Parks Inc.

Rec-Park is trying to turn privatization into official city policy, but sponsors of a ballot measure are pushing back

A diesel-powered taco truck now sits in Dolores Park, part of an effort to commercialize public space.

Should the city be trying to make money off of its parks, recreation centers, and other facilities operated by the Recreation and Park Department? That's the question at the center of several big controversies in recent years, as well as a fall ballot measure and an effort to elevate revenue generation into an official long-term strategy for the department.

So far, the revenue-generating initiatives by RPD General Manager Phil Ginsburg and former Mayor Gavin Newsom have been done on an ad hoc basis — such as permitting vendors in Dolores Park, charging visitors to Strybing Arboretum, and leasing out recreation centers — but an update of the Recreation and Open Space Element (ROSE) of the General Plan seeks to make it official city policy.

The last of six objectives in the plan, which will be heard by the Planning Commission Aug. 4, is "secure long-term resources and management for open space acquisition, operations, and maintenance," a goal that includes three policies: develop long-term funding mechanisms (mostly through new fees and taxes); partner with other public agencies and nonprofits to manage resources; and, most controversially, "pursue public-private partnerships to generate new operating revenues for open spaces."

The plan likens that last policy to the city's deal with Clear Channel to maintain Muni bus stops with funding from advertising revenue, saying that "similar strategies could apply to parks." It cites the Portland Parks Foundation as a model for letting Nike and Columbia Sportswear maintain facilities and mark them with their corporate logos, and said businesses such as bike rental shops, cafes, and coffee kiosks can "serve to activate an open space," a phrase it uses repeatedly.

"The city should seek out new opportunities, including corporate sponsorships where appropriate, and where such sponsorship is in keeping with the mission of the open space itself," the document says.

Yet that approach is anathema to how many San Franciscans see their parks and open spaces — as vital public assets that should be maintained with general tax revenue rather than being dependent on volunteers and wealthy donors, subject to entry fees, or leased to private organizations.

That basic philosophical divide over how the city's parks and recreational facilities are managed has animated a series of conflicts in recent years that have soured many people on the RPD. They include the mass firing of rec directors and leasing out of rec centers, the scandal-tinged process of selecting a new Stow Lake Boathouse vendor, new vending contracts for Dolores Park, the eviction of the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Center recycling facility, plans to develop western Golden Gate Park and other spots, the conversion by the private City Fields Foundation of many soccer fields to artificial turf, and the imposition of entry fees at the arboretum.

Activists involved in those seemingly unrelated battles united into a group called Take Back Our Parks, recognizing that "it's all the same problem: the monetization of the park system," says member John Rizzo, a Sierra Club activist and elected City College trustee. "It's this Republican idea that the parks should pay for themselves."

And now, with the help of the four most progressive members of the Board of Supervisors, the group is putting the issue before voters and trying to stop what it calls the auctioning off of the city's most valuable public assets to the highest bidders.