The Dismemberment of Byxbee Park

A former landfill, this landscape’s redemption story is coming to an end.

By Lydia Lee

Byxbee Park is coming apart. The city of Palo Alto is not even pretending to try to hold it together.

Byxbee Park is one of several San Francisco Bay area parks that began as landfills. Starting in the 1960s, garbage dumps along the waterfront were converted to public recreation areas. In Palo Alto, the city hired the landscape architects Hargreaves Associates and the artists Peter Richards and Michael Oppenheimer in 1990 to create a unique collaboration of art and landscape design (LAM, August 2006). The 10 site-specific installations spoke to the area’s evolution over many eons of human use. The 29-acre park opened in 1991; it won a national ASLA Honor Award in 1993.

Now, as the city prepares to open the remaining landfilled area for public use next year, it is destroying several of the original park’s features.

The iconic telephone poles, 72 of them arranged in lines, and a row of chevrons made from concrete highway barriers are still in place, but other significant components have been dismantled. The city has leveled most of the hillocks that represented the middens of the native Ohlone people of the region, and it is burying the oyster-shell paths, a reference to the shellfish harvesting of the past. They’ve scraped off an alluvial fan, filled in half of a series of weirs, and removed a hedgerow.

“It’s a terrible story,” says Mary Margaret Jones, a senior principal at Hargreaves. “It was a great project, and people loved it. But then as time went on, the staff changed, and the city stopped maintaining it. After many years of neglect, they decided they were going to simplify it. But the park is a whole work—you can’t pull an arm or leg off and say it’s still the same.”

The top of the hill at Byxbee Park, surrounded by construction fencing, is being reshaped, and many of the distinctive teardrop-shaped hillocks are being removed. Photo: Lydia Lee
The hilltop at Byxbee Park, behind fencing, is being reshaped. Many of the distinctive teardrop-shaped hillocks are being removed. Photo: Lydia Lee

According to Richards, he was contacted last spring by Elise DeMarzo, the current manager of the city’s public art program, to see if he had anything in his contract saying that the work could not be tampered with. Unfortunately, Richards says, there was not. “My contract didn’t even call me an artist,” he says. “I was referred to as a ‘consultant.’”

In October of last year, DeMarzo recommended that the arts commission approve the changes to the park’s “art elements” because they needed to raise the level of the site and allow it to drain properly. “Due to the uneven settlement at the site, Public Works needs to bring in soil to restore the elevations and grades back into compliance,” the report said. It went on to say that ground squirrels had compromised many of the elements, and that invasive plants had taken over some of the hillocks.

What’s left of the design, apparently, will stay. In an e-mail, DeMarzo confirmed that there are no plans to take down the remaining artwork at Byxbee. “The city plans to update the signage to talk about the original design and the changes that have taken place,” she says. That plan is not of much comfort to Jones.

“Ideally they would have had us come back to figure out a solution, but they just wanted expediency,” Jones says.

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