By Kiet Do

PALO ALTO (KPIX) — Opening ‘locals only’ Foothills Park to the public was a popular move. In less than a month, the park is packed with visitors. The Palo Alto City Council is set to consider imposing entrance fees in response to large crowds that have filled the park to capacity since it opened to the public on December 17, 2020.

According to a staff report, the park reached its 750-person limit several times a day, over the Christmas and New Year’s holiday weekends. Rangers closed off the parking lot, waited for visitors to exit, then reopened the park, repeating the cycle multiple times. On these high attendance days, an average of 400 vehicles were turned away.

The report said vehicles and cyclists traveling narrow roads, and crowding at attractions near the entrance resulted in visitors “walking in inappropriate locations causing damage to natural areas and creating potentially unsafe conditions for pedestrians and bicyclists”.

Visitation on the weekend before Christmas 2020 was 4,081 visitors, compared to 688 visitors in the same weekend in 2019.

In a recent visit on December 29, a line of vehicles wrapped around the block.

The staff report recommended “an entry fee as a revenue source to help offset park maintenance costs and a way to keep visitation at a manageable level”, and proposed several pricing options:

$6 to $10 daily vehicle entrance fee(applies to Palo Alto residents and non-residents)
$65 to $80 annual pass for non-Palo Alto residents with a 25% discount for either seniors or low-income
$50 to $60 annual pass for Palo Alto residents with a 25% discount for either seniors or low-income
Free entry for pedestrians and bikes
Free entry for people coming to volunteer in the park that day

The report stated “the resident rate cannot be more than 25 percent less than the corresponding non-Palo Alto resident rate.”

The park, founded in the 1960s, had been restricted only to Palo Alto residents, but was forced to open after a lawsuit from the ACLU, NAACP, and multiple plaintiffs alleged the restrictions were racist and unconstitutional.

Don McDougall, former Parks and Recreation Commissioner for the City of Palo Alto and a co-plaintiff on the lawsuit, criticized the report for its short timeframe of observations, arguing the current purple-tier stay-at-home order likely caused a spike in attendance.

“This is not a data driven decision, this is a reactionary decision. They should collect some data for a while and then decide what to do,” said McDougall.

According to the report, a “$6, $8, or $10 vehicle entry fee and a 500 person at any one time capacity limit, the approximate annual revenue would be $350,000, $433,000, $500,000 respectively”. The annual cost to operate and maintain the park is $1,530,000.

“If it’s to offset costs, the $6 fee is perfectly appropriate, it does not bother me, the annual fee rates are appropriate. If the purpose is to keep people out, the fee is inappropriate,” said McDougall. “I accept that they’re doing it in good faith. If in fact there’s a subsequent council meeting that changes that fee to something larger than a $6 that we recommended in the first place from the commission, then I would say it’s in bad faith.”

The specter of a $10 daily entrance fee was met with mixed reviews.

“If you charge $10 that only opens it up to specific crowds. If you really want to make it open to everyone, you can’t really do that,” said visitor Mikey Corn.

Praxedo Gacrama, whose hourly wage is about $10 after taxes, agreed with the new entrance fees, saying it would encourage good behavior among visitors.

“That is a lot of money,” said Gacrama. “ But you can still look at it as a way that you’re helping the community.”

Mayor Tom Dubois did not respond to a request for comment.

The Palo Alto City Council will consider the report at its next meeting on January 19, 2021.