Out of downtown

Out of downtown: Wealthy financier Warren Hellman has crossed his big-business allies to help progressive causes

Warren Hellman (front) poses with bicycle and other alternative transportation activists in Golden Gate Park.
Alexander Warnow


It wasn't going well for Ted Strawser, predictably. The alternative transportation activist faced an uphill battle March 14 trying to convince a San Francisco Chamber of Commerce committee to endorse Healthy Saturdays, a plan to ban cars from part of Golden Gate Park.

Representatives of the park's museums and Richmond District homeowners had just argued their case against the measure. "Visitors want access to our front door, and we want to give it to them," Pat Kilduff, communications director for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, indignantly told the group of two dozen business leaders gathered around a large conference table.

Strawser gave it his best shot: he talked about following the lead of other great cities to create car-free spaces; he said, "Golden Gate Park is one of the best parks in the nation, if not the world"; and he made a detailed case for closure. But around the table there were scowls, eye rolls, and other obvious signs that Strawser was being tolerated, not welcomed. Some — including chamber vice president Jim Lazarus — even started to interrupt and argue with him.

Then the man sitting next to Strawser spoke up. "I don't think this is fair," he said. And suddenly, everyone in the room shaped up. Strawser's ally — his only supporter in the room — was somebody no chamber member could or would dismiss. Warren Hellman doesn't shout or bang the table — but when he speaks, downtown pays attention.

Hellman, a prominent investment banker, told the committee members that he expected them to show the same respect for Strawser that they had for the previous two speakers. The nonsense ended, immediately.

And by the time Strawser turned the floor over to Hellman, the mood had changed. The group listened raptly, smiled, and nodded as Hellman spoke in his usual folksy, familiar, disarming style.

"It's not a lot of fun when friends fall out," he began, "because the previous speakers and many of you all agreed on the necessity of the garage [that was built in Golden Gate Park], and we worked together."

He pointed out that many in the group had promised during the fall 2000 election to support Healthy Saturdays once the garage was built, although Hellman was now the only member of the coalition honoring that commitment. But he didn't chide or shame his colleagues. That isn't Hellman's style.

Instead, he spoke their language. The garage has never been full and needs the money it can charge for parking to repay the bonds. This isn't a fight that's going away, since "part of the conflict is because this park is everybody's park." But there are "about 100 compromises not acceptable to either side that would move this forward." And if a solution can't be found, there will probably be an expensive ballot fight that nobody wants.

"My conclusion is we should attempt this test," Hellman told the group. Ultimately, when the vote was later taken in secret, the chamber didn't agree, although it did vote to back a trial closure after the California Academy of Sciences reopens next year.

At the meeting, Hellman openly called for Mayor Gavin Newsom to get involved in seeking a compromise, something Hellman said he had also just requested of the mayor at a one-on-one breakfast meeting. A couple of weeks later Newsom — who had already indicated his intention of vetoing the measure — did broker a compromise that was then approved by the Board of Supervisors.

As usual, Hellman didn't take credit, content to quietly play a role in making San Francisco a better place.

Healthy Saturdays isn't the most important issue in local history — but the significance of Hellman's involvement can't be underestimated. His alliance with the environmentalists and park advocates might even signal a sea change in San Francisco politics.