Parks Inc. - Page 2

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.

The Parks for the Public initiative — which was written by the group and placed on the ballot by Sups. John Avalos, David Campos, Eric Mar, and Ross Mirkarimi — is intended to "ensure equal public access to parks and recreation facilities and prevent privatization of our public parks and facilities," as the measure states. It would prevent the department from entering into any new leases or creating new entry fees for parks and other facilities.

Even its promoters call it a small first step that doesn't get into controversies such as permitting more vending in the parks, including placing a taco truck in Dolores Park and the aborted attempt to allow a Blue Bottle Coffee concession there. But it does address the central strategy Newsom and his former chief of staff, Ginsburg, have been using to address the dwindling RPD budget, which was slashed by 7 percent last year.

"What a lot of us think the Recreation and Parks Department is actually doing is relinquishing the maintenance of park facilities to private entities," says Denis Mosgofian, who founded the group following his battles with RPD over the closures and leases rec centers. "They're actually dismantling much of what the public has created."

He notes that San Francisco voters have approved $371 million in bonds over the last 20 years to improve parks and recreation centers, only to have their operations defunded and control of many of them simply turned over to private organizations that often limit the public's ability to use them.

By Mosgofian's calculation, at least 14 of the city's 47 clubhouses and recreation centers have been leased out and another 11 have been made available for leases, often for $90 per hour, which is more than most community groups can afford. And he says 166 recreation directors and support staffers have been laid off in the last two years, offset by the hiring of at least nine property management positions to handle the leases.

Often, he said, the leases don't even make fiscal sense, with some facilities being leased for less money than the city is spending to service the debt used to refurbish them. Other lease arrangements raised economic justice concerns, such as when RPD evicted a 38-year-old City College preschool program from the Laurel Hill Clubhouse to lease it to Language in Action, a company that does language immersion programs for preschoolers.

"Without telling anyone, they arranged to have a private, high-end preschool go in," Rizzo said, noting that its annual tuition of around $12,000 is too expensive for most city residents and that the program even fenced off part of the playground for its private use, all for a monthly lease of less than $1,500. "They don't talk to the neighbors who are affected or the users of the park ... We're paying for it and then we don't have access to it."

They also refused to answer our questions. Neither Ginsburg nor Recreation and Park Commission President Mark Buell responded to Guardian messages. Department spokesperson Connie Chan responded by e-mail and asked us to submit a list of questions, which department officials still hadn't answered at Guardian press time. But it does appear that the approach has at least the tacit backing of Mayor Ed Lee.

"In order to increase its financial sustainability in the face of ongoing General Fund reductions, the Recreation and Parks Department continues to focus on maximizing its earned revenue. Its efforts include capitalizing on the value of the department's property and concessions by entering into new leases and developing new park amenities, pursuing philanthropy, and searching for sponsorships and development opportunities," reads Mayor Lee's proposed budget for RPD, which includes a chart entitled "Department Generated Revenue" that shows it steadily increasing from about $35 million in 2005-06 to about $45 million in 2011-12.