Less than a month after Foothills Park in Palo Alto opened to the general public, its Page Mill Road parking lot contained nary a vehicle Saturday afternoon. A long line of orange cones marked and blocked the entrance. A representative from the Palo Alto Police Department turned away every car, van and SUV.
Overwhelming demand since Dec. 17, when admittance to the 1,400-acre preserve bordering Los Altos Hills extended to nonresidents, has forced the city to limit access on weekends. That’s typically the busiest part of the week. The new rules commenced Saturday, a day when sunny skies and relatively warm temperatures tempted many Bay Area residents to seek outdoor recreation.
“When Foothills Park reaches capacity the entrance to Foothills Park will close (typically around 10 a.m.) and stay closed until 3 p.m.,” according to an announcement on the city’s website. “Pedestrians and bikers may enter the park as long as they are not parked illegally.”
As of approximately 2 p.m. Saturday, vehicles occupied nearly every Page Mill Road turnout immediately south of the park entrance.
The new measures are necessary due to high visitation rates noted thus far on weekends and on holidays, the announcement stated.
“This temporary step is to help manage the number of visitors in the park at one time and provide a safe, enjoyable and consistent experience to parkgoers,” it reads. “Signs will be posted at Page Mill and Arastradero Road when it is closed so that visitors driving are notified of the closure.”
Prior to Dec. 17, a city ordinance restricted admittance to Palo Alto residents and their guests only. On Nov. 2, however, Palo Alto city council members voted 5-2 to approve a new ordinance allowing everyone. They faced pressure from an American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Northern California lawsuit alleging violations of nonresidents’ First Amendment rights of travel, speech and assembly. They also faced criticism from members of neighboring communities, including some in Los Altos Hills, who characterized the long-standing residents-only policy as an attempt to block minority populations, particularly those from East Palo Alto.
In the months leading up to the council’s decision, former Palo Alto Mayor Leland Levy proved a vocal supporter of extending equal access to all. Welcoming everyone, he said, is “fair and proper” and in keeping with how neighboring communities manage their open spaces.
Levy has not visited Foothills recently, but he has noticed more activity in the area when cycling nearby.
“‘Crowded’ is not the right word,” Levy said last week. “‘Used’ is the right word. And as a matter of fact, the city staff that supervises the park has laid out conditions of usage and is monitoring usage so that it will not be used to a degree that could have environmental impact.”
Palo Alto’s new ordinance contains language about limiting visitation to 750 people at a time during the first 90 days and to 1,000 people after that.
City council members Lydia Kou and Greg Tanaka cast the two “no” votes against the new park ordinance and stated they wished to honor their constituents’ preference to preserve the park’s exclusivity.
When reached by the Town Crier last week, Kou said she has not visited Foothills since Dec. 17, but she has heard from others who have.
“I will not contribute to the potential traffic congestion, parking issues and compromise health and safety during the pandemic and potentially spread this deadly disease,” Kou wrote in an email to the Town Crier. “There have been emails to the Council informing us of the poor planning of the opening, the loss of a sanctuary to nature and animals and the destruction of fauna and flora. I had reports of people and children chasing and scaring animals and sightings of drones.”
Daren Anderson, division manager of Palo Alto Open Space, Parks and Golf, and a spokeswoman for the city, did not respond to multiple Town Crier inquiries related to the status of the park last week.
City council members are scheduled to discuss proposals to levy vehicle entrance fees, adjust park capacity limits and impose a reservation system at their virtual meeting Tuesday. Los Altos Hills city officials are encouraging Hills residents negatively impacted by the park policy change to participate. View the agenda here.