Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - April 26, 2013

Finish El Camino Park

Uncertainty over potential Arrillaga project shouldn't delay completion of long-planned park improvements

Palo Alto's Parks and Recreation Commission was right earlier this week when it urged the city staff and City Council to drop the idea of relocating the historic MacArthur Park restaurant building from its current location to somewhere in the park.

The commission correctly believes that shoehorning the Julia Morgan-designed building onto El Camino Park would force the elimination of needed recreational field space.

The future of the former "Hostess House," originally built in Menlo Park, is tied to the outcome of John Arrillaga's controversial office proposal for 27 University Ave., because it will need to be preserved and relocated as part of any redevelopment of the area.

With any decision on the Arrillaga proposal a long way off and with no vision for how the building would be used if moved to the park (or anywhere else), it makes little sense to sidetrack completion of the park improvements.

The city is just wrapping up installation of a 2.5-million-gallon underground water-storage tank, a project approved by voters in 2007. It will serve as a backup if the city's connection to the Hetch Hetchy system is closed due to an earthquake or other natural disaster. The 12.2-acre park has been under construction since April 2011 to install the new reservoir. But as the excavation of the tank is covered over the city had planned to put in a new turf field for soccer and lacrosse and a grass field for softball, some open space and 26 additional parking spaces, for a total of 68 at the park.

Last year, before the Arrillaga project was submitted, the city council approved the $2.5 million in improvements, including a proposal to provide north Palo Alto with an exercise area for dogs, hoping to match three other dog parks at Greer, Hoover and Mitchell parks. The design of the dog park, about the size of half a football field, included a wood-chip base, benches, a water fountain for humans and a special spigot for dogs. But at the time the Parks and Recreation Commission balked, arguing that the city should not spend all its $2.8 million park development fees on one project.

And as it turned out, the planned location, north of Alma street near the iconic El Palo Alto tree, was later ruled out because of being too close to San Francisquito Creek, which has a small run of steelhead trout.

The commission, which understandably aims to protect the park's core constituents who use the soccer and softball fields, concluded that the dog park would not fit in the main body of the park, saying it "compromises the one true open space in the original design."

The commission also recommended another possible location for the Hostess House, suggesting that it would fit in perfectly at the city's golf course at the Baylands, which will soon be renovated. The building, which at one time was located in Menlo Park, served as a reunion point for World War I soldiers and their families.

"The historic building would have very high visibility as the only structure in the open space of the new Baylands course," the commission memo stated.

Another vote against moving the Hostess House to El Camino Park came last year. The city's Historic Review Board said Arrillaga's plan to move the building from its current location was not in keeping with the building's historic status.

All of these issues go away if the City Council can find an alternative site for the Hostess House and the dog park. Without those encumbrances, a final design for El Camino Park can quickly be formulated, and the park can reopen soon.

As Parks and Recreation Commission Chair Ed Lauing said after the 5-1 vote to turn down the dog park and the Hostess House, "Something's got to go. There's just too much stuff jammed in there."

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