When Ventura residents talk about their vision for the neighborhood's future, parks usually top their wish list.
Despite its central location, outsized role in Palo Alto's housing plans and its status as the city's fastest growing neighborhood over the past decade, the neighborhood only has one park: the 1.5-acre Boulware Park. Residents haven't been shy in requesting more, particularly if the city moves ahead with its current plan of adding about 500 new residences.
"Where are these people going to play? Where will these families go? Will they be getting in their car and driving some place?" Becky Sanders, moderator of the Ventura Neighborhood Association, asked last month during a Parks and Recreation Commission hearing.
Now, help is at last on the way. Next year, Boulware Park is set to see a major expansion and renovation — a project made possible by the city's purchase of a 0.64-acre site from AT&T for $2.75 million in 2019. Once the project is completed, the undeveloped site at 3350 Birch St. will be furnished with basketball and bocce courts, a tree-lined picnic area and a dog park.
The existing park also will be enhanced and reconfigured to include a looping walkway, an open area with game tables and an upgraded playground with play areas for both tots and older children. The area of the park that runs adjacent to Matadero Creek will be kept as an open grass area, enabling future improvements along — and possible naturalization of — the concrete channel on the park's western edge.
The block of Ash Street that today divides Boulware Park from the newly acquired parcel will become a tree-lined walkway, effectively merging the two properties into one expanded park. Chestnut Street, which currently crosses Ash, will be turned into a cul-de-sac and drop-off area for park users. Additional parking spaces would be created on Lambert Street, next to the park.
Among the most significant additions to Boulware Park will be a public restroom and a dog park — two amenities that the city's parks master plan encourages. The 0.25-acre dog park would be located at the newly acquired area, near the basketball and bocce courts.
If things go as planned, construction will begin next summer and the park will reopen to the public in fall 2022. The next step in the process will take place on Monday, when the City Council is scheduled to approve a park improvement ordinance that enables the project and authorizes the city to go out to bid.
For the city, the expansion of Boulware represents a rare achievement. It's been nearly two decades since Heritage Park opened in Downtown North. The 2003 project was one of the most popular byproducts of the South of Forest Avenue Area Plan, a vision document that guided the transformation of the former Palo Alto Medical Foundation facilities into a new mixed-use neighborhood. That was the last time Palo Alto added neighborhood parkland, although a 7.7-acre parcel was added to Foothills Park in 2014.
Ventura is now in the midst of a similar process, with the city now advancing a new vision for a 60-acre area just northwest of Boulware Park. While most city leaders and many residents agree that the area is ripe for redevelopment, consensus has been hard to come by. Residents have advocated for the addition of affordable housing, parkland and retail. The two biggest property owners — Jay Paul and The Sobrato Organization — have shown little inclination to phase out commercial uses, even as Sobrato is also advancing a residential project with 91 townhomes at 200 Portage Ave., next to the location that formerly housed Fry's Electronics. Some housing advocates, including the nonprofit Palo Alto Forward, have urged the city to "go big" on housing in Ventura and approve a planning alternative with 1,490 housing units, while the council is favoring a more moderate option with about 500 new dwellings.
Just about everyone, however, agrees that the Ventura area needs more parks. In August, the Parks and Recreation Commission took the unusual step of unanimously approving a public letter urging the council to include more park space in their vision for Ventura's future. Given that all alternatives call for more residential density, "parks will be even more important to the residents, as traditional backyard activities will become park activities," the memo states.
Numerous Ventura residents who've been involved in the coordinated plan process share that view. Angela Dellaporta, a Ventura resident and member of the working group that helped compile the plan, noted that taken together, the proposals from Jay Paul and Sobrato provide about 1.63 acres of park space per 1,000 new residents, far below the city's standard of 4 acres per 1,000 residents.
"I wonder if the property owners think the City Council is perfectly willing to throw its park space guidelines away in considering the amenities for residents who will live in these apartments," Dellaporta said.
While all of the alternatives in the Ventura coordinated plan are conceptual and speculative, the Boulware Park project has all the pieces in place to become reality, including political support and a budget of about $3.8 million, which includes transfers of $1.5 million from funds that are designated for park improvements. In July, the Parks and Recreation Commission unanimously endorsed the Boulware Park expansion, which commission Chair Anne Cribbs called "very exciting." City landscape architect Peter Jensen, who is spearheading the project, underscored how unusual the park expansion is.
"We don't acquire parkland very much," Jensen said. "We're built out so it's hard to have a project where you are expanding park space."
Commissioner David Moss urged the city to go further and negotiate another land purchase from AT&T so that the park could be expanded even more. Vice Chair Jeff Greenfield, meanwhile, recommended protecting the park space at Boulware Park by formally dedicating it as parkland — a move that would ensure that the property would not be developed without a public vote. So far, staff has been hesitant to make that move. Jensen noted that the city is still formulating its new vision for Ventura and suggested that dedicating the parcel as parkland would reduce the city's flexibility. Greenfield countered that the prospect of development encroaching on the newly expanded Boulware Park makes the dedication particularly appropriate.
"That only increases my interest in getting this land dedicated as parkland," Greenfield said.