News

Debate over Foothills Park access continues as Palo Alto weighs new restrictions

City to consider instituting a parking fee, lowering the cap on visitors

Cousins from the Alcala family gather in a socially-distanced manner to enjoy a picnic at Foothills Park on Dec. 17. Photo by Kate Bradshaw.

Nearly a month after Palo Alto opened the once exclusive Foothills Park to the broader public, city leaders are preparing to adopt new restrictions on Tuesday to curb the sudden onrush of visitors.

Spurred by reports of overfilled parking lots, crowded roads and hikers strolling off trails, the City Council is preparing to consider new restrictions for visiting the pristine 1,400-acre nature preserve off Page Mill Road.

The discussion follows a month in which the park has seen a significant increase in visitors, a trend that was precipitated by the council's decision in November to abolish a contentious 1965 law that restricted entrance to nonresidents.

City staff had estimated that 4,081 visited the park the weekend before Christmas, roughly six times what it was on the same day the prior year. Parking lots now fill up quickly in the morning, requiring visitors to drive along park roads, where they share space with bicyclists and pedestrians. And residents who have long frequented the park say they've seen extra trash in the park and more people straying off its paths.

Last week, in response to the surge in visitors, the city abruptly announced that it will keep the entrance gates to Foothills Park closed between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. on days when the park reaches its limit of 750 visitors at any one time. While this has initially applied to weekend days and holidays, when crowds hit peak levels, the closures also will be implemented on weekdays going forward, if the number of visitors reaches the 750-person limit, Meghan Taylor-Horrigan, the city's chief communication officer, told this news organization.

What's local journalism worth to you?

Support Palo Alto Online for as little as $5/month.

Learn more

The closure "seeks to reduce … traffic and parking challenges seen during the first three weeks of opening the park to everyone," Horrigan-Taylor said in an email.

Horrigan-Taylor said the city will soon be introducing new tools to manage crowds, including automated vehicle-counting technology and a public website that states whether the visitor cap has been reached and if the entrance closure is in effect.

"This will provide an improved visitor experience and increase access as visitation ebbs and flows," she wrote.

The council will consider on Tuesday additional measures, including lowering the cap to 500 people at any one time and instituting a parking fee. A report from the Community Services Department recommends a $6 fee, consistent with what parks in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties charge. The staff report also includes a proposal for an annual pass, which would cost between $50 and $60 for Palo Alto residents and between $65 and $85 for nonresidents. There would be free entry for pedestrians, bicyclists and volunteers coming in to maintain the park.

The recent increase in visitors could be partially attributed to high publicity that Foothills Park has garnered in recent months, as the council struggled to come up with new policies for expanding access to the scenic preserve. After initially approving a pilot program in August that would allow up to 50 nonresidents into the park daily, the council then moved in November to abolish the 1965 law and open the park to all as part of its settlement with a coalition of plaintiffs that sued the city, a group that included the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP.

Stay informed

Get daily headlines sent straight to your inbox.

Sign up

On a recent holiday, this reporter who visited the park in the morning drove past a full parking lot before finding a parking spot along a meadow. By noon that day, dozens of hikers, a few runners and several families walked near some of the park's most visible areas, including Boronda Lake, which is near various trailheads. Further away from the trailhead, along Los Trancos Trail, there were fewer people, little noise and no signs of damage to the environment.

Boronda Lake is one of many areas people can visit at Foothills Park in Palo Alto. Photo by Kate Bradshaw.

In addition to the park's recent publicity, other conditions also helped to drive up the visitation numbers, City Manager Ed Shikada told the council on Monday.

"We've had perfect weather for visiting Foothills Park and also perhaps people with time on their hands and a desire to get outdoors, which combined to really stretch our ability to manage through," Shikada said. "Staff is continuing to test options for metering access to make sure visitor experience is as positive as possible."

Some Palo Alto residents are calling for more urgent action. Alexey Blokhin, who hikes at Foothills Park, emailed the council photos of people walking off trails and said that his 5-year-old son was nearly hit by a speeding car on a recent visit.

"I'm not even mentioning the garbage that is everywhere now, both plastic and glass bottles, masks everywhere on trails," Blokhin stated in his email.

Resident Patti J. Walters reported that during a recent visit to the park, she saw children riding bikes on the grass at Boronda Lake and adults "cutting across the embankments to the right side of the lake."

"Approaching the picnic area, we found an opportunity to turn around and leave the chaotic situation. We could not wait to leave the park," Walters wrote.

Jill O'Nan, a former member of the city's Human Relations Commission, told the council that since the expanded access, people with disabilities, like herself, now have a hard time visiting the park, which she said has insufficient parking for disabled individuals. She called the opening of the park "disastrous" and asserted that Palo Alto residents with lower incomes who were once able to visit the park are no longer able to do so.

"What we have now is not access for all, by any stretch. We do not have social justice," O'Nan said. "What we have instead implemented is a plantation-style system of economic exploitation where low-income people like me and my neighbors are expected to pay for a recreational area for rich people who live up the hill from us."

She requested that the council promptly close the park down and mitigate the "destructive damage" that visitors are causing to the park.

Others, however, lauded the council for taking an action that city officials have been debating for decades.

"I truly believe that Palo Alto has finally done the right and good deed by opening Foothills Park to all," resident Meghan Galloway wrote to the council. "I believe parks belong to all of us and that excluding other cities was elitist and racist in implication."

Craving a new voice in Peninsula dining?

Sign up for the Peninsula Foodist newsletter.

Sign up now

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.

Debate over Foothills Park access continues as Palo Alto weighs new restrictions

City to consider instituting a parking fee, lowering the cap on visitors

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Wed, Jan 13, 2021, 4:44 pm

Nearly a month after Palo Alto opened the once exclusive Foothills Park to the broader public, city leaders are preparing to adopt new restrictions on Tuesday to curb the sudden onrush of visitors.

Spurred by reports of overfilled parking lots, crowded roads and hikers strolling off trails, the City Council is preparing to consider new restrictions for visiting the pristine 1,400-acre nature preserve off Page Mill Road.

The discussion follows a month in which the park has seen a significant increase in visitors, a trend that was precipitated by the council's decision in November to abolish a contentious 1965 law that restricted entrance to nonresidents.

City staff had estimated that 4,081 visited the park the weekend before Christmas, roughly six times what it was on the same day the prior year. Parking lots now fill up quickly in the morning, requiring visitors to drive along park roads, where they share space with bicyclists and pedestrians. And residents who have long frequented the park say they've seen extra trash in the park and more people straying off its paths.

Last week, in response to the surge in visitors, the city abruptly announced that it will keep the entrance gates to Foothills Park closed between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. on days when the park reaches its limit of 750 visitors at any one time. While this has initially applied to weekend days and holidays, when crowds hit peak levels, the closures also will be implemented on weekdays going forward, if the number of visitors reaches the 750-person limit, Meghan Taylor-Horrigan, the city's chief communication officer, told this news organization.

The closure "seeks to reduce … traffic and parking challenges seen during the first three weeks of opening the park to everyone," Horrigan-Taylor said in an email.

Horrigan-Taylor said the city will soon be introducing new tools to manage crowds, including automated vehicle-counting technology and a public website that states whether the visitor cap has been reached and if the entrance closure is in effect.

"This will provide an improved visitor experience and increase access as visitation ebbs and flows," she wrote.

The council will consider on Tuesday additional measures, including lowering the cap to 500 people at any one time and instituting a parking fee. A report from the Community Services Department recommends a $6 fee, consistent with what parks in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties charge. The staff report also includes a proposal for an annual pass, which would cost between $50 and $60 for Palo Alto residents and between $65 and $85 for nonresidents. There would be free entry for pedestrians, bicyclists and volunteers coming in to maintain the park.

The recent increase in visitors could be partially attributed to high publicity that Foothills Park has garnered in recent months, as the council struggled to come up with new policies for expanding access to the scenic preserve. After initially approving a pilot program in August that would allow up to 50 nonresidents into the park daily, the council then moved in November to abolish the 1965 law and open the park to all as part of its settlement with a coalition of plaintiffs that sued the city, a group that included the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP.

On a recent holiday, this reporter who visited the park in the morning drove past a full parking lot before finding a parking spot along a meadow. By noon that day, dozens of hikers, a few runners and several families walked near some of the park's most visible areas, including Boronda Lake, which is near various trailheads. Further away from the trailhead, along Los Trancos Trail, there were fewer people, little noise and no signs of damage to the environment.

In addition to the park's recent publicity, other conditions also helped to drive up the visitation numbers, City Manager Ed Shikada told the council on Monday.

"We've had perfect weather for visiting Foothills Park and also perhaps people with time on their hands and a desire to get outdoors, which combined to really stretch our ability to manage through," Shikada said. "Staff is continuing to test options for metering access to make sure visitor experience is as positive as possible."

Some Palo Alto residents are calling for more urgent action. Alexey Blokhin, who hikes at Foothills Park, emailed the council photos of people walking off trails and said that his 5-year-old son was nearly hit by a speeding car on a recent visit.

"I'm not even mentioning the garbage that is everywhere now, both plastic and glass bottles, masks everywhere on trails," Blokhin stated in his email.

Resident Patti J. Walters reported that during a recent visit to the park, she saw children riding bikes on the grass at Boronda Lake and adults "cutting across the embankments to the right side of the lake."

"Approaching the picnic area, we found an opportunity to turn around and leave the chaotic situation. We could not wait to leave the park," Walters wrote.

Jill O'Nan, a former member of the city's Human Relations Commission, told the council that since the expanded access, people with disabilities, like herself, now have a hard time visiting the park, which she said has insufficient parking for disabled individuals. She called the opening of the park "disastrous" and asserted that Palo Alto residents with lower incomes who were once able to visit the park are no longer able to do so.

"What we have now is not access for all, by any stretch. We do not have social justice," O'Nan said. "What we have instead implemented is a plantation-style system of economic exploitation where low-income people like me and my neighbors are expected to pay for a recreational area for rich people who live up the hill from us."

She requested that the council promptly close the park down and mitigate the "destructive damage" that visitors are causing to the park.

Others, however, lauded the council for taking an action that city officials have been debating for decades.

"I truly believe that Palo Alto has finally done the right and good deed by opening Foothills Park to all," resident Meghan Galloway wrote to the council. "I believe parks belong to all of us and that excluding other cities was elitist and racist in implication."

Comments

Be Prepared
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 14, 2021 at 7:56 am
Be Prepared , Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Jan 14, 2021 at 7:56 am

Whatever the Council decides about fees and such, the city better be ready to impose another partial closure fast if needed to keep Foothill safe and not over used.
I hope a 500 visitor cap will be put in place at least for awhile. We must now actually plan and never lose control again as we move into summer. There’s too much at stake.


pacsailor
Registered user
Gunn High School
on Jan 14, 2021 at 10:47 am
pacsailor, Gunn High School
Registered user
on Jan 14, 2021 at 10:47 am

All I can say is thank you to those who forced open the Foothills Park, and are leading the way for its destruction in the name of social justice. There was no harm to anyone for keeping it closed to residents from other cities. This is what we got now [portion removed] crowds and Palo Alto residents not able to enjoy the serenity and may not be able to enjoy the park due to not even being able to find a place to park their cars.


Joel
Registered user
Barron Park
on Jan 14, 2021 at 10:50 am
Joel, Barron Park
Registered user
on Jan 14, 2021 at 10:50 am

The pictures taken by paloaltoonline and the Daily Post show no cars, three people in the meadow and two people on a bench overlooking the Bay. Could someone please show us the pictures of the crowds and crowded parking lots?
Also, could those that are complaining about the increase in trash take a picture and have it published? These complaints that are being talked about are the same as those that started the petition to keep non-Palo Altons out of the park before it was opened to the public.


Jim H
Registered user
Community Center
on Jan 14, 2021 at 10:53 am
Jim H, Community Center
Registered user
on Jan 14, 2021 at 10:53 am

Firstly, add a web based reservation only system for car entry. This means you won't arrive at the park and find it has been closed . It also helps the City keep track of how many cars are entering and with license plate info it could be a useful tool if crimes are committed. Charges for admittance could be handled by the website to reduce the number of people that have to deal with this influx in person.

Secondly, the season pass should be equal to the price of 6 admissions or less in mho.


Jim H
Registered user
Community Center
on Jan 14, 2021 at 10:57 am
Jim H, Community Center
Registered user
on Jan 14, 2021 at 10:57 am

Joel,

I was there on a weekday around the holidays and it was really really busy with people. I've never seen a weekend this busy. I'm hoping the current crowds are partly due to people able to visit during Covid remote working and simply the curiosity of something oipening after decades of being closed. It's not time yet for doom and gloom about the park.


PAReader
Registered user
Midtown
on Jan 14, 2021 at 11:39 am
PAReader, Midtown
Registered user
on Jan 14, 2021 at 11:39 am

"On a recent holiday, this reporter who visited the park in the morning ... no signs of damage to the environment."
Really? What is the reporter's qualifications to properly make this judgement? Looking at the reporter's LinkedIn page, I see no environmental qualifications. In addition, there was no environmental baseline study as was recommended before the park was opened to all.
Continued biased reporting on this topic from the PA Weekly.


casey
Registered user
Midtown
on Jan 14, 2021 at 12:05 pm
casey, Midtown
Registered user
on Jan 14, 2021 at 12:05 pm

@Joel "Could someone please show us the pictures of the crowds and crowded parking lots?"

Didn't take a photo of the crowds when I went, but it was a lot more crowded than usual. There's a lane by Vista Hill where I could usually just pull in parallel to the side of the road. Usually, there are only 2-3 cars max. During my last trip, that section was completely full with cars parked perpendicular to the roadway.


What Will They Do Next
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Jan 14, 2021 at 1:09 pm
What Will They Do Next, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Jan 14, 2021 at 1:09 pm

Charge non-residents $10 per person for entry or $25 per carload up to 4. Let's see if the crowds thin down.


Hulkamania
Registered user
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 14, 2021 at 1:59 pm
Hulkamania, Duveneck/St. Francis
Registered user
on Jan 14, 2021 at 1:59 pm
TimR
Registered user
Downtown North
on Jan 14, 2021 at 10:38 pm
TimR, Downtown North
Registered user
on Jan 14, 2021 at 10:38 pm

"On a recent holiday, this reporter who visited the park in the morning drove past a full parking lot before finding a parking spot along a meadow."

There is no legal parking that's "along a meadow" in Foothills Park. Sounds like This Reporter is part of the problem. Although, rangers have put up tape and impromptu fence posts to make things easier for people to understand that "no" means "no."


JB
Registered user
Evergreen Park
on Jan 14, 2021 at 11:08 pm
JB, Evergreen Park
Registered user
on Jan 14, 2021 at 11:08 pm

I really hope that they decrease the daily visitor limit to 500, closer to the daily limit before the crowds descended upon the park over the holidays. When I hiked there yesterday, I was shocked to see caution tape on the hillside above the lake. Apparently, people have been climbing these hills, something I have never seen in the 40 years that I have hiked in Foothills Park. Some people not familiar with the park are still hiking the wrong way on one-way trails. Can the city leave trail maps at the entrance, with the one-way trails clearly marked? Hopefully, instituting a yearly pass will help to reduce the crowds and help with the maintenance of the park. It would be good if low-income residents of Palo Alto could receive some sort of reduced yearly pass fee. I really love this park and want to protect the wildlife and make it possible for people to experience the beautiful serenity of this nature preserve.


Josie
Registered user
Charleston Meadows
on Jan 15, 2021 at 10:02 am
Josie, Charleston Meadows
Registered user
on Jan 15, 2021 at 10:02 am

I just moved to Palo Alto last week, after living on the Peninsula for 35 years, and find I can't even enjoy the benefits of Foothills Park! I'm not opposed to others enjoying the park; I just would like PA residents to continue to have priority access.

I feel a little like Woody Allen: "I wouldn't want to join any organization that would have me for a member."


Ramona Fernando
Registered user
Professorville
on Jan 15, 2021 at 1:35 pm
Ramona Fernando, Professorville
Registered user
on Jan 15, 2021 at 1:35 pm

I noticed that Hidden Villa has an online reservation system. The available blocks of time are 2 hours each and cost $10. I think both of those limitations are reasonable given the recent severe overcrowding.


R. Cavendish
Registered user
another community
on Jan 15, 2021 at 3:01 pm
R. Cavendish, another community
Registered user
on Jan 15, 2021 at 3:01 pm

quote: "Charge non-residents $10 per person for entry or $25 per carload up to 4. Let's see if the crowds thin down."

* the $10 single and $25 limited up to 4 fees seem a bit excessive given the concept behind opening up Foothills Park as per the ACLU and NAACP mandates.

To discriminate park entrance based on economic and potential non-affordability factors is akin to a poll tax.

Park guests receiving food stamps, aid to dependent children and supplemental social security benefits regardless of ethnicity should be granted a waiver on park entrance fees.


Don't miss out on the discussion!
Sign up to be notified of new comments on this topic.

Post a comment

In order to encourage respectful and thoughtful discussion, commenting on stories is available to those who are registered users. If you are already a registered user and the commenting form is not below, you need to log in. If you are not registered, you can do so here.

Please make sure your comments are truthful, on-topic and do not disrespect another poster. Don't be snarky or belittling. All postings are subject to our TERMS OF USE, and may be deleted if deemed inappropriate by our staff.

See our announcement about requiring registration for commenting.