Whose park?

Proposal to build a large artificial turf soccer complex in Golden Gate Park sparks controversy

A rendering of the proposed soccer complex


Golden Gate Park and Ocean Beach have long been destinations for locals and tourists to take in natural beauty within an urban setting, but a controversial plan to build a complex of artificial turf soccer fields at their intersection is drawing opposition from neighbors and environmentalists.

The project seems to belie the original intent of Golden Gate Park as a uniquely wild setting. The Master Plan for Golden Gate Park, drafted in 1995, emphasizes environmental stewardship and maintaining the park in a natural, multi-use way. Among its provisions are "major meadows and lawns should be adaptable to host a wide variety of activities, rather than designed for a specific use."

But the Recreation and Park Department (RPD) and sports advocates are pushing a plan to install seven acres of synthetic turf fields, complete with 60-foot, 150,000-watt lighting that will shine until 10 p.m. year-round.

The project will have its first major public hearing before the Planning Commission on Dec. 1 at 5 p.m. in Room 400 at City Hall. Public comments on the project's Draft Environmental Impact Report, which was released in October, will be accepted at the Planning Department until 5 p.m. on Dec. 12.

Critics of the plan, including the Ocean Edge Steering Committee, have been distributing educational materials and trying to energize people to oppose a project that the group says runs counter to the park's purpose and which will harm wildlife and cause other negative impacts.

The fields are slated to be installed over the four existing run-down grass fields in the Western Edge of Golden Gate Park, which sits directly across from Ocean Beach and next to the Beach Chalet historical building and restaurant. The project is projected to cost up to $48 million, about $20 million of which comes from the Clean and Safe Neighborhood Parks bond measure approved by city voters in 2008.

Advocates for the synthetic fields — most notably the City Fields Foundation, the main proponent of converting grass to turf in city parks (see "Turf wars," 10/13/09) — say that this project will only take up a fraction of the natural space in the park, and that turf has many benefits over natural parkland.

"You can put a grass field in, but then you have to limit public access," said Patrick Hannan, communications director for the City Fields Foundation. "If you want to have grass, there's only so much sports play that can happen."

Hannan says that this project is a response to the high demand for usable athletic fields and the limited play provisions of grass fields and availability of usable fields also limits the number of adults and children able to play sports.

RPD spokesperson Connie Chan was not responsive to Guardian questions about the project's consistency with the Master Plan, and on the main project, she referred to a statement on the RPD website: "We are proposing to renovate the dilapidated Beach Chalet Athletic Fields in the western end of Golden Gate Park with synthetic turf, field lights and other amenities because Beach Chalet is one of three primary ground sports fields in San Francisco but unfortunately, these fields are in abysmal condition, often closed, and lacking spectator seating."

But activists say the RPD shouldn't disregard its own planning documents. "It took a long time to draft the Master Plan," said Shawna McGrew, an activist who worked at RPD for 30 years. "They have no legal obligation, but a moral obligation to uphold the Master Plan."

The grass soccer fields have been run down due to lack of maintenance and a continuing gopher problem. But environmental advocates argue that installing the planned light fixtures and synthetic turf will interfere with the wildlife, particularly the nesting birds.