The Planning and Transportation Commission voted 6-0 on Wednesday to approve the site and design for the project, which in addition to rearranging the entire course (giving it what city officials describe as the "Wow!" factor) would also add three athletic fields to the current golf-course site. Most crucially, the project would allow the creek authority to relocate an old levee, thereby bolstering flood control at the vulnerable downstream area between U.S. Highway 101 and the San Francisco Bay. The area, which includes portions of Palo Alto and East Palo Alto, was severely flooded during a February 1998 storm.
Commissioners found much to like about the project, most notably all the landscape improvements that will be made to the course to emphasize its Baylands location. But they were less pleased with the tree removal, which course designer Forrest Richardson said is necessary to make the redesign work.
Richardson said the project team had identified "iconic trees" — those that would fit the design and were in good health — and integrated about 80 percent of them into the finished design. These included a stone pine, which does well in salt soil, and a large eucalyptus tree. But most trees are in poor condition, he said. The designers used the city's tree survey as a guide.
"A great percentage of trees are in very poor health and very marginal; some have died since the survey was completed."
"You're not going to be able to fill the site and preserve all the trees there," Richardson said.
Tree health isn't the only reason. Availability of space is another one. The golf course will be reduced from 170 to 156 acres and three playing fields created. In addition, the city is reserving some space for a potential gymnasium — a design element that is unfunded and that proved particularly unpopular among planning commissioners.
Walter Passmore, the city's urban forester, said staff had considered transplanting the trees to another site, but an analysis determined that they would have a very small chance of surviving the operation, which would require between 75 percent and 90 percent of the trees' roots to be severed.
"We think the potential to transplant the trees and have them thrive in the new location is not very good," Passmore said. "This doesn't mean we couldn't continue to evaluate that, but at this point we don't think it's a very efficient option for us."
The city is, however, committed to planting new trees in other, more suitable locations around town, said Rob de Geus, assistant director of the Community Services Department. Moreover, while staff is concerned about the tree removals, it is also excited about the ecological restoration that is part of the project, de Geus said. The flood-control project will "add over 50 acres of natural Bayland." The managed-turf area would be reduced by about 40 percent, from 135 acres to 81 acres.
In addition, the lost canopy would be replaced fully within 10 years because of a partnership between the city and nonprofit groups Canopy, Acterra and Magic. Some of these trees would be planted at the golf course, de Geus said, "others in areas where trees do much better and are more appropriate, like the Foothills."
The explanation largely satisfied the commission, which approved the site and design after many questions but little debate. The commission's resident golf aficionado, Vice Chair Mark Michael, urged staff and the designers to think creatively about using trees as design elements on the course. Michael recited a catalog of notable golf-course trees, including the cypress on the 18th hole at Pebble Beach and the "majestic oak trees" near the 13th hole at Stanford's golf course. These trees make the courses more challenging and more interesting, Michael said.
"It isn't so much the quantity of trees but the quality of trees and where they're placed," Michael said. "It obviously won't be a forested area — it's seaside, bayside links — but you can do some really interesting things when you put trees in places that create both scenic interest and maybe some challenge."
Trees were just one area of concern. Commissioners were far from enthusiastic about the proposed new gym in the Baylands. Alex Panelli was particularly vehement in his opposition to the facility.
"I think it has no place there in the Baylands," Panelli said, noting that the area is zoned for open space. "I just can't get my head around that."
Commission Chair Eduardo Martinez and Commissioner Arthur Keller shared his concerns, with Martinez arguing that the gym would not be in compliance with the city's land-use bible, the Comprehensive Plan, and urging staff to look at locations closer to neighborhoods and transit points.
The city, he said, "should be looking for a location closer to where the children and families go for basketball or any other type of indoor sport." Overall, though, he said he supports the project.
"And I want it to go forward, so we can all be out there watching the vice chair play golf on Saturday," Martinez said.
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