February 5, 2003




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 Save Golden Gate Park!

BUILDING A PARKING garage in the middle of Golden Gate Park was never a good idea. But the way plans for the park's concourse area are shaping up is a total disaster – and a sign of the creeping privatization of the crown jewel of San Francisco's park system.

As Savannah Blackwell reports on page 16, a secretive private agency, run out of the office of Wells Fargo heir and garage proponent Warren Hellman, has effectively taken over the planning process for the reconstruction of the 25-acre site that's home to the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, the California Academy of Sciences, and the music bandshell. The result: dramatic changes that directly conflict with the vision sold to voters as Proposition J in June 1998.

Prop. J authorizes the construction of a new underground garage, to serve a rebuilt de Young museum. Proponents promised a surface-level car-free pedestrian promenade with vehicle entrances outside of the park. The goal, campaign literature asserted, was to get cars and buses out of the concourse.

But those plans have been scrapped. The current design would bring more, not fewer, vehicles to the concourse. The architecturally impressive features of the garage are gone. The vehicle entrances will be right in the middle of the park – which is bound to cause more congestion.

These changes weren't the result of public discussion and debate. The entire process happened in secret: The Music Concourse Community Partnership, which controls the funding for the project, decided that the original plans were too expensive and scrapped them. Then the Concourse Authority, the public agency that supposedly oversees the project, rubber-stamped what the private group wanted.

And now there are signs that the private group wants to expand its authority and take over responsibility for all roads and paths in the park.

That's an alarming prospect: Golden Gate Park is a civic treasure, designed by John McClaren to reflect Frederick Law Olmstead's vision of an urban oasis for the working person. It never was, and never should be, a private haven for the black-tie set. But the instant the private interests get their hands on it (and the public gets shut out of the planning process), that's what it will become.

San Francisco officials stood by, smiling and waving, while the Presidio was privatized (and a large chunk of it turned over to George Lucas). They've stood by while Pacific Gas and Electric Co. stole what should have been the premier public-power system on the West Coast. They almost allowed Bechtel Corp. to privatize the city's water system.

Golden Gate Park should be a line in the sand, a rallying cry for opponents of privatization all over the city. The first step is to slow this whole thing down: The Planning Commission should refuse to certify the environmental impact report, and if the planners won't reject the EIR, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors should. By a two-thirds vote, the Recreation and Park Commission can overturn the design plans – but that's not likely, since Mayor Willie Brown supports the garage. As a last resort, the supervisors can, and should, begin moving to place a charter amendment on the ballot to overturn Prop. J and halt, now and forever, the privatization of Golden Gate Park.