A pristine park in the Palo Alto foothills has been a recreational refuge reserved for residents and their escorted guests for the past 55 years. Many have also spent that time resisting efforts to open its hilly hiking trails, picturesque lake and panoramic views to everyone.
But the Palo Alto City Council, under growing pressure from social justice advocates who call the policy discriminatory, has agreed to try cracking open the gate, allowing as many as 50 outsiders a day to enter Foothills Park and to possibly place a measure on the 2022 ballot asking voters if they want to let an unlimited number of non-residents use the park.
Advocates for opening the park to all say that’s neither a sincere nor strong enough statement at a time when the nation is working to right the wrongs of the past and combat systematic racism and social injustice. And now they’re raising the specter of a lawsuit to make that happen.
“It’s time to make this park inclusive and we’re going to make it happen,” LaDoris Cordell, a former city councilwoman and retired judge told The Chronicle. “We will see them in court.”
For all its tranquility and pastoral beauty, Foothills Park has become a divisive issue in Palo Alto, a community whose residents tend to think of themselves as progressive. Occasional efforts to open access to the park failed to gain support over the years, gradually fading away. But over the past year, social justice advocates revived the campaign, and it’s gained support with the increased focus on racial inequities and systemic injustice in the wake of George Floyd’s killing.
The City Council moved toward opening access to the park on Aug. 3 after more than three hours of discussion and debate during a virtual meeting. On a 5-2 vote, the council voted for a one-year pilot program admitting a limited number of non-residents who pay a fee.
But they made that contingent on a ballot measure putting the park access issue before voters in 2022. Another condition: changing the park’s name to the “Foothills Nature Preserve” to highlight the area’s ecological delicacy and a requirement that the pilot program cover its own costs.
Mayor Adrian Fine and Councilwoman Alison Cormack, who favor opening the park to non-residents, voted against the proposal because of those conditions. Describing access to Foothills Park as a matter of civil rights, Fine said the name-change and the cost issue would only reinforce the park’s exclusivity.
“You don’t take a civil rights issue and put it on the ballot,” he said.
Renaming the park is an “eco-fascist argument that intends to undermine civil rights concerns,” Fine said. Some of those who want to keep the park a residents-only enclave argue that opening up the park would cause damage to a sensitive environment. Fine also objected to the requiring the pilot program to cover its costs, which would likely include hiring staff.
“None of our parks are cost-neutral,” he said, describing the conditions “as an effort to disable and make the pilot fail.”
Before the pilot program and other provisions become law, the city council must vote on the proposal again, at an Aug. 17 session. The new access program would start late this year or early next year.
Cordell, a leader in the effort to open the park — evidently the state’s sole residents-only park — called the city council’s Aug. 3 actions a ruse. It was, she said, an effort to stave off the campaign to allow everyone to use the park. With others who favor opening park access, she’s formed a group called Parks for All that is contemplating legal action.
“After last week’s council vote to maintain the status quo at Foothills Park, we must demand that Palo Alto put itself on the right side of history,” the group tweeted on Monday.
At last week’s council meeting, advocates for preserving the park’s residents-only status said they were concerned about increased numbers of park-goers trampling its grasses, littering and increasing fire danger. They bristled at allegations that restricting access is racist or inequitable and said limiting access to residents is only fair since Palo Alto taxpayers alone bought the park and pay for its rangers and entry monitors.
“To frame this issue as racism, segregation or social injustice is an insult to every resident of Palo Alto,” said resident Mark Nadin. “This city is one of the most progressive in the nation.”
The park’s no-outsiders law dates back to the 1950s and1960s — when housing discrimination still prevented Black families from buying homes in Palo Alto. When the owners of the 1,400 acre hillside property offered to sell it to Palo Alto in 1959, the city asked neighboring cities to participate in the purchase, but they declined. So, Palo Alto decided to restrict access to the park to residents after it opened in 1965.
Attempts to overturn the ordinance were made in the 1970s, again in the 1990s and most recently in 2005. This time, however, Cordell believes they’ll be successful.
“The time is now,” she said.
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