Mayor wants to change Palo Alto law that excludes non-residents from park

There are growing demands to open a public open space that’s exclusive to City of Palo Alto residents. Nonresidents have been turned away because of a longstanding city ordinance.

Many people want the rule abolished including the mayor, calling it discriminatory. Others want to preserve Palo Alto’s environmental roots.

Foothills Park in Palo Alto has been described as breathtaking and serene. However, the beauty of the 1,400-acre natural preserve off Page Mill Road has been marred with controversy for who can enter and cannot enter.

“This is an issue of ethics and morals,” said Palo Alto Mayor Adrian Fine. “There is a right thing here and the right thing is to open up this park.”

Palo Alto’s mayor among those who want the park to be open to all. As it stands, only Palo Altans can enter the main gate on weekends. Visitors have conditions which include being accompanied by someone who lives in Palo Alto. They can also visit on the weekday or walk in a different route.

The city purchased the park in 1959 and the ordinance has been in place since then.

“At the time, when the city purchased the land that is this park, the City of Palo Alto was engaging in racist housing policies including redlining and blockbusting that were essentially designed to keep Palo Alto white,” said Organizer Anjali Ramanathan.

For that reason, many people see the park restrictions as discriminatory.

“I don't see the racism in it but it’s unfortunate that has been brought to this conversation instead of actually focusing on the systemic racism that exists,” said Lydia Kou, Palo Alto city councilwoman.

“My grandfather was in internment camps,” said Greg Tanaka, Palo Alto city councilman. “He died during World War Two. My dad came out of the camps fatherless so I understand when there’s explicit racism.”

Some councilmembers argue entrance has nothing to do with race. Councilman Tanaka said at the time of purchase surrounding wealthy cities including Los Altos Hills didn’t want to pay for the park. He cites costly maintenance and the city’s affinity to the environment.

“Palo Alto has been a leader in climate change and climate protection so a lot of people want to make sure the park remains pristine,” said Tanaka.

Last week, city leaders approved a pilot program to allow nonresidents to buy permits and for the issue to go before the voters in two years. The mayor doesn’t believe civil rights should be put to a vote.

“I think people see it as a Palo Alto perk and that’s ok,” said Fine. “I think we can maintain it as a great perk in Palo Alto and share it with our neighbors and it won't harm anyone.”

The mayor said it’s a misdemeanor for nonresidents to enter. A study was done last year and found 3,000 visitors were turned away a year. Councilwoman Kou said the city shares 37 other parks and open space areas without restrictions.