Family lore has it that on a winter day in 1948, my father, Ashley Chapman, drove my mother from Palo Alto to Los Altos to show her the lot near Covington Road where he planned to build their home. My mother looked around with concern. “Oh, dear,” she said. “I’m not sure we want to live this far out in the country.”
My folks often laughed about this. For the rest of their lives, they lived on that quiet street in that country atmosphere, while the valley around them boomed and sprawled.
Maintaining the feel of out-of-city life was the prime objective for the incorporation of Los Altos in 1952. A planned high-density subdivision off Almond Avenue provided the impetus. As Los Altos leader A. Watson Connor told the Palo Alto Times: “We want to incorporate to keep from becoming a city.”
That vision continues to inform Los Altos. Large lots provide open space. Height restrictions mean that we can still see the hills. Civic landscaping of the 1950s gave us an enviable downtown tree canopy that brings both beauty and shade. Homes have changed, but they still sport the unpretentious rural mailboxes that recall our city’s past.
The forces of uber development have never gone away. As residents can see in the controversial project that now blocks the sunlight from reaching the sidewalks of First Street, these interests are resourceful and persistent. Our city’s founders have retired and gone to their rest. The pressure to build bigger, cheaper, higher and denser has oozed back into our city life.
Which leads me to the enormous project that would be funded by the Measure A bond. If approved, this would be the largest and most expensive city project in Los Altos history. We are asked to vote on it without the benefit of a single architectural sketch. According to the Environmental Impact Report, it would require the removal of 192 mature trees, including two ancient oaks across from the library.
J. Gilbert Smith planted an apricot orchard on that land in the early 20th century. Fifty years later, architect Frank Lloyd Wright walked it with the city’s founders. As historian Joseph Salameda told the Town Crier in 1977, it was Wright who urged them to buy it – both for its beauty and its heritage. For our entire history, this unique acreage Wright championed has remained a walkable, open, low-impact fusion of city life and green parkland.
Before we denude it of trees, fill it with hardscape or surround any of it with fences, we need to stop and think. The first generation of Los Altos citizens left a remarkable legacy to the future. I hope we shall do the same.
Robin Chapman is a journalist and Los Altos native.