Officials with the SF Recreation and Parks Department are attempting to quell the mounting frustrations of some Mission District merchants and residents who feel that the city shouldn’t allow private companies to operate in a public park, as the department is seeking to do. Even those who don't necessarily have a problem with inviting more commerce into Dolores Park say the process should have been more open and transparent.
“I like pushcarts,” said Rachel Herbert, owner of Dolores Park Café. “I think they add flavor to San Francisco.” But Herbert is also allowing opponents of the department's request for proposals (RFP ) to set up shop in her store and gather signatures for a petition  to “stop the commercialization of Dolores Park.” Herbert, who lives in the neighborhood, said she is helping the effort because “It’s about the process and Rec and Park not really thinking things through and doing whatever they want.”
Mike McConnell, the man behind the petition, holds a similar viewpoint. “I don’t feel that it was adequate outreach before this.” They’re not alone. McConnell currently has petitions in three stores - including his own store, Fayes Video – each with around 100 signatures, along with 700 online petition signatures.
While the controversy is recent, the RFP for the permits was issued in September last year. The proposal stated: “Before entering into permit agreement for the operation of a pushcart in any neighborhood park, the Department will conduct a community outreach process to determine the appropriateness of such a use in the park.”
It’s unclear how much outreach there was beyond a request for applicants posted in the July 31 issue of the San Francisco Chronicle. However, according to Mission Local , department spokesman Elton Pon sent them an email stating that the department mailed out “an announcement of the opportunity to more than 1,000 potential applicants.”
Regina Dick-Endrizzi, director of the SF Office of Small Business, said much of the demand for the permits has come from small time vendors. “Part of this has been an organic growing up of the vendors themselves,” Dick-Endrizzi said. “The mobile food folks have been coming and working and urging us to open up more space.”
Dick-Endrizzi helped vet the applicants in the panel that included members of department and the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development. “I can attest as being part of the committee that they were very careful in making their decision,” she said.
However one recipient of the permits, Oakland-based Blue Bottle Coffee, has received criticisms that it isn’t local enough – city policies encourage contracting with San Francisco small businesses. Blue Bottle is also backed by venture capital firm Kohlberg Ventures .
Its founder recently issued a public letter explaining his position: “I had assumed that since there were published articles in The Chronicle, the Examiner, and the SF Weekly in November of 2009, and January 2010, that the community around Dolores Park was well informed. So it pained me to hear that many of our (hopefully) future neighbors were upset that more outreach had not been done.”
This isn’t the first time a vendor has been allowed to operate in city parks. Nor are they the first merchant with questionable local status. Last August RPD commission voted 6-1 to replace long-time Stow Lake vendor  with an out of state suitor. The Chronicle reported “the corporation, which has owned and operated the 1940s-era boathouse for 67 years, couldn't compete with New Mexico-based Ortega Family Enterprises, which pledged to complete $233,000 worth of improvements to the well-worn building and buy a brand-new fleet of boats.”
Dolores has become a haven for unlicensed vendors selling items such as beer, hot dogs, ice cream, and even pot-laced brownies and truffles. What will become of them? “You pay thousands and thousands for your trailer and for permits and this guy comes around with his little cart and is selling coffee for 50 cents less, what are you going to do? You’re going to call the fucking cops and say get this scumbag out of here,” said local impresario Chicken John.
Dolores Park has traditionally been regarded with a kind of laissez faire attitude by many San Francisco residents. On a warm day it’s not uncommon to see hundreds of chic to cheap layabouts basking on its hills, beer and bowl in hand, without worry in mind. And many-a-cop has seen them too, but rarely do they intervene – and all was well. Maybe that’s another reason why there has been such uproar over the proposed introduction of pushcarts into the park.
Since the uproar, both Blue Bottle Coffee and the other potential vendor nonprofit Cocina have been put in limbo. La Cocina’s executive director, Caleb Zigas, told Mission Local that “he had expected to roll into the park this week and is disappointed by the delay. In the past four months he’s poured $28,000 in grant money into La Cocina’s food trailer, which is now sitting in storage.”
But how long will the pushcarts (they’re actually trailers powered by generators) gather dust in a garage? “For most types of appeals there is a 15-day window after the permit was issued,” said Cynthia Goldstein, executive director of the SF Board of Appeals. However it isn’t a concrete rule. “On rare instances the board will extend the window when there is evidence that the city did something wrong.” In addition, according to Goldstein, there is usually a 15-20 day window between when an appeal is filled and when it is reviewed by the Board. In short, the dilemma may not be quashed by the meeting this evening that the department is holding on the controversy.
The extension would bode well for any NIMBYs since Cocina’s and Blue Bottle’s permits were granted on April 15, 2010 and Sept 2, 2010, respectively.
RecPark was expecting a 12 percent cut on the pushcart profits and hoped to net around $70,000 annually. The pushcarts are just one of the many revenue generating ideas that are currently floating around. RecPark – under its new department head, Phil Ginsburg, who was previously chief of staff to Mayor Gavin Newsom – recently created a partnerships and revenue generating division with the purpose of capitalizing on many of the cities assets.
At the Jan 21, 2010 Recreation and Parks Commission meeting, pushcarts were discussed as a way to ostensibly keep city employees from getting laid off. Other ideas that were tossed out included hosting a production of Peter Pan, renting out parking places for car shares, and an adopt-a-park program; an adopt-a-gardener program was even suggested. The city was broke and was searching for a way to close huge General Fund deficits.
The idea of pushcarts was discussed again at the Feb 18 meeting. Nick Kinsey from the property division of RecPark, told the commission, “We received 18 responses to the RFP and we actually brought six of them in for interviews. As part of the interviews we met with the respondents, we evaluated their qualifications, evaluated their operation plans – in terms of where they wanted to be in each of the parks, in each of the proposed parks, how that would interact with residents and other park users use of the park space and if there would be any conflict there.”
Kinsey continued, “We’re also accepting application on a rolling basis right now. So if anyone is watching and interested in submitting an application for pushcarts, we are accepting pushcarts. Some of our location are maxed out we wouldn’t accept anyone else. But we have plenty of other park spaces where we think this is an appropriate use.”
The meeting of the issue is today (Thurs/7) at 4 p.m. in City Hall Room 416