Foothills Park Opens to All for First Time Since 1965

A public park that for decades restricted access to residents of Palo Alto is now free for everyone else to enjoy, too.

The Dec. 17 opening settles a lawsuit brought against the Silicon Valley city by the ACLU of Northern California on behalf of the San Jose-Silicon Valley chapter of the NAACP and denizens of Palo Alto and neighboring communities, who called the residents-only rule a remnant of the city’s long history of racist housing discrimination.

While the Unruh Civil Rights Act of 1959 outlawed housing discrimination from mortgage brokers and property managers, a 1971 survey by the Midpeninsula Citizens for Fair Housing revealed that racial exclusion remained widespread for decades to follow.

At the time, 58 percent of the city’s large apartment complexes showed evidence of discrimination, as they would claim that no units were available to potential renters who were Black, but then would offer those same spaces to white tenants.

The legacy of redlining and subsequent forms of housing discrimination has kept the Black population in Palo Alto low. Even now, African-Americans make up just 2 percent of the city’s 67,000 residents.

When the city adopted the policy to limit park access to residents of the majority-white city, it enforced the rule by threatening jail time or up to $1,000 fines. The ACLU lawsuit filed this past year against Palo Alto claimed the policy infringed on people’s civil rights.

Last month, the City Council enshrined public access to the 1,400-acre park in an ordinance that critics tried but failed to stop by a referendum petition, which fell short of collecting the 2,600 signatures needed by Dec. 16.

Plaintiff and ex-Councilor LaDoris Cordell expressed relief that the petition had failed.

“The fact that there weren’t 2,500 Palo Altans willing to sign a referendum petition is great news,” she said in a press release. “It means that, as we come to the close of a very dark year, our community has chosen inclusion over exclusion. I am thrilled to know that the park’s entry restrictions are now a thing of the past.”

On Thursday, Mayor Adrian Fine celebrated the reopening, noting that he went for a picnic and walk in the nature preserve and that the residents-only sign was already gone.

“It’s 2020 and I’m really glad Palo Alto could make this move,” he tweeted. “I’m sorry it took us a lawsuit to get here.”

5 Comments

  1. No other word for this policy but

    Shameful

    I don’t care who is responsible, Dems or GOP

    ACLU doing something right again after a long streak of stupid

  2. Great news for EPA folks and other cities. However, I know two dudes who work at the little station at the front gate. They mentioned to me that they are short staff and four of them are part time employees. Now, open to all it is gonna tough to keep the park clean and enforce rules. I wonder doesn’t the city manager and mayor don’t see that and hire more employees or make those part time, a full time.

  3. The author is conflating unsubstantiated racism as the basis for the exclusive use by residents. Unruh was passed in 1959 – far before the Foothill’s 1965 residents-only restriction. Lacking historical documents, the racism claim is unsupported speculation.

    I can see an argument that non-residents be charged an admission fee or a higher fee than residents as is commonplace at other public venues.

  4. The neighboring cities were asked to contribute to the purchase price of the property and refused. That’s why the “resident’s only” policy was instituted. It may have had a disparant impact but it did not have a racist intent. How about a little research into the subject? “Most of the land for the park was bought from Russel V. Lee, a founder of the Palo Alto Medical Clinic (now Palo Alto Medical Foundation), who offered, in 1958, 1,294 acres of his land at $1,000 an acre ($1.3 million total) to the city to preserve as open space.[11] The total cost was high so Palo Alto put it to a citywide vote in 1959 which passed with 62% of the voters supporting buying the land. The council also asked the neighboring communities of Portola Valley and Los Altos Hills to share in the cost, but they declined. Santa Clara County offered to cover about 40% of the cost ($500,000) in 1964, on the condition that the park be opened to all, but Palo Alto declined.[12]:16 The park opened on June 19, 1965, and the restriction limiting access to Palo Alto residents and their guests was put into place in 1969.[13]:1 In 2005, the county provided $2 million in grant funding to go towards the purchase of 13 additional acres of adjacent land, in exchange for which Palo Alto allowed anyone (nonresidents included) to freely pass through that area and enter Foothills Park, on trails from Arastradero Preserve.[13]:2 It is a misdemeanor for a nonresident to enter the park, unless they are traveling through on specific trails on foot.”