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"Cleaning up" Lytton Plaza

Original post made by Emily Renzel, University South, on May 16, 2007

Lytton Plaza is about as practical a pocket park as we could hope for in a very urban setting. I infer that "cleaning up" Lytton Plaza means making it difficult for unhoused persons to rest in the park. If, indeed, there is a vagrancy problem, that is an enforcement problem, not a park design problem.

It also sounds like there is an attempt to convert it into an extension of the Pizza My Heart restaurant. Everyone should be able to enjoy this public park and the council should not let it become the private fiefdom of Pizza My Heart.

Bart Lytton was very unusual and civic-minded to build this corner plaza as a private enhancement of his Savings and Loan building. This park has been in its present configuration for more than 35 years. It is very well built and I defy you to find brickwork anywhere that has held up as well as this.

It is a very elegant design and should be preserved. In the 1970s I personally watered all the trees on the park at least once a week until the city purchased the park for about $250,000. I know that this is a well-used space and, from my perspective, pretty low maintenance.

I hope the council will not allow Friends of Palo Alto Parks, my former colleague Le Levy, Roxy Rapp, or Pizza My Heart dictate changes to this very special little Palo Alto park.

Comments (39)

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Greg
a resident of Greenmeadow
on May 16, 2007 at 5:43 pm

Lytton is full of pandhandlers. Any redesign of the park that will get rid of these bums will be a good thing.


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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 16, 2007 at 7:58 pm

I do like little plazas and wish they would put one in Midtown particularly as there is nowhere outside to eat my subway or safeway sandwich lunches. I would love to go to Lytton Plaza, not to eat at restaurants, but to bring my lunch (possibly from a sandwich shop) and then people watch, but I do not like having to share with the homeless that abound in downtown and make me feel uncomfortable. I don't think extending the restaurants outside would make much difference, particularly as I think it would give the homeless a sitting audience for them to come up and panhandle to.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Karma
a resident of another community
on May 16, 2007 at 9:11 pm

Dear Resident - why not break bread with a homeless person? You may find the experience a richly rewarding one.


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Posted by Winnie the Pooh
a resident of Midtown
on May 17, 2007 at 8:37 am

Karma, your suggestion about breaking bread with the homeless is a nice thought, but you're asking for too much. The fact is that public space, including public entities like public libraries, have begun to take on the particularly ominous responsibility of catering to those who should be getting help elsewhere.

Sure, it's a great thing to break bread with a homeless person; I've done it, many times. And yes, it can be a rewarding experience. But then what? Will that help pto clean up the stench that an unwashed homeless person emanates? I want to be very about this; not all homeless persons are unwashed; most aren't. But we see enough of that - mostly in those poor souls who are mentally ill; this can deter a citizen from sitting down on a bench.

Like it or not (and I don't, not at all), we are living in a time when homeless populations are increasing, and mental health facilities are far too lean in their ability to manage populations in need. This is all a reality.

It's also a reality that pubic space should be kept safe, and that includes "safe" from being exposed to pathogens left behind from unwashed persons, or "safe" from being accosted by aggressive panhandlers.

This is a VERY difficult thing to discuss, no less than act upon.

We have been asked not to give alms to the homeless, by well-meaning persons who have been workingi hard to provide housing and work solutions. I still give every homelss person who asks, some money. Am I making their situation worse? Am I contributing to their problem? Am I brightening their day? Who knows? How does any of us know; and how many of us could, but for one or two accidental breaks in life, find ourselves out there among the homeless?

It's a complicated question.

In all, many of our civic plazas and public spaces have become a blight that defeats their intended goal for the _entire_ citizenry. Something shuold be done about that, and there is NO easy solution.


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Posted by A resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 17, 2007 at 10:57 am

Actually customers from the pizza restaurant do eat on the plaza.
If it were possible to design a plaza so that the homeless didn't congregate there, it would have to be very uncomfortable for everyone. So no one would use it, just like hardly anyone uses the citibank plaza at University and Cowper. It is deserted and sterile.


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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 17, 2007 at 12:00 pm

I like the idea of benches or picnic tables (probably better as no one can sleep on them) that everyone can use regardless of where they buy their food. I do not like the idea of exclusive tables for restaurants where you have to buy their food and no one else can sit there.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Alex
a resident of Midtown
on May 17, 2007 at 12:20 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


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Posted by Greg
a resident of Greenmeadow
on May 17, 2007 at 3:08 pm

"If, indeed, there is a vagrancy problem, that is an enforcement problem, not a park design problem."

Emily Renzel, [portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.] Downtown is full of panhandling bums. There are also some mentally ill and alcoholic homeless folks. They are not always one in the same. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.] This fact HURTS downtown businesses. Lytton Plaza is a center for such vagrancy. If the City would rent the plaza to a private food business for $1 year, it might get cleaned up. It would be a huge bargain for the City.


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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 17, 2007 at 3:42 pm

The problem is not a lack of services, the problem is the illegality of enforcing services on the mentally ill. Back in '79, it became illegal to force the ill into housing where they were forced to take their meds. That is when our homeless population soared, and their "civil rights" have increased since then, (the right to hurt themselves and invade other peoples' spaces)

What to do? No clue. Go back to forcing medication compliance through institutionalization? Modify the laws a bit, maybe? Behave well ( ie, no panhandling) or get institutionalized? No clue.

I DO know that it is wrong for anyone to invade the space of other people.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Mike
a resident of College Terrace
on May 17, 2007 at 9:11 pm

Resident, There were supposed to be halfway facilities for released patients after Reagan gutted the mental health system in California. The halfway houses didn't materialize. Since then, there has been no leader with political will sufficient to take this problem on.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Karma
a resident of another community
on May 17, 2007 at 9:35 pm

Mike - Why don't you "take this problem on" and personally break bread with the homeless.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Phil
a resident of another community
on May 17, 2007 at 9:37 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Mike
a resident of College Terrace
on May 17, 2007 at 9:51 pm

Karma, I have done that. :) Let's you and me break bread some time. See ya at Lytton? [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.] PLease feel free to join Karma and me at Lytton Plaza, in a spirit of oneness. Don't forget to bring your favorite bread, and some salami.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by George
a resident of Evergreen Park
on May 18, 2007 at 12:53 pm

Private developers have a bad record designing public plazas. Three examples in recent years are
the plaza in front of citibank at the corner of University and cowper
the corner of High St and Homer
the corner of High St and Channing.
These all look as though they were designed to make people uncomfortable and only rarely do you see a human being there. I pass the High Street corners all the time on the way to Whole Foods and have yet to see a person tarry at either one. It can't be accidental.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by eric
a resident of Mountain View
on May 18, 2007 at 4:19 pm

Oh, yeah. Private developers cant design public space. Like, um, Santana Row...


 +   Like this comment
Posted by George
a resident of Evergreen Park
on May 18, 2007 at 4:36 pm

I was referring to Palo Alto. I gave 3 examples - have you looked at them? And do you have any examples here that are decent and that work as plazas?
Let's get the Santana Row designer to respond to our RFP. OK with me.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by trudy
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 18, 2007 at 5:04 pm

I also think it would be a shame to see Lytton Plaza changed.

I used to work nearby, and it was a pleasant place.

I am sorry to see that once again there is such a lack of Christian feeling on the part of numerous particpants in this forum in regards to the homeless.


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Posted by resident
a resident of Downtown North
on May 18, 2007 at 5:13 pm

Wasn't there talk a couple years back of expanding Lytton Plaza, getting rid of the egg and putting in a fountain a la Los Gatos? I still think that would be a great idea. Get lots of families there, some grassy area, kids wading in a fountain, and the plaza would be way more welcoming.


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Posted by Another resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 18, 2007 at 6:28 pm

Although I think resident above has a good idea, I fear a fountain for the kids would just end up being a free shower for the homeless.

I do have compassion for them, I just don't think that "breaking bread" would do anything more than encourage them. I would like to see them helped by having day centers where they could contribute something in return for food and hygiene facilities, something like they do for prisoners - making licence plates. Isn't there something equivalent they can do for the community and in return we can give them alms?


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Posted by Greg
a resident of Greenmeadow
on May 18, 2007 at 7:36 pm

"I am sorry to see that once again there is such a lack of Christian feeling on the part of numerous particpants in this forum in regards to the homeless."

Trudy, I am not a Christian, so why should I, or any other non-Christian pretend to act like one? I am a realist, period. Lytton is a mess, and it hurts business in Downtown. I don't believe in giving to the least of these as a substitute for responsible government policy. The business of Downtown is business, not charity. Clean it up, without regard to the feelings of the homeless.


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Posted by Karma
a resident of another community
on May 18, 2007 at 10:34 pm

Greg, whatever your religious or philisophical views, take some time to break bread and converse with the homeless. It will do you a world of good.


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Posted by Greg
a resident of Greenmeadow
on May 19, 2007 at 3:38 am

"It will do you a world of good."

Karma, It might do me some good, or it might do me some harm...probably neither. However, I would not do it in Lytton plaza or anywhere else Downtown. You should go knock on a few doors of Downtown business folks and tell them that your heart feels better when you feed the homeless in Lytton plaza, thus helping to decay their businesses. It probably won't do you any good, but at least you would get an earful.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by aw
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 19, 2007 at 9:52 am

Interesting viewpoint from a prominent urban theorist:

City Parks are not abstractions, or automatic repositories of virtue or uplift, any more than sidewalks are abstractions. They mean nothing divorced from their practical, tangible uses, and hence they mean nothing divorced from the tangible effects on them - for good or for ill - of the city districts and uses touching them.

-- Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of American Cities, 1961


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Realist
a resident of Midtown
on May 19, 2007 at 4:53 pm

I took George's suggestion and drove by the 3 plazas.
citibank has been replaced by another bank and the place looks different. Not people friendly, but some flowers.
Homer at High - some flowers, lots of concrete, no people.
Channing at High - some flowers, concrete with sharp edges. Flower containers (concrete) are maybe 4 feet high, so no one can sit on the edge. Stark, no people. one bench.

So, folks, you can dream about picnic tables and kids playing, but that doesn't seem to be the current style. Actually if I recall, the Channing corner was described by the developer that it would be people friendly and would look like the corner of Gilman and Forest and have a "water feature." whatever that is. Didn't happen.

No reason to think Roxy's will be any better. Better PR maybe, not a better plaza.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Paul Losch
a resident of Community Center
on May 19, 2007 at 6:45 pm

I have a suggestion. How about offering up some thoughts about what that corner at Lytton plaza could be? Or, if like Emily, you think it is fine as is, what is it about it in its current state that it is offering that makes it suitable to stay as is?

Since I am on the Parks and Recreation Commission, at some point this matter will likely become a topic for us. Speaking for myself, I find it helpful if people make clear what their objectives/expectations are for something, and then explain how or why the current arrangement does or does not meet those expectations, and how or why a proposed alternative does or does not meet expectations.

By contrast, I find it much more difficult to assess specific reactions to a specific proposal without some context behind it. Opinions are fine, and certainly in abundance in Palo Alto on a number of matters. I find it difficult in this thread to know if what people want from that corner is being met, or if there is an alternative approach that could be considered that could meet community expectations more effectively.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by aw
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 19, 2007 at 8:08 pm

Paul,

Thanks for asking. Best use for the Lytton Park site is commercial development. No park configuration will work there because there isn't enough use to keep the place busy.

For what it's worth Cogswell Park is also an orphan.

Potential bonus: money to invest to upgrade other City parks.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Otto
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on May 19, 2007 at 8:51 pm

Lytton is a natural "hanging" place for marginal residents. There's another small park on Lytton - very grassy, betwem Emerson and Ramona? - that serves the same purpose. One thing people don't seem to do very much around here - except for those we label as "outcasts" - is simply "hang around" in a park, or promenade. That's a decidedly more European thing that unfortunately doesn't happen very much here.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by trudy
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 20, 2007 at 5:58 am

Paul,

I know there's a lot of work that's been done about what makes a mini-park or similar area (the area in front of city hall comes to mind) inviting to people, so that they use it as a park vs. a place to just walk thru or by.

Unfortunately I have no references for you. I hazily think that Smithsonian had an article some years ago. Some googling ought to turn things up.

What I liked about it was that it was a place outside to sit with my lunch, but near stores, so I could run errands.

Somewhere recently I saw that a city was interviewing musicians to give them permits to play near subway entrances. In Boston one often sees individual street musicians playing for donations. How about something to encourage individuals to do that? It could be a city sanctioned thing, not necessarily for donations, maybe individuals would just want to do it? Or people reading poetry or something? It was very pleasant to pause for awhile an disten to some of the musicians, as they were often quite good. Certainly the larger brown bag thngs elsewhere on Lytton attracted a crowd.



 +   Like this comment
Posted by anon.
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on May 20, 2007 at 6:08 am

lovely idea trudy!
i say we post musicians at every bus stop in town!
full benefits plus dental care oughta get them to blow their horns!


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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 20, 2007 at 8:38 am

Parks do work as hangout places if they are (a) in an area where people are with time to spare and (b) if there is something to do while hanging out. Are there enough office workers in the area who have the time to spend their lunch in an out door arena, where they can buy a simple lunch, buy a newspaper or magazine, and relax for the time they have off for lunch? Is there a number of families who pass through the area on the walk to and from school, preschool, the library, the dentist, who would stop at the park either by foot, bike or car (if there is free parking right beside it) who would like to stop in this particular park for children to play and parents to interact? If these prerequisites exist, then yes, the park will work as a hang out place. If the answer is no, then it doesn't matter how pretty it is, it won't work. No one goes to a downtown park as a destination, it has to be handy to whatever reason someone is downtown. A neighborhood park works because it is in the neighborhood. The one thing that might make someone use it as a destination is if it is a good place to meet someone before going somewhere else or if there is local musicians putting on a jam session where they can invite their friends/fans to come and listen!


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Posted by Greg
a resident of Greenmeadow
on May 20, 2007 at 8:26 pm

I often drive by the big park in Los Altos. It fronts Foothill Expy. Many people use this park. There are organized arts events, and there are individuals practicing fly casting or doing Tai-Chi, etc. It is kept clean and groomed, and there are no homeless visible.

Some of the comments on this thread put the cart ahead of the horse. If our Downtown parks were designed to keep the panhandlers and vagrants out of them, and vagrancy laws enforced, and events organized...we would have a much better situation for everyone, except for the bums.


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Posted by George
a resident of Evergreen Park
on May 21, 2007 at 10:50 am

Emily Renzel is right. The design of the plaza is really nice. Maybe a little sprucing up would go a long way, to brighten it up. Maybe some devices to keep unattractive people from over-using it. But don't trash a good design.
What is so great about a fountain? Very costly to maintain, easy to vandalize, who will pay for maintenance. And an eyesore when they need repair.


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Posted by George
a resident of Evergreen Park
on May 21, 2007 at 11:00 am

The problem with this initiative is that it raises the problem of privatization of public land. We are supposed to be grateful for the contributions by developers but the land belongs to the community. We don't like it when George Bush does it, we don't like it here either.
If the donors are sincere, let them donate to the best design submitted via an RFP. Let their be a public decision on the design, not just by people who have an economic interest.
Unfortunately, Roxy's brother in law owns the adjoining restaurant which makes the whole idea a little questionable.


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Posted by Just Thinking
a resident of Midtown
on May 21, 2007 at 11:16 am

I keep seeing references to enforcing vagrancy and loitering laws in regard to "those people". What are these laws, where can they be found? I've looked - precise references please.


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Posted by Karma
a resident of another community
on May 21, 2007 at 2:00 pm

George, "unattractive people" is a subjective term. Why not spend some time getting to know the homeless, break bread with them, and truly listen to them talk about their lives. They might be an inspiration to you.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Alex
a resident of Midtown
on May 21, 2007 at 2:47 pm

Thanks so much for censoring my post! I see that many of you are in favor of censoring certain human beings. Isn't censorship, in all its forms, wonderfully convenient! Good luck with that!


 +   Like this comment
Posted by George
a resident of Evergreen Park
on May 21, 2007 at 6:41 pm

You may be right, Karma, but this thread is about Lytton Plaza. I tried to use a non-judgemental term. The redesign of the plaza is likely to be for the purpose of removing them. Let's talk about the plaza please.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by once was
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 22, 2007 at 4:38 pm

Along with the kind, gentle, well-mannered teens, the residents of Casa Olga spend the most time hanging out in the Plaza. Do they count among the "UNATTRACTIVE" while the brats don't?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Reader
a resident of Fairmeadow
on May 23, 2007 at 12:08 am

Although you'd rather vent about the homeless, I think the issues about the plaza were stated above:

>The problem with this initiative is that it raises the problem of privatization of public land. We are supposed to be grateful for the contributions by developers but the land belongs to the community. We don't like it when George Bush does it, we don't like it here either.

If the donors are sincere, let them donate to the best design submitted via an RFP. Let their be a public decision on the design, not just by people who have an economic interest.<

Unfortunately, Roxy's brother in law owns the adjoining restaurant which makes the whole idea a little questionable.


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