The most disputed parkland in Palo Alto isn't known for its sports courts, playgrounds or sweeping vistas.
Located next to the Regional Water Quality Control Plant, the 10-acre parcel commonly known as the "Measure E" site is best known as a place of opportunity. In 2011, Palo Alto residents voted to "undedicate" the parkland and make it available for a waste-to-energy plant that would treat local organic waste, but that the project never materialized. Now, the city is looking to rededicate the 10 acres as parkland, a move that is once again fomenting division within the city's environmental community.
On Tuesday night, leaders of the Measure E campaign made their case to the city's Parks and Recreation Commission that the site should remain available for a future infrastructure project. In a dispute reminiscent of 2011, environmentalists and conservationists countered that the site should be enhanced and protected from development.
Peter Drekmeier, a former mayor who led the campaign to explore a new plant on the 10-acre site, argued that the city will gain nothing from rededicating the land, a move that under city law would restrict its use to park, playground, recreation or conservation purposes.
"It smells bad, and I'd argue it's the worst location in Palo Alto for a park," Drekmeier said. "But it's the best location for waste conversion. We got our sewage sludge there, we got our wastewater. All we do is lose an opportunity that people are passionate about."
Others aligned with the Measure E campaign also urged the city to take some time to consider other possibilities for sustainability projects at the site. Debbie Mytels was among those who supported sending the issue to the Planning and Transportation Commission for discussion about possible technologies that could be installed.
"Let's take some time and plan to use this for innovative projects that reduce and not increase the city's carbon footprint," Mytels said.
But many others, including members of conservation organizations and the majority of the Parks and Recreation Commission, argued that the exploration period has long past and that the site needs to be recognized and celebrated as a natural habitat. Measure E authorized the city to rededicate any portion of the property 10 years after the initiative's passage — a deadline that has now been reached.
Former Mayor Karen Holman and former council member Emily Renzel, whose namesake marsh is located near the Measure E site, both urged the city to officially restore the site's status as parkland. Holman emphasized the fact that the site, which is located next to Byxbee Park, is a wildlife corridor.
"A corridor is critical. These corridors get challenged all the time, if not cut off," Holman said. "Wildlife corridors are critical for the survival of our wildlife and our wildlife really lays the paths for what we're going to be as human beings going forward."
Rani Fischer, environmental advocacy assistant at the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society, similarly advocated for restoring the land's parkland status.
"People may not play soccer or fly a kite here but open space is important," Fischer said. "The area has been neglected for 10 years, in limbo, waiting for new technologies to emerge for Palo Alto's waste treatment. A silver bullet has not yet been found. Please do not again wait for some promising new technology to be found."
Mike Ferreira, a member of the executive committee at the Sierra Club Loma Prieta Chapter, also rejected the idea that the site should remain open for a future infrastructure project. Back when Measure E was on the ballot, his organization voted 11 to 2 against undedication, he said. The group agreed, however, not to take an official stance, mindful of further dividing the environmentalist community. Something about undedicating parkland goes "against the grain," Ferreira said.
"The Measure E folks have had their 10 years to come up with something and right now what they have is nothing — more futurism," Michael Ferreira said. "It was a mistake. It was a mistake taken in good faith, but it was a mistake to undedicate that parkland."
The parks commission voted 4-2 to support rededication of the Measure E site, with commissioners Anne Cribbs and Amanda Brown dissenting and Vice Chair Jeff LaMere abstaining. Both Cribbs and Brown suggested that the city do more research before writing off the Measure E site as a potential location for a waste-management project.
"I think it's premature to recommend action at this point, really one way or the other," Brown said.
The majority, however, supported restoring the site's official status as parkland. Commissioner Shani Kleinhaus, who made the motion to rededicate the site, said that many people would like to see the land restored and enhanced as a wildland habitat.
"I do think that keeping the land in limbo, looking for a magic bullet that hasn't been found yet, is unjustifiable," Kleinhaus said. "We should move forward, rededicate it and eventually if there is a magic bullet for all our streams that is more climate friendly and cost effective than the way we do now, then we should again be considering that."
Commission Chair Jeff Greenfield also supported dedicating the site as parkland. He noted that neither the Utilities nor Public Works departments currently have any plans to build anything on the 10 acres. The council effectively abandoned its plan for a compost facility in 2014, when it signed a contract to haul local organic waste to San Jose for processing in a dry anaerobic digester.
If a plan ultimately emerges and it differs from the type of facility that Measure E explicitly allows for ("a processing facility for yard trimmings, food waste and other organic materials"), the city would need a fresh vote anyway, Greenfield said. The commission's recommendation will now go to the council for consideration in December or early next year.
"I think this area has been neglected for too long," Greenfield said.