Supes vote on Botanical Garden fees

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The Board of Supervisors voted on April 12 to keep in place nonresident fees at the San Francisco Botanical Garden for at least another two years, rejecting a proposal by Sup. John Avalos to do away with the fees and make up for the shortfall with a portion of revenues brought in by a real-estate transfer tax that was approved by voters last year.

Advocating for his position, Avalos stood to tell a story about his last visit to the Botanical Garden. "A couple months ago, I was able to go there with my kids," he began. "I went in, I was asked for my ID, I showed my ID. I noticed the next person who came in after me looked very agitated when she got to the gate. She said the F-word very loud, and she started to walk away. I approached her, and I said, 'hey what's going on?' And she said, 'I come here everyday, and I'm being asked for my ID, and I have to go back to my house to get it because I don't have it with me today.'"

She wasn't the only person who seemed disgruntled by the gatekeeper that day. "On my way out, I noticed a few tourists coming up," Avalos continued. "It looked like they were from Germany. They walked up to the gate and then they walked back away from the gate. They clearly did not go in because they did not want to pay the fee." A couple in their 60s tried to enter, but they did not go in because they didn't have their IDs proving that they lived in San Francisco, he added.

Bottom line: "The gate and the fee has really diminished what people's enjoyment of the park has been like for decades," he said. "Can't there just be one fee that we don't raise? Can this be that one fee? I don't think that's asking too much." He also noted that budget analyst's report showed that the fees did not bring in the revenue that had been anticipated, a point echoed by Sups. Ross Mirkarimi and David Campos.

Yet Avalos' pitch wasn't enough to persuade his colleagues. On the question of whether money from the real-estate transfer tax revenues should be used to make up for the nonresident fees so that the Botanical Garden could be free for everyone, supervisors said no on a 7-4 vote, with Sups. Eric Mar, Mirkarimi, Campos, and Avalos voting yes.

The board also voted on whether the nonresident admission fees should be extended beyond June 30, 2011 (a date set when the fee was initially imposed), as proposed by Mayor Ed Lee. Board President David Chiu offered an amendment that the fees would only remain in place for two years, after which point the debate could be rehashed. The amendment was adopted, and the mayor's proposal passed on a 6-5 vote, with Sups. Jane Kim, Mar, Mirkarimi, Avalos, and Campos voting no.

So, that's how it went down at the board. If you're a nonresident, the Botanical Garden still isn't free.

Since Kim and Avalos both shared their accounts of visiting the Botanical Garden, I thought I'd share my own photos and impressions from a visit on a recent afternoon, when I had several hours to myself to explore Golden Gate Park's haven of greenery. Admission was free, since I'd planned ahead to bring my ID.

The day was sunny and warm, and I spent a long time photographing the light streaming through a cluster of bamboo and sitting by a pond watching some water bugs skip around on the surface. It was a welcome escape from city life with an element of educational value, since all the plants are labeled with plaques identifying their Latin names, common names, and places of origin.

I noticed two people sitting wordlessly together in the sun. The woman, who seemed to be a caregiver, was seated on a bench, and beside her was an elderly man in a wheelchair with a blanket over his lap. The man seemed to be very frail. Yet he wore a serene expression, and was clearly enjoying the calm and quiet afternoon.

I don't know if they paid to get in or not. As Board President David Chiu noted at the meeting before voting in favor of keeping the fee in place, "We don't live in a perfect world." You can argue about the privatization of parks, or about the need to find all possible sources of revenue in order to fend off cuts to city-funded services. Nevertheless, it's sad to think of the folks who would be barred from the simple pleasure of sitting in the sun surrounded by natural beauty, because they can't afford to pay.