Rec-Park is trying to turn privatization into official city policy, but sponsors of a ballot measure are pushing back
Should the city be trying to make money off of its parks, recreation centers, and other facilities operated by the Recreation and Park Department? That's the question at the center of several big controversies in recent years, as well as a fall ballot measure and an effort to elevate revenue generation into an official long-term strategy for the department.
So far, the revenue-generating initiatives by RPD General Manager Phil Ginsburg and former Mayor Gavin Newsom have been done on an ad hoc basis — such as permitting vendors in Dolores Park, charging visitors to Strybing Arboretum, and leasing out recreation centers — but an update of the Recreation and Open Space Element (ROSE) of the General Plan seeks to make it official city policy.
The last of six objectives in the plan, which will be heard by the Planning Commission Aug. 4, is "secure long-term resources and management for open space acquisition, operations, and maintenance," a goal that includes three policies: develop long-term funding mechanisms (mostly through new fees and taxes); partner with other public agencies and nonprofits to manage resources; and, most controversially, "pursue public-private partnerships to generate new operating revenues for open spaces."
The plan likens that last policy to the city's deal with Clear Channel to maintain Muni bus stops with funding from advertising revenue, saying that "similar strategies could apply to parks." It cites the Portland Parks Foundation as a model for letting Nike and Columbia Sportswear maintain facilities and mark them with their corporate logos, and said businesses such as bike rental shops, cafes, and coffee kiosks can "serve to activate an open space," a phrase it uses repeatedly.
"The city should seek out new opportunities, including corporate sponsorships where appropriate, and where such sponsorship is in keeping with the mission of the open space itself," the document says.
Yet that approach is anathema to how many San Franciscans see their parks and open spaces — as vital public assets that should be maintained with general tax revenue rather than being dependent on volunteers and wealthy donors, subject to entry fees, or leased to private organizations.
That basic philosophical divide over how the city's parks and recreational facilities are managed has animated a series of conflicts in recent years that have soured many people on the RPD. They include the mass firing of rec directors and leasing out of rec centers, the scandal-tinged process of selecting a new Stow Lake Boathouse vendor, new vending contracts for Dolores Park, the eviction of the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Center recycling facility, plans to develop western Golden Gate Park and other spots, the conversion by the private City Fields Foundation of many soccer fields to artificial turf, and the imposition of entry fees at the arboretum.
Activists involved in those seemingly unrelated battles united into a group called Take Back Our Parks, recognizing that "it's all the same problem: the monetization of the park system," says member John Rizzo, a Sierra Club activist and elected City College trustee. "It's this Republican idea that the parks should pay for themselves."
And now, with the help of the four most progressive members of the Board of Supervisors, the group is putting the issue before voters and trying to stop what it calls the auctioning off of the city's most valuable public assets to the highest bidders.
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.
And that policy approach would get a big boost if it gets written into the city's General Plan, which could happen later this year.
Land use attorney Sue Hestor has been fighting projects that have disproportionately favored the wealthy for decades, often using the city's General Plan, a state-mandated document that lays out official city goals and policies. She also is concerned that the ROSE is quietly being developed to "run interference for Rec-Park to do anything they want to."
"By getting policies into the General Plan that are a rationalization of privatization, it backs up what Rec-Park is doing," Hestor said, noting how much influence Ginsburg and his allies have clearly exerted over the Planning Department document. "It's effectively a Rec-Park plan."
Sue Exeline, the lead planner on ROSE, said the process was launched in November 2007 by an Open Space Task Force created by Newsom, and that the Planning Department, Neighborhood Parks Council, and speakers at community meetings have all influenced its development. Yet she conceded that RPD was "a big part of the process."
When we asked about the revenue-generating policies, where they came from, and why they were presented in such laudatory fashion without noting the controversy that underlies them, Exeline said simply: "It will continue to be vetted." And when we continued to push for answers, she tried to say the conversation was off-the-record, referred us to RPD or Planning Director John Rahaim, and hung up the phone.
The rationale for bringing in private sources of revenue: it's the only way to maintain RPD resources during these tight budget times. A July 5 San Francisco Examiner editorial that praised these "revenue-generating business partnerships" and lambasted the ballot measure and its proponents was titled "Purists want Rec and Park to pull cash off trees."
But critics say the department could be putting more energy into a tax measure, impact fees, or other general revenue sources rather than simply turning toward privatization options.
"We need to see revenue, but we also need to stop the knee-jerk acceptance of every corporate hand that offers anything," Mosgofian said. "Our political leadership believes you need to genuflect before wealth."
And they say that their supporters cover the entire ideological spectrum.
"We're getting wide support, everywhere from conservative neighborhoods to progressive neighborhoods. It's not a left-right issue, it's about fairness and equity," Rizzo said.
In sponsoring the Parks for the People initiative and unsuccessfully trying to end the arboretum fees (it failed on a 5-6 vote at the Board of Supervisors, with President David Chiu the swing vote), John Avalos is the one major mayoral candidate that is raising concerns about the RPD schemes.
"Our parks are our public commons. They are public assets that should be paid for with tax dollars," Avalos told us. He called the idea of allowing advertising and corporate sponsorships into the parks, "a real breach from what the public expects from parks and open space."
When asked whether, if he's elected mayor, he would continue the policies and let Ginsburg continue to run RPD, Avalos said, "Probably not. I think we need to make a lot of changes in the department. They should be given better support in the General Fund so we don't have to make these kinds of choices."
ROSE will be the subject of informational hearings before the Planning Commission on Aug. 4 and Sept. 15, with an adoption hearing scheduled for Oct. 13. Each hearing begins at noon in Room 400, City Hall, 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Dr., San Francisco.