don't think we'd have this letter," Reckdahl said. "But they were down below 1.5 per 1,000."
The letter that Reckdahl penned, and which his colleagues unanimously supported, notes that the standard of 4 acres per 1,000 residents is included as a key goal in the city's recently approved Parks and Recreation Master Plan. Another goal is to have parks "distributed equitably across Palo Alto."
"As a result, the adopted Parks Master Plan requires the City to provide our new North Ventura neighbors with the same high-quality parks that are enjoyed in other Palo Alto neighborhoods," the letter states. "Furthermore, because much of North Ventura will contain high-density developments without yards, parks will be even more important to the residents, as traditional backyard activities will become park activities.
The neighborhood's shortage of parks has long been a source of discontent for Ventura residents. Becky Sanders, moderator of the Ventura Neighborhood Association, observed at the recent parks commission meeting that even with the expansion of Boulware Park in central Ventura, the neighborhood will remain "inadequately served in parkland." North Ventura, she noted, has no parks at all, while south Ventura has a community center, which residents share with the various organizations that regularly use the space.
"In Ventura, we just crave parity with other neighborhoods," Sanders said. We don't seem to be served traditionally with the amenities that other communities are currently enjoying in Palo Alto and that makes us angry and frustrated."
Jonathan Brown, who chairs Ventura Neighborhood Association's Parks Committee, agreed that the neighborhood needs more green space and strongly supported Reckdahl's letter. Park space, he said, is "a critical part of people's everyday lives."
"If you got to Boulware Park, you'll see a mixture of all sorts of people — people who live here, people who work here and live elsewhere," Brown said. "We see unhoused individuals using the park. There's great demand for parks and we need more of it."
The council will consider the Parks and Recreation Commission's recommendation during its next discussion of the North Ventura plan, which is currently scheduled for Sept. 11. Inevitably, funding will be a major factor in any consideration of new parkland. Some residents, including Saunders and Reckdahl, had proposed purchasing land in the commercial complex on Portage Avenue that until recently housed Fry's Electronics and building affordable housing, a park and other amenities at the site. That plan was not, however, included in the set of alternatives that was presented to the council. Instead, each of the options currently in the plan banks almost entirely on market forces to redevelop the area and create the needed housing.
To date, the council has not had any discussions about buying the Portage Avenue site. But even if funding remains an obvious obstacle, Angela Dellaporta believes it is not an insurmountable one. A Ventura resident who served on the working group that helped put together the area plan, Dellaporta told the parks commission on Aug. 24 that she has been told that Palo Alto has made its lands so valuable — by virtue of its strong schools and community wealth — that creating enough parks to meet the city's goals is not "financially feasible."
"Weirdly and improbably, it seems like Palo Alto is too wealthy to have ample park space," Dellaporta said. "It's unbelievable. I don't believe it. I believe Palo Alto is perfectly capable of finding the wherewithal to pay for its park space."