Editor's notes

Selling off the Department of Recreation and Parks



I heard Phil Ginsburg, the head of the San Francisco Department of Recreation and Parks, on KQED's Forum June 13, talking about the state of the public parks, and he got the usual angry calls. One person wanted to know why it costs so much to play on the city's ball fields. Another wanted to know why the city is working with a private foundation to put artificial turf and big lights out at the end of Golden Gate Park. (I still don't understand why the baseball field at Holly Park is always — always — locked and nobody seems to be allowed to play on it at all. Except the people who jump the fence. Not that my kids and I would know anything about that.)

Ginsburg did his best to duck and weave and answer — and portray this as a tough situation with a lack of public resources. But what he didn't say is that the overall mission of the department has changed over the past few years. Dramatically. And it follows an alarming national trend that, ironically, started right here in San Francisco, with the Presidio National Park.

When the Sixth Army moved out of the Presidio and the land reverted to the National Park Service, Republicans in Congress threatened to sell it off. The NPS was short of money to develop and maintain the place, so Rep. Nancy Pelosi came up with a plan. She turned the park into a semiprivate enclave run by a board of real-estate developers with a mandate to become economically self-sufficient. Step one: give that notable Marin County pauper George Lucas a $50 million tax break to build a commercial office building in the middle of a national park.

It was a terrible precedent. Public parks aren't supposed to be money-making enterprises. But it took hold — and now Ginsburg is following the same model.

Rec and Parks these days is all about commercialization. The recreation centers are leased to private operations. More and more park space is going to private food vendors. The Stowe Lake concession is set to become an upscale café (run by an out-of-town outfit). The City Fields Foundation, run by the sons of Gap Inc. founder Don Fisher, is taking over soccer fields. It costs money for tourists to visit the arboretum.

I know: there's no cash, the city's broke, and Ginsburg says this is the only way to keep the department running. But it's really dangerous — because once you treat the public commons as a commodity, you've crossed a line. And it's hard to go back.


Even more absurd is the fact that this neoliberal-style privatization raises no significant revenues!

The City paid for permanent ticket booths at the Arboretum for around $90,000, paid $15,000 to pay for the rental of the previous booths, paid $15,000 for a map which does not mention its ownership, and allows the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society to have full control over the facility. Entrance hours have been cut.

Membership is docile, and the Supervisors are frightened to death to talk about the fact that lobbyist Sam Lauter was paid more than $100K to lobby for the fees.

And this is just one example.

RPD keeps hiring people — PR flack person Connie Chan ($100K) but one recent example.

When will we get officials who are not on the take and will rein this in?

Posted by Harry on Jun. 15, 2011 @ 11:49 am

"...neoliberal-style privatization..."

Really, Harry? Really?!

Posted by CRS on Jun. 15, 2011 @ 2:05 pm

Absolutely! Read "A Brief History of Neoliberalism."

The latest horror is the RPD's spending 900K on the Murphy's Windmill restaurant project.

Meanwhile, there is "no money" because the wealthy don't pay taxes but there "is money" to spend hundreds of thousands implementing an Arboretum fee, $128 million or more (according to Harvey Rose) for the Ellison floating party, and $100K to hire Connie Chan to help Sarah Ballard (note the incestuous connections in hiring in City government: another problem!) propagandize in favor of privatization.

Note: Neoliberalism has nothing to do with conventional liberalism (which is nearly dead in SF these days; corrupt lobbyists being in control of the Board members)....

Posted by Harry on Jun. 15, 2011 @ 2:57 pm

The Fisher boys' (the two sons of the late rightwing billionaire Republican Don Fisher) plan to astroturf seven acres of the west side of Golden Gate Park (expanding the size of the soccer fields and turning the grass into astroturf) will probably end up COSTING the City of SF more than if they shelved this idiotic plan that VIOLATES the 1999 Golden Gate Park Master Plan. Fortunately this really dumb idea that's being pushed by Phil Ginsburg and Mark Buell (both of Rec & Park Dept or RPD) can be stopped by the SF Board of Supes because they will have to approve of the EIR (Environmental Impact Report).

Here's some reasons why will probably cost the City of SF more money than doing nothing:
* Every ten years or so, the astroturf will have to be completely replaced

* With the whole area lit up extremely bright until 11 pm half the week (if not EVERY night), there will be a lot more crime there at night.

* As part of this plan, large wind-breaking trees that prevent soil erosion from the strong winds blowing off the ocean WILL BE REMOVED. The removal of such trees is a violation of the 1999 Golden Gate Park Master Plan. So how does Rec & Park deal with this violation??? By calling these large trees "shrubs" - that's right, they have to go to such absurd lengths to attempt to push this horrible Fisher plan.

* Maintenance of the lights on 60 foot poles (replacing burned out bulbs) as well as replacing the copper in those large lights that will, no doubt, be stolen wil not be cheap (cost of copper wiring, cost of labor to install all that wiring).

* The cost of cleaning up the lead and other toxic materials from the astroturf that will leach into the soil when it rains.

* The cost of dealing with the ramifications of the soil erosion that will be taking place due to the removal of those large wind-breaking trees (and as global warming increases, so will the speed of those winds as we have been witnessing lately - anybody see the scaffolding that came down in the house in the sunset due to those winds about ten days ago? - those winds will cause lots of soil erosion).

Contact all the Supes and tell them you are VERY AGAINST this idiotic Fisher plan. YOU own GG Park, not Don Fisher's boys, not Phil Ginsburg, not Mark Buell. The Supes will have to approve this so let them (all of them) know you are against this really dumb idea THAT COMPLETELY CHANGES THE NATURE OF GG PARK from one of nature that is DARK at night with animals using it as a functioning ecosystem to one that is more like a brightly-lit recreational soccer complex. It's called Golden Gate PARK, and not Golden Gate Soccer Recreational Complex, for a reason.

There's a meeting of activists working against this extremely arrogant dumb idea on Sunday, June 26 at 5 pm at a house near the 41st & Lincoln entrance. Contact sfoceanedge@earthlink.net to find out the address.

And contact (phone AND email) everyone of the Supes to say you are very much against this project (I talked to Sup. Mirkirimi and he said he's very much against it).
All of them will be voting on it so it's important to contact all of them.

Here's a website with all their email addresses and phone numbers:



Posted by Bill on Jun. 15, 2011 @ 10:13 pm

The SF Bay Guardian is correct in that the interview only scratched the surface, at least as far as San Francisco is concerned. In fact there are many problems with the decisions that the current San Francisco Recreation and Park Department (RPD) is making. This was made evident last year, when many residents tried to change the appointment process for the Recreation and Park Commission from unilateral appointments by the Mayor (who also appoints the RPD General Manager) to a more balanced appointment system. This effort fell victim to the politics of the budget process, with the result that more problems have developed in the Recreation and Park Department's management of our wonderful parks.

On the KQED program, the other park directors talked about how parks serve as a 'kind of natural benefit to the environment', a 'refuge for animal and plant species' including 'endangered snakes and butterflies'. It is ironic that while the other parks directors were talking about the importance of getting out in nature, Mr. Ginsburg was discussing changing a beautiful natural area, the western edge of Golden Gate Park, into an artificial environment, with over 7 acres of artificial turf, wide concrete sidewalks, increased parking (despite San Francisco being a transit-first City), and 10 banks of 60 foot high stadium lights. These lights, according to RPD's own documents, will be lighted from sunset until 10:00 p.m. every night of the year. This area is across form Ocean Beach, a beautiful natural landscape the experience of which will be marred by this project. Both the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society, as well as a myriad of other organizations, had to battle RPD just to get an Environmental Impact Report for this project.

Mr. Ginsburg also neglected to mention that his department is supporting the construction of a 40,000 square foot water treatment factory, with up 30 to foot high walls, 24 hour lighting, and security gating in the western end of Golden Gate Park. This is in an area of the park that the Department's own 1998 Master Plan specifies should to be returned to meadows and recreation.

There were some errors in Mr. Ginsburg's answers. He stated that RPD employees are not being paid for "selling" the parks. However, many of us attended a meeting in which RPD employees talked about being required to bring in multiples of funding from various leases, and that their jobs depended on this. Mr. Ginsburg's statement that they don't have people to staff the clubhouses also neglected to mention that that is because RPD fired the staff! Once the staff was fired, clubhouses were leased to a variety of groups, including one group that charges up to $14,000 a year private tuition for day care! This program replaced a free program in early childhood development that was being run by City College. This is not an equitable use for a public facility and certainly not one that serves the general public.

There are other problems with the current approach of the Recreation and Park Department to park management. In public testimony at the Board of Supervisors, the City's own budget analyst found the Arboretum fee to be a poor investment decision. The Stow Lake boathouse lease remains contentious; it is not clear that the best financial deal was arrived at, and it looks like it is headed to a court case. Rec and Park is being sued by environmental groups over its management of Sharp Park.

We encourage your readers to ask KQED to invite some of the people on the opposite side of these issues from Mr. Ginsburg, to talk about why they are concerned with the direction that our parks are being taken and what other options exist.

Our next volunteer meeting is June 26th, Sunday, in the Outer Sunset (N Judah line). Contact us for the address.

We are also holding a public informational meeting on July 20th, at the Richmond Police Station. See our website for more details.

Katherine Howard
Member, Steering Committees, Golden Gate Park Preservation Alliance and SF Ocean Edge

Posted by Katherine Howard on Jun. 18, 2011 @ 9:04 pm

Whatever label you want to call this, it is another sign that public natural spaces are being turned over to private investors for the soul purpose of simply making big bucks at the expense of citizens who live, walk, bike, stroll, skate, play, run and simply use a beautiful living space. It is a sad commentary on our present society as opposed to past civic leaders who wanted a natural space for all to use. Rather than raise taxes on everyone to pay for the things we all use, regardless of our income, we simply sell out to people who could care less about open space and beauty unless they can make it pay.

I wonder when we will start selling off Yosemite's beauty, our coasts and deserts so that they too can be paved over. Why not encourage selling off Yellowstone and throw in the Grand Canyon too boot.

John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt would be turning in their graves. Thank You Katherine Howard for these dates and at least a chance to fight this.

Posted by Guest lucretiamott on Jun. 19, 2011 @ 4:35 am

Wow, How can anyone even THINK that artificial turf can replace the fine natural grass fields already there? How can anybody even THINK that cutting down those trees is a good idea, haven't they ever played on those fields and enjoyed them just the way they are? What is my city come too? ARGHHHH

Posted by Guest Mr. D on Jul. 15, 2011 @ 6:29 am