News

Palo Alto expands its control over Baylands

Purchase of 36.5-acre easement in the marshland paves the way for restoration, habitat enhancements

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.

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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."

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"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."

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Gennady Sheyner
 
Gennady Sheyner covers the City Hall beat in Palo Alto as well as regional politics, with a special focus on housing and transportation. Before joining the Palo Alto Weekly/PaloAltoOnline.com in 2008, he covered breaking news and local politics for the Waterbury Republican-American, a daily newspaper in Connecticut. Read more >>

Follow Palo Alto Online and the Palo Alto Weekly on Twitter @paloaltoweekly, Facebook and on Instagram @paloaltoonline for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

Palo Alto expands its control over Baylands

Purchase of 36.5-acre easement in the marshland paves the way for restoration, habitat enhancements

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Wed, May 31, 2017, 1:22 pm
Updated: Mon, Jun 5, 2017, 8:57 am

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."

Comments

Resident
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 31, 2017 at 2:06 pm
Resident, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 31, 2017 at 2:06 pm

I think the City has to be careful with its definition of Park. A city Park, such as Greer, Mitchell or Rinconada, or even some of the smaller neighborhood parks, cannot be compared with something like Baylands, Foothill, or this new space.

Likewise, some of those small green areas in a housing development where there is a grill and a picnic table and perhaps one play structure, can hardly be called a park either.

There is a difference between a recreational green area where people play, picnic and kids use as sportsfields, to those green open spaces which I think should more rightly be called Open Space Reserves, or Nature Reserves.

Some uses may overlap, but basically they serve different purposes. Lumping them all in the same category is demeaning to both purposes. I enjoy both and I think we need both, but calling them all by the same Park name is misleading and inaccurate, in my opinion.


Curmudgeon
Downtown North
on May 31, 2017 at 4:34 pm
Curmudgeon, Downtown North
on May 31, 2017 at 4:34 pm

"... calling them all by the same Park name is misleading and inaccurate, in my opinion."

Have you mentioned that to the National Park Service regarding Yosemite National Park, Yellowstone National Park, ... ?


Nancy
Old Palo Alto
on May 31, 2017 at 9:16 pm
Nancy, Old Palo Alto
on May 31, 2017 at 9:16 pm

Hopefully dogs will be able to use this space to keep the barking down.

Pun intended...


Historical site
Fairmeadow
on Jun 1, 2017 at 7:14 am
Historical site, Fairmeadow
on Jun 1, 2017 at 7:14 am

This site has historical significance in the development of innovation and eventually Silicon Valley. I hope the city can preserve the radio room and make it accessible as a historical building with explanations of what went on out there.


Anonymous
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 1, 2017 at 9:04 am
Anonymous , Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 1, 2017 at 9:04 am

The more if the Palo Alto Baylands "preserved" as Parkland, the better. Thank you, City of Palo Alto.


resident
Midtown
on Jun 1, 2017 at 10:39 am
resident, Midtown
on Jun 1, 2017 at 10:39 am

The radio station is surrounded by barbed wire and no trespassing signs. Is it a toxic waste site? Asbestos and TCE? Cleaning up old buildings like that can cost many millions of dollars.


David
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 1, 2017 at 1:09 pm
David, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 1, 2017 at 1:09 pm

All that is left on site is a shell of the building. All the contents have been removed, tons of waste removed, etc.


Bill
Barron Park
on Jun 1, 2017 at 1:28 pm
Bill, Barron Park
on Jun 1, 2017 at 1:28 pm

The building housed transmitters for KFS which passed maritime radio traffic until the 1990's. During WWII, it was home to KROJ and KROU which broadcast Voice of America shortwave programming across the Pacific all the way to Australia and up to the Aleutian Islands. Until the early 1960's, the site had a tower that was over 600 feet high.

The building was pretty heavily vandalized a few years ago by copper thieves. Most of the remaining equipment was heavily damaged.


Resident
Old Palo Alto
on Jun 1, 2017 at 6:31 pm
Resident, Old Palo Alto
on Jun 1, 2017 at 6:31 pm

I believe that a law was passed where/ as in, the cities will not be held responsible to clean up Superfund sites, even if it's own agency's caused it. How convenient.


Yos
Midtown
on Jun 1, 2017 at 10:11 pm
Yos, Midtown
on Jun 1, 2017 at 10:11 pm

The building is not empty nor severely looted. I don't know what gives you that idea.

Vandals have gotten in but most stuff is still there.


Curious
Crescent Park
on Jun 2, 2017 at 3:42 am
Curious, Crescent Park
on Jun 2, 2017 at 3:42 am

I am Curious ... when I walk around in the Baylands,
between Embarcadero and the businesses and developement
there, and bounded to the East by what used to the the Palo
Alto Dump,and then on the South by the creek there is a
parcel of land with some buildings on them,and fences around
them, and a lot of what look like antennae.

I've never seen anyone in there, around there or going in or
out of there, but it is also not completely overgrown and
does not look to be falling apart.

Can anyone tell me what that place is, I've had all kinds of
fantasies and imaginings ... here is the very large complex
right in the heart of the Baylands ... and I've never heard
anything about it.

I believe on the map it is listed as "Private Land".

Anyone know anything or is it top secret?


Curious
Crescent Park
on Jun 2, 2017 at 3:45 am
Curious, Crescent Park
on Jun 2, 2017 at 3:45 am

Oh, I guess what is what they are talking about here ...
Is anyone doing upkeep on this place ... I have been so tempted
to trespass and see what it is, but it looks so ominous. I figured
it might be some kind of NSA black site in disguise.


Emily Renzel
Crescent Park
on Jun 2, 2017 at 4:12 pm
Emily Renzel, Crescent Park
on Jun 2, 2017 at 4:12 pm

I am very pleased that the City has finally acquired back the antenna easement from ITT's successors. I recently toured the very large building on the site and there was all sorts of broken glass and other debris in it. There is a long narrow road to the site that bisects the surrounding area. If the City were to spend millions of dollars to restore the huge building shell, the interior would not truly reflect all the electronic gear that once resided there. Any use of that building would require major upgrading of the access road and also creation of significant parking right in the middle of this wetland site. Generally I support historic preservation, but it was not the building, but the use of the wetland SITE as a radio wave "bounce" area that was truly historic. The building simply housed electronic equipment which is now gone. There is, however, a wonderful antenna base near the building which would make a perfect monument to the important ship-to-shore communications facility that occupied this site for many decades. I hope that the City will protect and restore this fantastic wetland remnant.


resident
Midtown
on Jun 2, 2017 at 7:22 pm
resident, Midtown
on Jun 2, 2017 at 7:22 pm

The radio station building is a short walk down the driveway from Bayshore Road. Don't repave or widen the driveway or build a new parking lot. If the city really wants to repair and open the building to the public, encourage people to walk. Maybe provide a golf cart for disabled people.


musical
Palo Verde
on Jun 3, 2017 at 2:51 am
musical, Palo Verde
on Jun 3, 2017 at 2:51 am

Ah, childhood memories of the old Mackay Radio Tower, red lights blinking leisurely through the night. Still have discussions about pronunciation of the Mackay name, which sometimes flashes by in old movies when a passenger reads a cable received shipboard. They still called them "cables" even though sent by radiowave, much the same as we use "film" or "tape" today when referring to a modern video recording. The evolution of intercontinental communication over the past 150 years is fascinating to anyone with interest in good old-fashioned electrical engineering, and this antenna site is a nice opportunity to generate some recognition of this history.

(Note for spelling in article's David Moss quote: Lucy and Lucie are Evans and Stern, respectively. I always need to look it up.)


Oldster
Old Palo Alto
on Jun 4, 2017 at 12:28 pm
Oldster, Old Palo Alto
on Jun 4, 2017 at 12:28 pm

Rooting for the old radio site to go back to nature with a historical interpretive display on the trail at the Bayshore frontage road about the technology which used to be there. Palo Alto can finally use the radio site:

- to improve fresh and salt water flows
- to have better trails connected to Byxbee Park, the Bay Trail, and new Highway 101 bike bridge
- to create better wildlife habitat and corridors, and

Best of all, this community discussion of what to do with the radio site will be part of this year's rewrite of the Baylands Master Plan which will also be dealing with how to use the old golf course pond on Geng Road and the new flood control lands at the golf course as well as discussing how the airport can fit better within the Baylands given it just started its first ever FAA wildlife management plan.


Hmmm
East Palo Alto
on Jun 5, 2017 at 1:37 pm
Hmmm, East Palo Alto
on Jun 5, 2017 at 1:37 pm

Since childhood I've been fascinated by this site and joked that it's where the space aliens were housed. We are quite careful going out in that area now - too many ticks! But the reestablishment of wildlife has been wonderful.


Cat Mom Leonorilda
Midtown
on Jun 5, 2017 at 2:20 pm
Cat Mom Leonorilda, Midtown
on Jun 5, 2017 at 2:20 pm

Why not use this opportunity to build a not-too-large state-of-the art animal shelter and show that Palo Alto cares about the animals? Such a shelter could double as a community center that celebrates humane concerns—animals for adoption and wildlife? Or will this area become an aggrandized parking lot for corporate employees to be bused to their final destinations?


GoodNews
Palo Verde
on Jun 5, 2017 at 2:22 pm
GoodNews, Palo Verde
on Jun 5, 2017 at 2:22 pm

Great news; glad it happened; I see no reason to preserve the building; demolish it; but otherwise agree w/Emily Renzel.


Brian
Evergreen Park
on Jun 5, 2017 at 2:39 pm
Brian, Evergreen Park
on Jun 5, 2017 at 2:39 pm

My memories of the area are from the early 1980's when I worked across the street. The best part was the prevalence of ring-neck pheasants. They were beautiful. I haven't seen any in the area for a long time. I hope it can be just a wildland park and wetland. I agree with @Oldster's suggestions.


Gethin
Midtown
on Jun 5, 2017 at 4:34 pm
Gethin, Midtown
on Jun 5, 2017 at 4:34 pm

Perhaps tours of the radio station could be arranged. It looks like many people, myself included, are very curious about it.


Marlene Glez
East Palo Alto
on Jun 5, 2017 at 5:07 pm
Marlene Glez, East Palo Alto
on Jun 5, 2017 at 5:07 pm

A nice and great place where I can walk my cat and she can meow wherever she wants...but wait, cats and dogs don't get along. What if we just let the open area for wild Life and people ? :)


Wim
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 5, 2017 at 10:33 pm
Wim, Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 5, 2017 at 10:33 pm

I used to hike many weekends from Bixby Park to 101 and back, starting in 2008 until the closing of the landfill and subsequent restoration/beautification of the park. I always carried my DSLR camera with me. The wildlife was fabulous; hawks (northern harrier, redtail, red shoulder), ringneck pheasants, burrowing owls, herons, white tailed kites, kestrels, egrets, grebes, clapper rails, hares, bunny rabbits, ground squirrels, gopher snakes, ringneck snakes, yellow bellied racer, western fence lizards, pelicans, swans, a whole lot of marsh birds, and one time even a lost ibis. I took pictures of all. Then the landfill was closed, followed by the necessary surface covering and landscaping. Unfortunately, that resulted in a sterile, flat landscape. The last year I have been going less and less, because I missed seeing most of these species. I wonder if the city will leave the monotonous landscaping as it is or if they are planning to at least place some shrubs, dirt piles, and other articles where wild animals can make their burrow/nest, such that this wonderful area will again see this wide variety of Baylands wildlife.


CrescentParkAnon.
Crescent Park
on Jun 6, 2017 at 1:48 am
CrescentParkAnon., Crescent Park
on Jun 6, 2017 at 1:48 am

< Unfortunately, that resulted in a sterile, flat landscape.

Yes, I go out there quite a bit, to the Byxbee area and to Mountain View and back.
One day I think a year or two back there were workers being paid to go through and
dig out and kill all the original plants that were on the hillsides over there. After
a few days there was nothing.

Killing what was naturally growing there in order to plant local vegetation is
like the nurse waking someone up to take their sleeping pill, though probably
a lot more expensive.

Hopefully this happened with enough time for habitat to relocate, but I am sure
a lot was lost. I used to see a heck of a lot more bunnies running around out
there in the past.

They did the same with the levees from Palo Alto to Mountain View. It used to
be in the early spring you could walk from one city to the other over those levees
and on either side of the trail were flowers growing so many that it was like
a corridor of color. Now all that road is practically barren and dusty with
the same weeds growing on it from one end to the other. What is now a
monotonous dirt road used to be a really pretty trail.


Oldster
Old Palo Alto
on Jun 6, 2017 at 10:42 am
Oldster, Old Palo Alto
on Jun 6, 2017 at 10:42 am

The City has been gassing the ground squirrels on the old landfill such as on the bumpy mounds I thought had been designed as ground squirrel and burrowing owl habitat. Not exactly sure why the City abandonned those man-made wildlife habitats. "Misuse" by mounain bikes and fear of squirrel tunnels digging down to the old garbage?

The native plantings around the Baylands ranger station and EcoCenter are starting to flower and pay off for rarely seen native bugs which depend on those native plants. And the large native wild areas at the new golf course will improve the Baylands' habitats.


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