Palo Alto debates costs, benefits of rehabbing El Camino Park

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Alcohol is allowed in Palo Alto's El Camino Park, making it less inviting for families.

In late June, Palo Alto’s Parks and Recreation Commission took a field trip to see the conditions at El Camino Park. They found a man passed out in the parking lot.

The lot sits between an often-empty softball diamond and a soccer field with chunks of grass missing and just one goal. You won’t find children playing in these fields, park regulars say. What you will find are men and women who socialize, and drink, near the decrepit bathroom and occasionally heckle athletes who play on the fields in adult recreational sports leagues.

“People feel like, I don’t want to have my kids’ soccer practice there because you never know what kind of person is going to be walking through,’” said Daria Walsh, chairwoman of the Parks and Recreation Commission. “They’ll be playing softball there and someone will be sleeping in the outfield.”

The commission wants to improve Palo Alto’s oldest park. At a Sept. 28 meeting, it agreed to ask the City Council to fund upgrades after the El Camino Park Reservoir Project, which will place an emergency supply of water under the fields, is complete. The atmosphere can be made more inviting, commission members said, by adding lights and walking paths; creating areas for kids to ride bikes and pet lovers to stroll with their dogs; and installing better fences and a new bathroom.

Such attractions would draw families to the 12-acre park, and their presence would make everyone feel more safe, Walsh said.  “More of a presence there might be a good thing,” she added.

The park, established in 1914 off El Camino Real, is across the street from the Stanford Shopping Center. Because it is on Stanford University property and not city land, El Camino is the only park in Palo Alto where open alcoholic containers are allowed by law. “I love this park because [it’s] the only one  I know of in Palo Alto where I am allowed to drink,” said Gary Goslein Jr., a park visitor interviewed on a recent day.

So far, city officials have not identified money for the improvements and point out that economic times are very tight. “One of the things we want to make sure is that even if we don’t get the funds for this, that we at least put  in the infrastructure that will allow us to do improvements to the area later,” said the Park Commission’s Walsh.

Until funding becomes available, adults who play in softball leagues at El Camino say they still have plenty of fun on the fields.

“When I was a little kid, they were tearing down parks and building convalescent hospitals, so I was always really worried that this park was going to get torn down,” said John Foster, a Palo Alto native who plays in the softball league. “Like when I heard they were going to put the reservoir here, I was like, ‘Uh oh, is that the end of the park?’ I was quite happy to hear that the park was going to remain.”

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