The new plan for Palo Alto's park system includes a treat for just about everyone who likes to play outdoors, from dog runs and athletic fields to community gardens and pickleball courts.
There's just one exception: Corporations that wish to rent and occupy a local park for an extended period of time will almost certainly have to look elsewhere.
Thus ruled the City Council, which on Monday night unanimously and enthusiastically approved the new Parks, Trails, Natural Space and Recreation Master Plan -- a vision document that will help guide the city's park projects for at least the next two decades. Two years in the making, the plan proposes a wide range of improvements to the city's cherished park system, including six dedicated dog parks, restrooms at seven parks (Bol, Bowden, Pardee, Johnson, Ramos, Robles and Terman); and new parks in parts of the city that are currently lacking.
Yet the one proposed change that generated the most discussion Monday wasn't an addition but a prohibition. Inspired by Palantir's two-week takeover of a Cubberley soccer field in April for a corporate event, the council approved a new policy that would make such arrangements nearly impossible in the future.
The new policy severely limits the ability of a company to claim exclusive use of a local park by effectively prohibiting such use during "peak times," such as weekends and weekday evenings. Private uses would also be limited to a maximum of five days, which includes the setup and break-down periods, and would require notification to the neighboring community at least 14 days before the permit could be issued.
The only exception to this rule is the Palo Alto Municipal Golf Course, which is now in the midst of a long-awaited renovation and which council members agreed is uniquely suited for corporate functions and private sponsorships.
Mayor Greg Scharff, who proposed excluding the golf course from the broader policy, noted that unlike other parks, the golf course is supported by an enterprise fund and -- in effect -- is expected to pay for itself. He also worried that a policy that's too broad would inadvertently limit park activities that are less exclusive or controversial -- functions like weddings and birthday parties.
"I think what we want to do as a community is not overreact and sweep up a lot of other things because we are concerned about a corporation that rented a park," Scharff said.
Others felt that the policy doesn't go far enough. Councilwoman Karen Holman thought a 14-day notification period is so tight that it's pointless; she suggested 60 to 90 days. Councilwoman Lydia Kou thought allowing even five days of exclusive usage to a corporation is excessive and suggested limiting usage to three days.
"Even the biggest events the city puts on -- May Fête and Arts and Wine Festival -- are over in one day," Kou said. "I can't figure out why five days would be needed."
The policy doesn't entirely close the door on private events at public parks. The Community Services Department will have discretion to approve events, though its approval would now be guided by the restrictive criteria in the new policy.
"We can't anticipate every scenario and there may be a scenario where it might make sense to allow a large corporate function of multiple days," said Deputy City Manager Rob de Geus, who in his prior position as director of Community Services Department played a leading role in crafting the document. "But if we do that, we'd need to be very careful about making that decision. That's what the policy is trying to do."
Ultimately, the council adopted a policy that hewed closely to the one recommended by staff and the Parks and Recreation Commission. The council also endorsed the rest of the voluminous plan, which was forged after many months of community surveys, public meetings and commission hearings and which received rave reviews from the council.
Both Scharff and Vice Mayor Liz Kniss praised staff for its work on the document, while Councilman Tom DuBois called the new document "one of our best plans." He also said it's critical for the city to find more park space and to introduce new senior services as the city's population continues to grow. Councilman Cory Wolbach called the plan "exemplary."
"You can almost flip open any page and find something to like," Wolbach said.
But while everyone agreed that the improvements look good on paper, the council now faces a big question: Who will pay for them? The plan includes an implementation section with various funding options, including bonds, fees, donations and public-private partnerships. Scharff suggested exploring a ballot measure to get the needed funding for the projects in the plan. His motion to approve the plan included a provision directing the parks commission to further consider funding sources, including a ballot initiative, to pay for the improvements.