City weighs artificial turf fields in Golden Gate Park

The brightly illuminated artificial turf fields would be adjacent to Ocean Beach.

[[UPDATE 5/25: The project was approved]] The San Francisco Planning and Recreation & Park commissions will hold a special joint hearing tomorrow (Thurs/24) afternoon to consider approving the Beach Chalet Athletic Fields Renovation, a controversial city proposal to replace the natural grass fields on the west end of Golden Gate Park with artificial turf.

The $48 million project – years in development by Recreation & Park officials and championed by department head Phil Ginsburg, who has aggressively tried to monetize the city's parks – has inflamed the passions of both supporters and opponents, who are expected to jam into the 3 pm hearing in City Hall's Room 400 to deliver hours' of testimony. [Correction: Patrick Hannan with City Fields Foundation says this is a $14 million project, part of its overall $48 million artificial turf program for the city.]

Supporters say there aren't enough fields in the city for young soccer players and the existing fields there are in bad shape and without adequate lighting. In addition to the artificial turf, which the City Fields Foundation (created and funded by the Fisher family, founders of The Gap) has been helping to install in parks throughout the city, the project would include 150,000-watt lighting 60 feet in the air to illuminate the fields until 10 pm, year-round.

Opponents of the project, which include primarily environmentalists and park neighbors, cite a litany of problems with the project, saying it violates city plans that call for the park to remain a natural area open to all park users. They say it will disturb wildlife, increase traffic (much of it from out-of-towners who rent the fields), and create potentially toxic runoff in a sensitive habitat.

“Golden Gate Park is a unique, magnificent, and world-famous San Francisco treasure. It was conceived to serve as an open space preserve in the midst of San Francisco – a cultivated pastoral and sylvan landscape. It was designed to afford opportunities for all to experience beauty and tranquility. Plastic fields that are brightly lighted until 10 pm every night of the year are entirely out of place in this setting. The western end of Golden Gate Park should remain a part of the cohesive naturalistic environment envisioned by the Park's creators,” Katherine Howard of SF Ocean Edge, which organized in opposition to the project, wrote in a May 22 letter to the two commissions.

While it will be a joint hearing, the Planning Commission is charged with approving the project's environmental impact report and the RPC will consider approval of the project itself. But judging from the long list of angry comments to our last story on the subject by people on both sides of the debate, this divisive project will likely be the subject of appeals and lawsuits for months or years to come.