What was once a quarry that few in Palo Alto knew existed is now a quandary at the center of the city's debate about future recreation needs.
The site a 7.7-acre parcel next to Foothills Park is the latest addition to the city's vast collection of parkland. It is also an unintended benefit of the most embarrassing land-use imbroglio in Palo Alto's recent history.
Donated to the city in 1981 by the family of Russel Lee, the undeveloped land found itself under a public spotlight in 2012, when developer John Arrillaga made a private offer to the city to purchase it as part of broader negotiations over a proposed development at 27 University Ave. That proposed development, which featured four office towers and a theater, fizzled after a loud public outcry. But the 7.7-acre parcel next to Arrilaga's property was quickly dedicated as parkland by an enthusiastic City Council, which is now trying to figure out what to do with this land.
On Monday night, the council agreed that its options in this regard are very limited. The soil on the site ill-suited for planting new trees, said Daren Anderson, manager at the Community Services Department. While some trees have survived there, their growth had been stunted by the poor soil condition and they required a significant amount of compost, Anderson said.
Another limiting factor is Buckeye Creek, a channelized creek that originates in Foothills Park and flows through the site. The creek, according to Anderson, has experienced significant erosion and down-cutting over the years, causing sediment to accumulate at the site during rainy seasons. This sediment would have to be removed before anything can be done. It also doesn't help that the site is surrounded by private properties and that only about 2.1 acres are flat and deemed by staff as "usable."
During the course of several community meetings and ranger-led tours, residents offered numerous ideas for restoring and enhancing the site, including creating a campground or picnic area and de-channelizing the creek to restore the meandering creek flow. But given all the natural limitations, Palo Alto officials agreed that the best thing to do in the mean time is nothing at all.
While a few council members proposed creating a trail and setting up benches in the near term, the majority ultimately went along with a staff recommendation to keep the site closed for the time being. Rather than begin any construction or cleanup work, the city will perform a hydrology study to analyze Buckeye Creek and help inform the city's decision on the best use of the land.
"Completing the hydrology study first will allow us to understand how the possible solutions to correct erosion and undercutting can impact the 7.7 acres in advance of working on the site," Anderson told the council.
The Parks and Recreation Commission had discussed possible uses for the site over several meetings earlier this year and voted unanimously in February to pursue the study and to keep the land closed to the public until the study is done.
The council on Monday concurred with this recommendation, but only after some debate. Though everyone supported the new study, Vice Mayor Greg Schmid and Councilman Greg Scharff each made a case for re-opening the parkland to the public while the study is in progress.
Both said that allowing residents to walk around the site would help spur a meaningful public conversation about what it should be used for. Schmid noted that under current conditions, a resident can only walk for about 50 feet before hitting a fence that obscures the view of the site. By keeping the site closed off, public participation in determining the future use of the site would be "minimal," Schmid said.
Scharff agreed and noted that it could take five years or more for the city to conduct the analysis of Buckeye Creek and secure the needed permits to work around the creek. He argued that the city should invest the roughly $50,000 it would take to put up the needed fencing that would separate the site from the adjacent private residences and to build a basic loop trail and two benches. The equipment, he noted, could be reused in the future as part of plans that come out of the analysis.
"I'd like people to be able to see it," Scharff said. "I think it's important to open it to the public."
Schmid concurred, calling the investment a "bargain" and "well worth it."
The rest of the council disagreed and went along with the recommendation from staff. A report from the Community Services Department noted that "best management practices for opening new park land involve designing and preparing the area prior to opening it up to the public, whereby recreation uses, public access and areas for conservation and habitat restoration are thoughtfully and intentionally defined." That's what was done with Byxbee Park and for the Pearson Arastradero Preserve, the report stated.
The council ultimately voted 8-0, with Liz Kniss absent, to approve the study, which staff expects will take about a year. Once the study is complete, the council will revisit the topic and consider whether to open the park to the public in the near future.
Councilman Pat Burt said opening the site now would be "premature." Mayor Karen Holman concurred, though she also said she was sympathetic to Schmid's and Scharff's argument.
"It's land that we own," Holman said. "It's supposed to be open to the public."
After the council agreed not to reopen the space to the public just yet, all members voted to support the study. Councilman Eric Filseth, who made the motion to support staff's recommendation, said he sees no reason to rush the site improvements.
"The most important thing is that the land be preserved, which it is," Filseth said. "We're going to have it for a long time. ... We might as well take our time and proceed deliberately on this because it's not going anywhere."