Citing discrimination, Hills residents & others protest park’s exclusivity

Foothills Park
Benny Villarreal/Special to the Town Crier
A drone captures an image July 11 of the Foothills Park entrance, where protesters wrote “desegregate” in 10-foot-tall, washable chalk paint letters July 5 and then again on July 10. Led by Los Altos Hills resident Anjali Ramanathan, about 50 protesters marched into the park on July 11. They oppose a Palo Alto ordinance that makes it illegal for anyone other than residents of that city and their accompanied guests to enter the 1,400-acre preserve.

Each year, an estimated 2,800 people are turned away at the entrance to Foothills Park. As non-Palo Alto residents, a city ordinance makes it illegal for them to enter the 1,400-acre preserve.

Count Anjali Ramanathan among the rejected.

The Los Altos Hills resident lives just adjacent to the park, and its exclusivity has perpetually irked her, but it wasn’t until hearing East Palo Alto Mayor Regina Wallace-Jones speak during a June 6 Black Lives Matter protest in Palo Alto that Ramanathan decided to take action. She said Jones described Palo Alto’s past history of redlining, a method of segregation based on the refusal to issue mortgages to African Americans in certain neighborhoods.

“I started to think about why that ordinance bothered me so much, and it’s essentially that anytime we’re enforcing a residents-only policy with regards to a city that was formed out of racist housing policies, we’re essentially extending and reaffirming those racist housing policies of the past,” Ramanathan said.

The 2020 Nueva School graduate and 10 or so others worked by the light of a full moon July 5 to write “Desegregate” in 10-foot-tall, washable chalk paint letters in front of the park’s entrance. Rangers power-washed the message away the following day, but it returned a second time July 10, the night before Ramanathan and approximately 50 others marched into the preserve carrying signs with messages including “Sharing Is Caring” and “Free the Park!”

Among the group was Ryan McCauley, a Palo Alto resident who resigned from the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission June 23, a day after its city council voted 5-2, Mayor Adrian Fine and Councilwoman Alison Cormack dissenting, to strike from their agenda a scheduled discussion about potentially opening Foothills to nonresidents.

“As our Nation struggles to redress historic injustices, the City Council has sustained a policy that crudely discriminates by address and zip code, knowing that such discrimination disparately affects those whose racial and socioeconomic backgrounds do not match those of the typical Palo Altan. … I cannot abide the Council majority’s politically calculated inaction,” McCauley wrote in his resignation letter.

A history of exclusion

Foothills Park opened in 1965, seven years after Dr. Russel Lee, founder of the Palo Alto Medical Clinic, and his wife, Dorothy, sold the land to the city for approximately $1.3 million. The park’s entrance is technically located in Los Altos Hills, but nearly all of the preserve is contained within Palo Alto, and visitation has been restricted to Palo Alto residents and their accompanied guests from the start, much to the chagrin of some Hills residents.

Hills Mayor Michelle Wu said guards turned her away from the entrance when she first moved to town in the 1990s.

“In my perspective, it’s up to Palo Alto how they want to operate their parks, but I do think keeping it private, it does project a negative vibe around the neighboring community,” Wu said.

McCauley began researching the possibility of easing Foothills Park’s restrictions in 2016, the year he joined the Parks and Rec Commission. He said he was inspired by his work mentoring children in East Palo Alto, many of whom had little experience enjoying the Bay Area’s natural resources. In November 2019, commissioners unanimously agreed to recommend the council adopt a yearlong pilot program allowing up to 50 nonresidents a day to enter the park by paying a $6 fee. Attendance would be adjustable, with a focus on facilitating field trips for nonresident children, but Palo Alto residents’ access would remain a top priority, Commissioner Jeff LaMere assured his colleagues.

A June 18 letter to the Palo Alto City Council signed by McCauley, LaMere and more than 130 other local leaders, including U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo and State Sen. Jerry Hill, urged the council to repeal the ordinance and direct city staff and the commission to craft “a 21st-century policy that demonstrates Palo Alto’s commitment to equality, openness and resource protection.”

The council’s June 22 vote delaying discussion until after members reconvene in August followed. So did a letter from retired California Superior Court Judge LaDoris H. Cordell, a Palo Alto resident, to city attorney Molly Stump. Cordell cited case law suggesting the city’s ordinance is unconstitutional and threatened a lawsuit.

Palo Alto council members who voted for postponement said they did so due to an overloaded meeting agenda, which Councilwoman Lydia Kou, who made the motion, affirmed last week in an email to the Town Crier.

“The agenda item was deferred due to an overly aspirational City Council agenda,” Kou wrote. “It is just that.”

McCauley believes council members are simply stalling and that they hope to indefinitely put off what some consider a “politically toxic” issue.

Despite his resignation, he said he will continue to fight for reform. He dismissed concerns that opening the park will lead to its deterioration and pointed to historical data showing how attendance dropped from a high point of 370,000 people a year in the 1970s to approximately 150,000 people in recent years after the city temporarily instituted a $2-per-vehicle fee to fund improvements.

“I think while we are all sensitive to the concern about the park being over-loved in some respects, the reason that we should share it, from my perspective, is because it is a special place,” McCauley said. “And we shouldn’t hoard that special place. We should responsibly share it.”

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