Almanac

News - April 30, 2014

Nature group's big ambitions for Hawthorns estate

• Portola Valley's Yvonne Tryce sees the potential for a nature and history center.

by Dave Boyce

Near the corner of Alpine and Portola roads in Portola Valley, there sits an unoccupied estate that dates from 1867. Upon its 79 acres are a rundown mansion, a rundown garage, a rundown cottage, a rundown barn, and estate grounds that, while not rundown, are not being put to productive use.

Frederick N. Woods III, who died in April 2008 at the age of 93, bequeathed the $11 million Hawthorns estate and a $2 million endowment to the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, which took possession in 2011.

The open space district "does not have the expertise or capacity to renovate the structures and is interested in teaming with a partner (or partners) to develop, refurbish and/or reuse the historic complex," according to an April 3 statement to potential partners.

The estate is a jewel in the estimation of Yvonne Tryce, the longtime chair of Portola Valley's Nature and Science Committee. The committee has composed a draft letter to the open space district suggesting what could be done:

• The garage could serve as a nature and interpretative center, with the upstairs serving as an apartment for a caretaker.

• The first floor of the main house could become a local history museum with rotating art exhibits, while the upper floors could be used for temporary storage of Portola Valley archives, or as below-market-rate housing.

• The cottage could be a gathering place for youth groups such as scouts or 4H.

• A restored barn could house horses and possibly an artists' studio.

• The grounds could include a native garden near the interpretative center, a Victorian-era garden near the main house, and a vegetable garden "as befits the gentleman's farm" it used to be. Picnic tables could go up near the creek.

There may be other ideas; the open space district has set a deadline of June 20 for letters of interest.

A fully defined plan

For the Nature and Science Committee to realize its vision without partners, a fundraising group, acting on its behalf, would need to raise $6 million to $8 million, Ms. Tryce told the Town Council at its April 23 meeting.

Comparisons were made to the Town Center project. With the Silicon Valley Community Foundation serving as banker, the council encouraged and thanked resident-donors who, over four years, gave $17 million for the building of the Town Center. Then-councilman Ted Driscoll, as Mayor Ann Wengert pointed out, "gave up a year of his life" to manage the project.

Resident Bernie Bayuk urged another such effort. "How about viewing this science and nature project in the same light and making the town part of it directly?" he said.

Mayor Wengert replied that the town's current priorities are water conservation and fire prevention. Portola Valley runs a lean government and must be careful of staff time. The Hawthorns project "is not right in the core arena of what we're dealing with," she said.

Councilman John Richards noted Town Hall's full plate of residential development projects. "I would love it if the town had the bandwidth to take on this entire project," he said. Staff would have to be hired, he said: "We're really just barely scraping by."

Sally Ann Reiss, a co-chair of fundraising for the Town Center project, said that getting the Silicon Valley Community Foundation involved requires a business plan, including a budget. "It would have to be, actually, about fully defined," she said. As for council backing: "It's really important to have you as partners (and have your) blessing," Ms. Reiss said.

The project needs a group to represent it and someone to drive it, Ms. Wengert said. "That's really the heart of it."

In an email, Ms. Tryce said she is planning a meeting to clarify the committee's proposal.

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