A tangle of restrictions and costs led many at Tuesday's City Council meeting to denounce plans for a new mini-park near Fayette Drive.
The site for the future park is a vacant cracked asphalt stretch between El Camino Real and Fayette Drive, just west of the San Antonio CVS drugstore. City officials have long envisioned using the property as a passive-use park and trail, but the narrow corridor is currently fenced off to the public by its owner, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC), due to underground water pipes from the Hetch Hetchy aqueduct. Mountain View receives 90 percent of its water from SFPUC.
Mountain View agreed to a number of concessions under a proposed deal with the utility, which took about three years to negotiate. The terms bar city workers from planting any trees at the park, and obligates the city to remove dozens more trees along SFPUC land in Mountain View. City officials would also agree to shoulder the water district's liabilities, maintenance costs and property taxes for the new park, as well as for seven other utility-owned properties in the city. But what really infuriated the council and the public was an ironclad restriction barring any bicycles from the future park.
Many pointed out this rule flew in the face of the united efforts by Bay Area agencies to encourage bike riding, and it ruined one of the city's main goals for the mini-park.
"This is a travesty," blasted local resident Greg Unangst at the Feb. 2 meeting. "We have a beautiful right of way through our city that we can't utilize. It makes no sense."
City leaders for the most part agreed with that assessment, and explanations from water district officials did little to clear up the matter. Speaking by teleconference, SFPUC attorney Rosanna Russell said the agency had previously encountered problems with developers building trails with poor connectivity. For now, the district is taking a "pause" on allowing smaller trails, but there was the possibly more public use could be allowed in the future, she said.
"We're not against bike trails," Russell assured. "We're not saying no forever; We're saying we'd prefer bike trails in a certain form."
Whatever the reasoning, council members pointed out that the bike restriction made zero sense. Calling the deal "repugnant," Mayor Pat Showalter, who works as a water utility engineer, said it was infeasible for bicycles to put enough load on a trail to jeopardize an underground water pipe.
"I was really appalled that the (public utility commission's) rights of way should be so closed off," she said. "We have an excellent track record of working with trail owners."
In response, Russell pointed out that many utilities completely forbid the public from using their land. On the other hand, few utilities own as much land as the SFPUC, which controls 66,000 acres of watersheds and about 2,700 miles of pipeline right of ways.
The San Francisco utility has long been accused of dragging its heels when it comes to public recreation. Further up the Peninsula, for more than a century the water district has closed off 23,000 acres of open space surrounding the Crystal Springs Reservoir. Over the years, the public agency has come under increasing pressure to open more of its land for recreational use, but it has avoided fully opening a completed trail system to the public.
Given the utility's severe limits on any new Mountain View park, some city leaders suggested it would be better to jettison the whole deal. Councilman Lenny Siegel made clear he was ready to reject the park until a better compromise could be reached.
"It's not like we're trying to get unilateral authority to build trails," he said. "To me, this is an inconsistency in how they're handling this."
In their report, city staff members broke from the typical impartiality and noted they were "disappointed" with the deal, but they had little leverage to haggle. This was the best deal the city could hope for, said City Manager Dan Rich.
"I'll be honest that we've been frustrated with this process, but if we want to proceed with anything at Fayette, this is best deal we have," he said.
The council approved the deal in a 4-3 vote, with Siegal, Showalter and Councilman John Inks opposed. City staff said the council would be presented with plans for the future park at an upcoming meeting.
As part of the deal, the city agreed to sign new licenses, not just for the Fayette property but also for all other SFPUC parcels currently in use at Rengstorff Park, Klein Park, Rex Manor Park, the Senior Garden, Whisman Park and other sites. For all those sites, the city agreed to remove a total of 27 trees and perform regular maintenance, including mowing, weeding and cleaning garbage, at a cost of about $117,500 per year. The city would also pay about $34,000 in annual property taxes for them.
The deal would last initially for 10 years, but the water district stipulated that it could terminate it at any time without cause.