Long before Palo Alto entered the era of cellular towers, satellite dishes and fiber-optic networks, the city's sprawling marshes were home to a radiotelegraph station that relayed information to ships and transmitted overseas messages.
Built in the 1920s by the Federal Telegraph Company, the communication hub changed hands several times over the ensuing decades, with Mackay Cable & Wireless buying it in 1928 and International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT) taking over in 1930.
Most of the land ultimately ended up in the city's hands thanks to a 1977 deal with ITT, which donated 69 acres and sold another 83 for $1.3 million (Palo Alto paid $1 million and the Santa Clara Valley Water District added $300,000). The only thing that ITT retained at the site was an easement to 36.5 acres, site of the radio antenna station.
Now, city officials are plotting the best way to convert the antenna field into public parkland: The City Council agreed last year to buy back the easement from the most recent owner, Globe Wireless, for $250,000. Tonight, the council will take a vote confirming that the land will become part of the Baylands Nature Preserve.
Located between the city's golf course and its Municipal Services Center, the new parkland is in some ways a bargain for the city. In 1992, the city had tried to buy the property from KFS World Communications for $370,000 but the deal ultimately fell through. And even though land values throughout Palo Alto have soared since that time, Global Wireless proposed in 2014 to sell the easement for the same price. The city ultimately negotiated the sale price down to $250,000.
Yet redevelopment could also prove costly and complex for a city that already boasts an ambitious wish list for park improvements -- including a new Baylands Athletics Complex next to the golf course, the reconstruction of Cubberley Community Center and the redevelopment of a 7.7-acre site that was recently annexed to Foothills Park. In addition, the 1920s transmission building has been deemed eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, a designation that may complicate demolition plans.
These challenges notwithstanding, a new report from the Community Services Department states that dedicating the newly purchased site as parkland fits with the city's overall goal for the Baylands, which is to "preserve and enhance unique and irreplaceable resources."
The land around the easement has already seen some big improvements since the city purchased it from ITT. In 1992, the city piped bay water into the marshland to restore original tidal flow that had been disrupted by diking. The city also created a pond in the western portion of the site by using reclaimed water from the Regional Water Quality Control Plant.
These improvements have made an impact. The city's 2008 Baylands Master Plan notes that the area, known as the Emily Renzel Wetlands, is "biologically productive again" and lists various species that now flock to the site. During wet seasons, the ponds at the site provide nesting habitats for gulls, ducks and shorebirds, according to the master plan. When conditions are dry, burrowing owls, rodents, jack rabbits and ground squirrels nest there, while pheasants and mourning doves make occasional visits. Even the rare white-tailed kite has been known to nest in the area and may still use the site as a habitat, the plan states.
It remains to be seen what exactly the city will do with its new purchase. The Parks and Recreation Commission briefly discussed the acquisition last August and generally supported the idea of buying the property and enhancing the Baylands habitats. Commissioner David Moss called the deal "a great opportunity."
"I'm all for having open space useful for lots of people and I hope that building of historic significance will be made into some kind of a facility, like the Lucie Evans building (the interpretive center in the Baylands), where there will be classes or tours, or maybe a museum of some sort," Moss said at the August meeting.
Emily Renzel, a former City Council member and a long-time conservationist (for whom the wetlands area is named), told the Weekly that it would make little sense for the city to spend significant public funds on refurbishing the old building, which has been subject to vandalism over the years.
Also, while its large size could make it potentially usable for weddings and banquets, such a use would require construction of parking facilities and detract from the Baylands environment, she said.
As for the rest of the newly acquired site, Renzel said she favors just letting it blend into the surrounding wetlands.
"There can be some restoration done at a minimum cost," Renzel said. "But mostly, it should just be left alone, in my opinion. Let it be natural."
With the sale now completed and the land about to be dedicated as "parkland" (which will legally require the land to be used for "park, playground, recreation or conservation purposes"), the Parks and Recreation Commission will be taking a more active role in shaping its future. Under the proposed timeline, the commission will consider restoration strategies this summer as part of its discussion of the Baylands Comprehensive Conservation Plan. It would then forward its recommendation, along with cost estimates, to the council by fall 2018.
The council plans to adopt the "dedication" ordinance on its consent calendar, which means there will likely be no discussion or debate. Even so, Mayor Greg Scharff stressed earlier this month that the city's purchase of the 36.5-acre easement is a big deal and called it "the largest dedication of parkland that has occurred in 50 years."
"When was the last time we dedicated 35 acres in Palo Alto?" Scharff said during the council's May 22 meeting with the Parks and Recreation Commission. "I think it's something we should celebrate in this community and let people know about."