Save San Francisco's parks from commercialization

San Francisco's delightful Stow Lake Boat House in Golden Gate Park, and much of the park itself and other public spaces in the City, are in danger of being commercialized and crapified through backroom deals and privatization. BB contributor Jacques Vallee sent me the following editorial on the subject, under the title "When Green Meets Greed In A San Francisco Park." Jacques isn't a member of any of the organizations mentioned in his rant. He's just a concerned citizen who wants to preserve some of its most beautiful, natural, and untainted parts of San Francisco.
When Green Meets Greed In A San Francisco Park
by Jacques Vallee

It was the kind of setting that enchanted nature photographers and could make rich Americans fly to Europe just to enjoy it. They would bring back lovely pictures and happy memories: an old ramshackle wooden building by the side of a lake where local people, old and young, gathered with their children to enjoy the day, feed some remarkable birds, play with turtles or rent a rowboat for a leisurely excursion on the water. Except that this wasn’t Saint-Tropez, Lugano or Hallstatt. It was Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.

The Stow Lake boathouse was cheap, casual and a unique escape from the worries or pressures of life. It had been built by a local family in the 1940’s. I used to go there on weekends with my children when they were small. More recently, when my wife and I needed a break from her cancer treatment, we would just buy some food from the high school kids who ran the little shop and find a quiet spot nearby for a picnic. For years I have enjoyed going there and meeting people from all over: entrepreneurs from England, Russian elders with war stories, young lovers on their honeymoon, happy Chinese families celebrating with newlywed couples in white dress and tuxedo, local kids taking pictures of blue herons, joggers looking for a place to rest, and lots of seniors just enjoying the scenery. You could sit down at a rugged redwood table, share stories and admire the view as long as you wanted.

It’s not only the destruction of a historic setting and the social traditions it preserved that bothers me (although it was also the only place in Golden Gate Park where you could rent a bike) but the way it is happening, and more generally, the ominous shadow it throws over a City where so many things have started to go very, very wrong. So I attended the community meeting that marked the closing of the boathouse and I learned a few interesting facts.

First, according to the wave of protests this scandal is starting to raise in San Francisco, Mayor Lee’s administration, the City Planning Commission and the Recreation & Park Department are all involved in the decision to replace the boathouse with a tourist trap café-restaurant run by a souvenir store chain company from New Mexico that has no experience in boating, all under the guise of saving money for the parks. Which is curious when you consider that this privatization of open space includes a provision that the new facility will receive free gas, water and electricity paid by the people of San Francisco.

The most egregious aspect of the situation is not so much the decision itself but the way the process seems to be working. According to the protesters, the New Mexico company got the decision through the City by using expensive local lobbyists who paid people (reportedly, about $500 each) to testify loudly at City Hall hearings and who made dubious ecological claims by citing "Audubon International", a group that reportedly promotes golf courses and has been accused of abusing the name of the Audubon Society. Both the Sierra Club and the real Golden Gate Audubon Society have expressed their support for protecting the existing boathouse and the fragile Stow Lake environment.

The protesters, who already have 3,000 signatures in support of preservation of the boathouse, have filed a civil lawsuit that begins in March 2012 and they plan to raise the issue at the occasion of the upcoming elections in November of this year but they lack the resources to mount a strong political campaign. They are especially irate at Phil Ginsburg, the general manager of the Recreation & Parks department, for committing to spend money for capital improvements for the souvenir chain’s benefit. Under the new lease San Francisco could end up losing $2 million in a deal that was supposedly designed in the Brave New World spirit of “entering into public-private partnerships” to transform supposedly “underused” open spaces into what the City calls “high-performing open space.”

According to a commentary by Steven Chapman I found on the web, Mayor Lee has a draft plan on his desk that would direct the Recreation and Parks Department, along with other departments and agencies responsible for open space management, to make up for the City’s budget shortfall by “treating lands in their domains essentially as enterprise zones, and managing them with an eye to maximum revenue generation.” Which brings up the larger issue.

The second point I believe needs to be raised in the wake of the shady boathouse deal has to do with the integrity of Golden Gate Park itself.

“Larger than New York's Central Park, covered with more than 75,000 trees, it was deeded to the people in 1870 out of the prescient notion that San Franciscans would one day feel overcrowded. This foresight proved invaluable, as 13 million people now visit the park every year,” the website of Sfgate observes proudly. Unfortunately the City leaders of 2011 are not as civic-minded as their ancestors.

Contrary to a 1998 Master Plan that designated the west end of the park as relatively bucolic, with meadows and forests to serve as a refuge from urban stress for both people and wildlife, two City initiatives are set to radically alter the environment.

On one hand, something called the Beach Chalet Soccer Fields artificial turf and sports lighting renovation project will remove a meadow, replacing over 7 acres of natural grass with plastic grass, gravel and tire waste infill, and installing 10 banks of 60 foot tall, multi-fixture stadium lights. According to a citizen’s organization, which has studied the design, “these lights are twice as tall as the trees that screen the fields from Ocean Beach. The lights will be turned on from sunset until 10:00 pm every night. There will be additional new concrete and asphalt paving and other built features added to what is now naturalistic parkland.”

So much for preserving the wildlife and the bucolic ambiance.

On the other hand, there is a proposed Water Treatment Plant that would take over 2 acres of parkland with a 40,000 square foot, 30 foot tall, concrete building and a chemical building, close to the restored Millwright house, Murphy windmill, and the fields.

Between the two projects, over 250 trees that form the park's protective western windbreak from the Pacific breeze, will either be removed or threatened with construction. One concerned organization, the Golden Gate Park Preservation Alliance, is working to relocate the water treatment factory outside of the park but it faces a difficult battle.

It is hardly news that big city government is fraught with corruption and cozy private deals, so the story of our boathouse and the park itself would hardly be interesting if it weren’t for the unique quality of life that will be lost forever if these measures go through unchallenged. Unfortunately, those who will be harmed by the impending decisions are either the future generations that will never be able to enjoy the same environment we have known, or middle-class and poor families of today who don’t have the money to hire six-figure PR hacks, or the clout to lobby City Hall. They may be driven away from a beautiful spot that was designed for everyone to enjoy, and seniors will no longer be able to gather freely at the boathouse. If one uses the nearby De Young museum café as a reference (where a hot dog costs $8.50 versus $3.50 at the boathouse) prices will more than double on all food items.

At last report, Mayor Lee’s office has stated that his administration was unaware of any protest against the decisions of the Recreation and Parks department, so life goes on normally in Baghdad-by-the-Bay.