Parks Inc.

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

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

steve@sfbg.com

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.

Comments

Thanks Steve, for an excellent piece. There are so many problems with the Ginsburg-ization of our parks. He should be run out of town.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 13, 2011 @ 7:48 am

How much money has the Board returned to Rec/Park to make up for the budget cuts? How many of the fees have they made unnecessary by giving the Department the appropriations it needed?

Oh, that's right, almost none, and none.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 13, 2011 @ 9:03 am

What is so incongruous about this whole matter is Recreation and Park’s rejection of the vendor offering the highest rent for the Stow Lake concession. This facility has always been a revenue producer. Always been privatized. The present vendor offered $55,000 higher minimum annual rent than the New Mexico group. Without taking into consideration any cost of living escalation, that is over a million dollars potential lost to the City over the 20 year term of the lease. The selected vendor offered to pay 10% of gross food sales and the current vendor offered 27%. Both parties agreed to fully refurbish the exterior of the boathouse and remodel the snack bar. Also, the present vendor agreed to provide 70% more boats (85 vs. 50) to better serve the public. Why is the Park Department suppressing this information?

Posted by Guest on Jul. 13, 2011 @ 9:48 am

Hey Steve.....how about you and your comrades at the Guardian open your check book and write a Big Fat Check to Rec & Park.

The department is broke along with the city......high wages...fat benefits.....too many rules.

Instead of condemning the department for finding ways to keep our parks open and in operational shape....why don't you offer a suggestion to fix the problem?

Got any ideas?

Posted by Guest on Jul. 14, 2011 @ 7:01 am

Here's a quick fix: Replace the 50 or 100 highest paid at Wreck the Parks (salespeople for privatization "public-private partnerships") with actual workers (Rec Directors, Gardeners, etc.)

Posted by Guest on Jul. 14, 2011 @ 7:53 am

Here's a revenue raising idea: Keep HANC recycling where it is and let HANC collect all recyclables from every park restaurant, ball field, populated eating/drinking area, etc. and they could pay an agreeable percentage of whatever revenues they raise from within park boundaries after they allocate what they need to cover salaries and operating costs from collecting said recyclables.

I'm all for raising taxes to cover park operational costs. Don't make it a parking lot -- quit wasting money on posting unsightly NO PARKING signage up and down our sacred green stretches where we could previously imagine a world WITHOUT cars when we'd visit JFK on a Sunday [but not any more]; DO NOT enter into leases for longer than one day for any personal family/neighborhood/small business or corporation and POST such space rentals on a website so the public can plan around any inaccessibility caused by such leases. Keep the one-day rents for such private uses on a sliding scale; low for families and small businesses and higher for corporations. Three consecutive day max for any users.

There are plenty of ways, if there is ANY will, to keep our parks flush, lush and accessible to the public. Even leasing raised beds for growing vegetables could lend itself to being inequitable. I don't think that's a good idea unless you have a HUGE area designated for organic gardening and the ENTIRE CITY, EVERY DISTRICT gets space allocated proportionate to its population. Personally, I vote for undergrounding parking in EVERY neighborhood and ripping up and/or covering up the asphalt in many square blocks of EVERY neighborhood so people could garden outside their homes.

Have a think-a-thon with contestants submitting THEIR ideas for ensuring park accessibility and sustainability ... NOT profitability as has been popular among the privitization crowd.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 14, 2011 @ 12:14 pm