When Palo Alto expanded access to Foothills Park in December 2020, nature lovers leapt at the chance to visit the pristine preserve, which was formerly limited to the city's residents and their visitors.
According to city staff, about 202,000 visitors went to what is now known as Foothills Nature Preserve in 2022, about 40% more than the historic average. Whether families gathering by Boronda Lake, sightseers snapping photos on Vista Hill, runners huffing along Los Trancos Trail or picnickers congregating at the Oak Grove area, the nature preserve has seen a boost in popularity.
More visitors, however, also means more demand for parking, more speeding vehicles and more pedestrians straying off the official paths and into sensitive areas, according to city staff.
These problems are at the heart of Palo Alto's latest improvement project at Foothills Nature Preserve, an effort that includes new crosswalks and stop signs, increased fencing along trails and reconfigured parking at Boronda Lake and Vista Hill.
The plan has been in the works for more than two years, a product of meetings by a stakeholder group that included, among others, the nonprofits organizations Grassroots Ecology, Friends of Foothills Park, and the Stanford University Haas Center for Public Service. The Parks and Recreation Commission, which discussed the improvements at its meeting Tuesday night, Aug. 22, also had two representatives on the group.
Daren Anderson, assistant director in the Community Services Department, said the recent uptick in visitations has underscored the need for improving safety conditions in the preserve, where drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists are currently forced to share relatively narrow roads.
Staff are also concerned about the number of people walking off trails, a problem that they've tried to solve by installing temporary barriers.
While these stakes and ropes proved somewhat effective, Anderson said the city needs a long-term way to protect the sensitive areas.
"We need real split rail that stays up and fits in aesthetically," Anderson said.
A key component in the package of improvements is a creation of a new pedestrian path that will stretch from the west end of the nature preserve to the east and roughly run along the length of the existing road.
The path would go from the Oak Grove Picnic Area in the west to Lake Boronda in the east, according to a map provided by the city. A separate path, just north Boronda Lake, would allow pedestrians to easily walk from the lake to Vista Hill in the north part of the preserve.
Peter Jensen, landscape architect with the Public Works Department, said the goal is to "create a defined and continuous pathway" through the park,
"Right now, mostly people who are walking through it go down the road and it's just not setting up the best circumstances," Jensen said at the meeting.
Most of the changes center on the area around Boronda Lake, which is the most popular parking area in the park. In addition to installing the split-rail fencing and making two new pathways that will connect the lake to Vista Hill and Oak Grove Picnic Area, the city is preparing to create a parking lot near the northern portion of the lake with 19 stalls.
Because this lot would be set back from the main entry points to the lake, a pathway will be added to make pedestrian access easier.
The new lots will replace most of the parking spots that previously existed along the side of the road but that the city has eliminated in the past two years to improve safety and protect sensitive areas.
The new configuration would take the total number of parking spots from 355 to 360 spaces, though that's still shy of the roughly 400 spots that existed before 2020.
According to a report from Anderson, most of the parking reductions occurred at the entrance to the preserve and in areas where the road is too narrow to accommodate parking.
Other components of the new Foothills plan aim to slow down cars. The city plans to paint crosswalks and put up stop signs near Boronda Lake. It will also install speed bumps along the main road, in areas where long straightaways make the roads inviting for speeders.
One such area, west of Boronda Lake, will also see new curbs dividing the road from the pedestrian path.
"I think this is going to really aid and address that speeding-vehicle issue," Anderson said of the various traffic-calming measures.
The commission broadly supported the proposal, which will still require City Council approval before the city goes out to bid on a contractor.
Some members proposed other ideas, including stricter time limitations on parking at Vista Hill and other high-traffic areas and narrowing of some road. But the commission generally agreed that the approach proposed by the stakeholder group and adopted by staff will improve conditions in the nature preserve.
"I look at this as a little bit of an investment to maintain that natural environment with the increased visitation, knowing it's part of a multi-pronged approach," Vice Chair Amanda Brown said. "We have these physical changes, but it is also complemented by the education and enforcement done by our park ranger staff, and we appreciate that."
Commissioner Anne Cribbs, who had previously served on the Foothills stakeholder group, concurred and encouraged the city to also consider improvements to the Interpretive Center at the preserve.
She lauded the efforts by environmental advocates and city officials in advancing the proposed improvements, which the city plans to implement over the next year.
"It's really wonderful to see this come from where it started and the work that has been done by so many people — the stakeholders and the community," Cribbs said.
Chair Jeff Greenfield, a member of the stakeholder group, also supported the plan, though he noted that the removal of roadside parking near Boronda Lake will require some visitors to do a little more walking after they park.
"We'll provide more parking for people overall but it's not quite as convenient as in the past," Greenfield said. "I expect there will be some frustration for visitors who were able to park at the edge of the lake but not anymore."