Wednesday, February 22, 2012

New Asphalt, or An Old Orchard?

The grounds of the Los Altos City Hall, with our library in the distance.

I've been to two presentations now on the plans for a new $81M city hall, police station and community center for my hometown, Los Altos, California. The presentations are excellent as are the plans.

And then, yesterday, I had to run an errand that took me by our City Hall. The apricot trees are not yet in bloom, but the spring sunshine has brought out the wild mustard. The acreage is so beautiful--at all times of year--and it is especially beautiful in the spring.

It continues to astonish me that any group of local residents who sat around drawing up plans for a new civic center, would not have retained some of this striking apricot orchard in their plans. It has been a landmark as you drive into our town since we've been a town.

The orchard is one of the last of the many that used to line the road into our town. In the distance lie the Santa Cruz Mountains.

If you had the power--wouldn't you want to build around something as beautiful as this?

I had heard there was a covenant on the land, so I went to the Santa Clara County Recorder's office in San Jose about a month ago to find out about the sale of the property to the city in 1954.  In those days the records were written by hand, and by date of sale, so my eyes had just about glassed over when I finally found the one I was looking for.  Wouldn't you know the man who owned the orchard had the last name of Smith, and wouldn't you know the sale was one of the last recorded that year--December 22, 1954.

Gilbert Smith sold the property to the City of Los Altos for $1.00, with the proviso that he retained a life interest in the surrounding orchard.  The city got to enjoy the beauty of a civic center in the middle of an orchard while Mr. Smith cultivated the trees, got a tax break, and enjoyed the fruit of the trees. When his widow died in 1973, the property reverted in full to the City of Los Altos.

My sis and me, raking apricot leaves in the fall.  Dad kept as many of the trees as he could so he could get Mom to bake him pies!

Over the years, the many apricot orchards that once dominated this part of the Santa Clara Valley have been gobbled up by houses and offices for Silicon Valley start-ups.  I can't really complain. My father built our first  house smack dab in the middle of a quarter acre of apricot trees.

My mother, posing at the foundation of the house my father built on Echo Drive (then Clark Avenue) in the apricot orchard. It was ready for the family to move into just before I was born.

My sister and I grew up thinking every child must enjoy having this soft, fragrant, sweet-tart fruit, warm from the sun, available everywhere just for the picking in the summer time. We had no idea, until we left home, how lucky we were.

So I'll grant you, I have a soft spot for this orchard.  But even if I did not, I could not drive by that orchard today and think it would look better if it were paved over with asphalt.

This is what our Master Plan calls the vision for our "community courtyard."

I'm hoping my city will reach some kind of a compromise--so that city offices and the police station can be enlarged as needed, but the orchard will remain.

What a dreamer I am. But that may be a result of some lucky circumstances in my youth.

The Los Altos Civic Center property.

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