I stopped by the main branch of the Los Altos Library recently to do some research. What I found outside the building almost made me forget to go in. The mustard surrounding our civic center heritage orchard is in glorious bloom. We, the citizens of Los Altos, own this land. Stroll by. This golden assault on the senses lasts for just a few short weeks.
Now, we learn of the Los Altos School District’s proposal to take our civic center as a site for a new school. The orchard – named a City Historic Landmark in 1981 – would be cut down, our civic buildings razed. It seems incomprehensible.
Yet in recent years, we have witnessed a number of attempts like this one. In 2009, a plan for a new civic center failed, perhaps in part because its Environmental Impact Report conceded: “The project would result in a significant unavoidable impact due to the loss of the historic apricot orchard.” There was a proposal in 2015 to turn Rosita Park into a school and another to turn our tree-lined parking plazas into office space. They were defeated. But city lots at Main and First streets, purchased in 1996 for public parking, were sold for a private project.
Now we face this. Our city’s first historian, Joseph Salameda, would be stunned. In 1972 he wrote: “A unanimous policy (was) made in the formative days of our city’s organization to preserve a representative stand of the orchard, which Gilbert Smith set out at the turn of the century, on the site of the present-day Civic Center. The policy will make it possible to experience the delights of an orchard of the past … increasingly difficult under the valley’s urbanization.”
The orchard is on the county’s Inventory of Historical Landmarks, the county Heritage Resource Inventory and the State Park’s Office of Historic Preservation Points of Interest. The orchard’s landmark status, along with the Smith House, won a county Historical Heritage Commission Award for Excellence in 1978.
This is not enough. The scarcity of Los Altos civic land makes it so valuable that it is now like a chocolate buffet at a convention of dieters. We, as citizens, need to take the sugar off the table.
First, the civic center – including Hillview Community Center and the apricot orchard – must be preserved as Los Altos Heritage Orchard Park and given protection by statute. Then, all the land owned by our citizens should be placed in a public trust. This property is unique, precious and nonfungible.
Just as the mustard in our heritage orchard glistens in the sunlight for only a short time, our own season is short. It is now urgent that we protect our history and our values, beyond this time, for the generations yet to come.
Robin Chapman is a Los Altos native and author of “California Apricots: the Lost Orchards of Silicon Valley.”