Nearly a month after Palo Alto opened the once exclusive Foothills Park to the broader public, city leaders are preparing to adopt new restrictions on Tuesday to curb the sudden onrush of visitors.
Spurred by reports of overfilled parking lots, crowded roads and hikers strolling off trails, the Palo Alto City Council is preparing to consider new restrictions for visiting the pristine 1,400-acre nature preserve off Page Mill Road.
The discussion follows a month in which the park has seen a significant increase in visitors, a trend that was precipitated by the council's decision in November to abolish a contentious 1965 law that restricted entrance to nonresidents.
Palo Alto city staff had estimated that 4,081 visited the park the weekend before Christmas, roughly six times what it was on the same day the prior year. Parking lots now fill up quickly in the morning, requiring visitors to drive along park roads, where they share space with bicyclists and pedestrians. And residents who have long frequented the park say they've seen extra trash in the park and more people straying off its paths.
In response to the surge in visitors, the city abruptly announced that it will keep the entrance gates to Foothills Park closed between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. on days when the park reaches its limit of 750 visitors at any one time. While this has initially applied to weekend days and holidays, when crowds hit peak levels, the closures also will be implemented on weekdays going forward, if the number of visitors reaches the 750-person limit, Meghan Taylor-Horrigan, the city's chief communication officer, told this news organization.
The closure "seeks to reduce … traffic and parking challenges seen during the first three weeks of opening the park to everyone," Horrigan-Taylor said in an email.
Horrigan-Taylor said the city will soon be introducing new tools to manage crowds, including automated vehicle-counting technology and a public website that states whether the visitor cap has been reached and if the entrance closure is in effect.
"This will provide an improved visitor experience and increase access as visitation ebbs and flows," she wrote.
The council will consider on Tuesday additional measures, including lowering the cap to 500 people at any one time and instituting a parking fee. A report from the Community Services Department recommends a $6 fee, consistent with what parks in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties charge. The staff report also includes a proposal for an annual pass, which would cost between $50 and $60 for Palo Alto residents and between $65 and $85 for nonresidents. There would be free entry for pedestrians, bicyclists and volunteers coming in to maintain the park.
The recent increase in visitors could be partially attributed to high publicity that Foothills Park has garnered in recent months, as the council struggled to come up with new policies for expanding access to the scenic preserve. After initially approving a pilot program in August that would allow up to 50 nonresidents into the park daily, the council then moved in November to abolish the 1965 law and open the park to all as part of its settlement with a coalition of plaintiffs that sued the city, a group that included the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP.
On a recent holiday, this reporter who visited the park in the morning drove past a full parking lot before finding a parking spot along a meadow. By noon that day, dozens of hikers, a few runners and several families walked near some of the park's most visible areas, including Boronda Lake, which is near various trailheads. Further away from the trailhead, along Los Trancos Trail, there were fewer people, little noise and no signs of damage to the environment.
In addition to the park's recent publicity, other conditions also helped to drive up the visitation numbers, City Manager Ed Shikada told the council last week.
"We've had perfect weather for visiting Foothills Park and also perhaps people with time on their hands and a desire to get outdoors, which combined to really stretch our ability to manage through," Shikada said. "Staff is continuing to test options for metering access to make sure visitor experience is as positive as possible."
Some Palo Alto residents are calling for more urgent action. Alexey Blokhin, who hikes at Foothills Park, emailed the council photos of people walking off trails and said that his 5-year-old son was nearly hit by a speeding car on a recent visit.
"I'm not even mentioning the garbage that is everywhere now, both plastic and glass bottles, masks everywhere on trails," Blokhin stated in his email.
Resident Patti J. Walters reported that during a recent visit to the park, she saw children riding bikes on the grass at Boronda Lake and adults "cutting across the embankments to the right side of the lake."
"Approaching the picnic area, we found an opportunity to turn around and leave the chaotic situation. We could not wait to leave the park," Walters wrote.
Jill O'Nan, a former member of the city's Human Relations Commission, told the council that since the expanded access, people with disabilities, like herself, now have a hard time visiting the park, which has no parking spots designated for handicapped visitors. She called the opening of the park "disastrous" and asserted that Palo Alto residents with lower incomes who were once able to visit the park are no longer able to do so.
"What we have now is not access for all, by any stretch. We do not have social justice," O'Nan said. "What we have instead implemented is a plantation-style system of economic exploitation where low-income people like me and my neighbors are expected to pay for a recreational area for rich people who live up the hill from us."
She requested that the council promptly close the park down and mitigate the "destructive damage" that visitors are causing to the park.
Others, however, lauded the council for taking an action that city officials have been debating for decades.
"I truly believe that Palo Alto has finally done the right and good deed by opening Foothills Park to all," resident Meghan Galloway wrote to the council. "I believe parks belong to all of us and that excluding other cities was elitist and racist in implication."