Debate over new parkland leaves nursery's future uncertain | News | Palo Alto Online |


Debate over new parkland leaves nursery's future uncertain

As Palo Alto considers next steps for 7.7-acre site, Acterra's operation hangs in the balance

Tucked away on the western edge of Foothills Park, the newest addition to Palo Alto's park system doesn't have any benches, picnic areas or walking trails to distinguish it from other parts of the scenic preserve.

Its main topographical feature, Buckeye Creek, is currently nothing more than a concrete channel, cutting along the periphery and waiting for water.

The site does, however, offer something that the rest of the Foothills Park doesn't: a nursery where for the past 13 years, volunteers and staff from the environmental nonprofit Acterra have been growing native plants for use in restoring and enhancing other nature preserves. Now that the city is trying to figure out what to do with the 7.7-acre addition, the future of the nursery is hanging in the balance.

Though it only occupies 0.53 acres, the nursery's small collection of greenhouses incubate 20,000 seeds and plants, collected and organized into pots of varying sizes. The Acterra gardeners know the provenance of each of these seeds, drawn from local parks and preserves. In the next few months, the nursery is expected to fill up even more, as the planting season approaches.

"We plant in the late fall or winter time to take advantage of the rains," said Alex Von Feldt, stewardship program director at Acterra.

Rain, however, isn't the only thing that Acterra is hoping for. Long-term security is another. As Palo Alto prepares to engage the public in figuring out what to do with the 7.7 acres, volunteers are hoping that the new plans don't conflict with their existing operation.

Peter Neal, an Acterra employee who was working in the nursery on Wednesday, said the operation has been located there for 13 years. The Russel Lee family, which in 1981 gifted the site to the city, fully embraces the operation, Neal said. A granddaughter of Lee, founder of the Palo Alto Medical Clinic, was an Acterra volunteer, Von Feldt added.

The nursery has recently made some improvements, Neal said, one of which involved getting the plants off the ground and onto tables. Other improvements are under consideration. For years, the nursery has operated "off the grid," both in terms of public awareness and power consumption (it is powered by solar panels).

"It's a little uncomfortable, not knowing what the future holds," Neal said. "Just dealing with the issue of finding a place to relocate, if that becomes necessary."

To be sure, no one is panicking. In April, Acterra signed a five-year lease for the site. Yet the agreement also includes a clause that allows the city to cancel the lease with a 90-day notice. And during the council's Monday discussion, Councilman Pat Burt recognized Acterra for its recent work in upper Wildhorse Valley, where the nonprofit's volunteers helped remove thistle and invasive species and plant native wildflowers. The work, Burt said, was "amazing," turning the area into "one of the most remarkable sites in Palo Alto."

The future of the Acterra nursery probably won't be determined for at least another year or two. The council this week approved a hydrology study for the 7.7-acre site, which will remain closed and relatively unchanged until the study is completed and the city determines, through a public process, what to do next. But whether the nursery stays or goes, city officials hope to see Acterra continue its efforts to collect and repopulate seeds in local open space preserves. Daren Anderson, manager of the Community Service Department's Open Space, Parks and Golf Division, said the city values its partnership with Acterra "tremendously."

"The benefit of having native collected seeds, and the experience for our park visitors to participate in the process of collecting and growing -- it's invaluable," Anderson said. "And then, of course, taking that seed that's locally sourced and planting it inside our preserves is a tremendous gift. That's the way restoration should be done."

To watch an interview with Daren Anderson, manager of the Community Service Department's Open Space, Parks and Golf Division, visit the Weekly's YouTube channel.

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3 people like this
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 4, 2015 at 9:25 am

This editorial needs to be read in conjunction with the other stream on the Weekly - "No Quick Fix for the Palo Alto New Parkland" dated 09/01/15.
On that stream is the concern for lack of trees - while on this stream you have the trees via a tree farm.

There appears to be a lot of manipulation on this story from various positions which do not put the whole story together - but rather slicing and dicing it.
People need to read both of these streams to get the whole picture.

14 people like this
Posted by Dean
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 4, 2015 at 10:13 am

Acterra does amazing work from this site, let's hope the city continues a partnership with Acterra for many years to come!

16 people like this
Posted by Penny
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Sep 4, 2015 at 11:22 am

I wonder if the Acterra facility could be upgraded and integrated as an educational experience with a new natural park area. Environmental education already is part of the city's recreational programs. Why not extend that to educating the public about the city's collaborative work with Acterra volunteers to preserve native plants?

I'm not sure I understand why these activities must be in conflict. Perhaps they could/should be developed together with an eye toward educating and engaging the public on how we can all work together to help nurture our natural environment.

5 people like this
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 4, 2015 at 11:40 am

Penny - I agree. This whole area can be assembled with relatively little cost outlay to be a really "green" experience with kids as the focal point for the activities.

This whole situation has been subjected to political activity and gaming for future trades. That is unfortunate and needs to be put on the table so everyone can get involved.

7 people like this
Posted by Carol Gilbert
a resident of University South
on Sep 4, 2015 at 1:06 pm

I think it is fortuitous that Acterra is using some of the property in that way. It would be a great addition to that space and the city should maintain the relationship.

7 people like this
Posted by Shirley F
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 4, 2015 at 4:54 pm

Acterra provides very important services to Palo Alto especially with supplying CA Native plants especially for the re-landscaping of public and private spaces. They also are the organization that restores public spaces with CA Natives, i.e. areas in Bol Park and the creekside areas in Bol Park. This non-profit entity holds ownership of the Barron Park donkeys for liability purposes. Please, please City officials work out an arrangement to keep Acterra in their current space.

12 people like this
Posted by Enid Pearson, City Council Member 1965-1975
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 4, 2015 at 5:06 pm

Your "Debate over parkland.." article fails to mention important considerations. Article VIII of the Palo Alto City Charter limits dedicated parkland to park, conservation, recreation, and open space uses. When land is limited and expensive, as in Palo Alto, there will be demands to use parkland for non-park uses. A nursery which supports the park is one thing, but free park land for a nursery selling plants to other cities and agencies is another. This leads the City towards an insidious loss of land dedicated exclusively for park purposes.

Palo Alto failed to dedicate the 7.7 acres when first acquired and instead leased it to Mr. Arrillaga who installed a plant nursery on .53 acres. When the lease expired, the City allowed Acterra to continue the nursery in exchange for restoring the 7.7 A riparian habitat. Acterra gets $50K per year on a 5 year contract ($250K) for restoration work and is still using the .53 acres nursery rent free. They sell the seedlings to other government agencies and their contract is reviewed once a year. So far no riparian restoration has resulted as required in their lease. Compare this with Save the Bay which also uses a city nursery to provide Baylands plants and never charges the city a cent.

Hopefully the new Parks Master Planning process will identify appropriate park uses and keep our open space and parks from being nibbled away bit by bit.

4 people like this
Posted by Bob
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 4, 2015 at 7:00 pm

LEAVE IT ALONE!!! Fix the Baylands. Rebuild the boardwalk. Refurbish the Interpretive Center, Fit the potholes.
First things first. Do not hire another $250K manager for that seven acres,

6 people like this
Posted by Joel
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 5, 2015 at 7:07 am

Joel is a registered user.

I am a bit confused by Enid's comments. Are you indicating that Acterra is profiting from the sale of plants? As a many year volunteer of Acterra I always thought that Acterra was a non -profit organization, Acting locally for environmental healthiness. To my mind Acterra (in different name iterations) has been a custodian of environmental health though out the bay area and especially Palo Alto for over 40 years.

6 people like this
Posted by Greenwashed
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Sep 5, 2015 at 7:45 am

@ Joel

Just because Acterra is "Non-Profit", does not mean that it is not a business. Unfortunately, I would have to agree with Ms.Pearson on this matter, it does not appear that Acterra lived up to its contract of $50,000 a year for the restoration of the 7.7 acres. Furthermore,I am a bit confused in regards to the conflict between Acterra and Ms.Pearson and Company. After all, Acterra performed the restoration of the Pearson Arastradero Reserve.

I would also like to add, with the possibility of an upocoming El Nino event, what is the City of Palo Alto's legal responsibility for flooding issues in regards to Arrillagas' property downstream?

3 people like this
Posted by jean struthers
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Sep 5, 2015 at 12:49 pm

Acterra does amazing work in restoring parks and open spaces in and around Palo alto. One of the great things they do is in the education of youth. They have a contract to restore Byrne Preserve and other open spaces in our town. They are using kids from all kinds of places, schools, churches and other organizations to remove invasive weeds and plant natives. These kids are learning to identify weeds and also native California species. These young people will be the stewards of many other places as adults. No other projects in our area are doing such work. It is not just the parks which benefit, the knowledge these kids get will carry on into their adulthood.

If Acterra is earning some money for these jobs, that money is paying the workers who are running the programs and the growing of the plants. Palo Alto is getting the benefit of their labor and knowledge and all of the rest of us are getting the restoration of long neglected public lands.
Palo Altoans should be exceedingly proud of their support of Acterra.

4 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 5, 2015 at 1:02 pm

[Post removed.]

6 people like this
Posted by Roger Overnaut
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Sep 5, 2015 at 3:13 pm

Enid Pearson and Curmudgeon are correct. Acterra's nursery directly violates the city's park dedication ordinance and must go.

All is not lost. There are numerous brass plaques of grateful appreciation to local developer James Baer adorning the walls of Acterra's headquarters. Surely Mr. Baer can provide them a plot of private land for their worthy endeavor. Or Mr. Arriaga?

6 people like this
Posted by Greenwashed
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Sep 5, 2015 at 8:27 pm

[Post removed.]

10 people like this
Posted by Greenwashed
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Sep 5, 2015 at 8:38 pm

@ Jean Struthers

If Acterra is involved with beneficial projects for the town of Los Altos, why doesn't the taxpayers of Los Altos give them $250,000 and a free plot of land to put their nursery on?

Like this comment
Posted by Joel
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 6, 2015 at 6:25 am

Joel is a registered user.

[Post removed.]

6 people like this
Posted by Greenwashed
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 6, 2015 at 8:12 am

@ Joel

No, I just think "Non Profits" like Acterra should stand up on their own two feet,just like any other company out their. For example; Acterra has had the contract for the "restoration" of the Enid Pearson Arastradero Preserve since 1997.How much has that cost?It is an endless landscaping contract. Furthermore, since they use volunteers they do not need to have workman's compensation insurance. Acterra needs to stop pulling on the heartstrings of the public by telling us how much they are helping out the community by "teaching" young students how to save the earth. They basically have slave labor to pull their weeds. That is just one aspect of this "non-profit". [Portion removed.]

2 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 6, 2015 at 1:19 pm

"This whole situation has been subjected to political activity and gaming for future trades. That is unfortunate and needs to be put on the table so everyone can get involved."

It needs to stop. That is dedicated park land which by law can be used only as a park. A private plant nursery is not a park. It's that simple.

2 people like this
Posted by Neighbor
a resident of Stanford
on Sep 6, 2015 at 8:43 pm

Acterra employs people like Maija McDonald with psychology degrees, who is a voting member of the Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) for the Recycling and Waste Reduction Commission of Santa Clara County. Acterra is a Non Government Organization (NGO) that has a vote. Obviously she is in place so she can lobby for her benefactors. By the way, city councilman Gregg Scharff was just appointed to this commission.

Web Link

4 people like this
Posted by Adam Stern
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 8, 2015 at 2:13 pm

A recent Palo Alto Weekly article about Acterra’s plant nursery, “Debate over new parkland leaves nursery’s future uncertain,” Sep. 4, 2015, generated
many online comments. Several misinformed commenters attacked Acterra and the nursery. On behalf of Acterra, I would like to correct this misinformation:

• The nursery does not occupy the site “rent-free.” The annual rental is $10,000. In lieu of a cash rental payment, Acterra provides the City of Palo Alto with $10,000 in value per year consisting of plants, materials, and volunteer restoration services at Foothills Park, including removal of weeds in the 7.7 acre parcel. Acterra also meters and pays for all nursery water usage. Electricity is generated onsite via solar panels.

• Acterra did not move in and continue a nursery started by John Arrillaga on the 0.53 acre site. The Acterra nursery has been in operation since 1996. When the nursery relocated to the current site, the 0.53 acre plot was nothing but a field of weeds and creek spoils. The entire nursery, including all structures, the solar electric system, and water line, was built from the ground up mainly by volunteers frequently using their own tools and employing donated and salvaged materials whenever possible. Mr. Arrillaga did not support or facilitate this effort in any way.

• City charter states that parkland may be used for conservation purposes. The Lee family grant also specified conservation use as an option for this land. The nursery’s total focus is conservation and restoration. It is difficult to understand how this violates the City charter. Members of the Lee family have endorsed the nursery’s use of the site. In the past, one family member volunteered at the nursery and actually used her own truck to help relocate the nursery to its current location in 2003.

• The $50,000 contract Acterra has with the City is not related to the 7.7 acres. Acterra receives payment from the city for work performed at Pearson-Arastradero Preserve, Foothills Park and San Francisquito Creek. Acterra successfully raised $100,000 last year alone for ecological restoration and environmental education in grants that benefit all three of these Palo Alto sites. Last year, the City also received $170,000 worth of restoration services from over 3,000 volunteers being led and taught by experienced and knowledgeable ecologists and botanists. Acterra recruits the volunteers, and supplies the tools, equipment, plants, materials, and professional guidance.

Adam Stern, Executive Director, Acterra

2 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 8, 2015 at 2:34 pm

[Post removed.]

9 people like this
Posted by Agenda
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 8, 2015 at 5:53 pm

Based on adam's comments it sounds like Enid Pearson, City Council Member 1965-1975, might not have been accurate with her comments.
However this is not an issue that the council needs to address before it deals wIt's the issue of potential creek flooding in the coming months

4 people like this
Posted by Greenwashed
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Sep 8, 2015 at 6:01 pm

@ Adam Stearn

So, can you tell us that there was not one person in upper management at Acterra that did not have prior knowledge of the impending sale of the 7.7 acres to Arrillaga?

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