Thursday, April 12, 2012

How a City's Historic Landmark Survived

The J. Gilbert Smith apricot orchard surrounding the Los Altos City Hall, on a cloudy April afternoon.

My local city council spent at least $1M in taxpayer dollars--possibly more: the totals aren't in yet--lobbying its own citizens to plough under and pave over one of the most beautiful and historic spots remaining on the San Francisco peninsula. Just so it could build a larger civic center.

After all that lobbying, marketing, and what is known these days as "outreach,"a telephone survey showed that just 22.6% of the voters volunteered they would vote "definitely yes" for such a proposal--no matter how many ways the pollsters asked the question.

Nice to see the orchard got a little needed maintenance this week.

I emailed my friend Brian--a pal from the fourth grade--a cheery message with the news. He still lives in our hometown--on a street that is just a short walk from the orchard. 

"Sounds like a victory for common sense," he emailed back. And Ginny, another school friend, wrote on my Facebook page: "Thank you from one of those kids who used to ride their bikes to the library... hooray for preserving some history!!"

Another view of the century-old orchard.

You can see the affection that people have for this orchard, and I would love to take some credit for saving it.  But I'm not sure those of us opposed the plan had anything to do with what happened. The numbers were so bad for the city--what could our leadership have been thinking?

Why didn't the city start out by taking that survey?

The sign is still up in our orchard that shows the imagined "Community Center Campus" adjacent to J. Gilbert Smith's orchard. I like the juxtaposition.

Obviously there was a huge disconnect, somewhere, between the citizens and their leaders.

When the results were revealed the other night, at a packed meeting at city hall, one city official shook her head in dismay and, sounding both angry and puzzled said she could not understand the "sub-optimal use of this site." Well, one person's "sub-optimal use" is clearly another person's City Landmark!

We were told by the city that our apricot trees were all diseased. The 'cots you see in this photo of today, ready to ripen, sure look good to me.

What remains in the record, is that the Los Altos City Hall, J. Gilbert Smith orchard was planted by Smith in 1901 and first noted in the Santa Clara County inventory of Historical Landmarks as early as 1962. It has been noted as such again and again, by city, county, and California State resolution, ordinance, and proclamation in: 1975, 1978, 1979, 1982, 1987, 1990, and 1991.

And the city ignored all that. Because it could if it wanted to.

So, it is now time to give this orchard a stronger form of protection or status. The simple beauty of the place and its historic status are not protection enough in the world we live in today. 

Oh rats. Did I just hear myself volunteer again?

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