Golden Gate Park

City Debates Plan to Extend Stay of GG Park’s Observation Wheel

After the Richmond Review and Sunset Beacon newspapers went to press, the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department issued a press release on Wednesday, March 3 announcing the approval by the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission to keep the Observation Wheel in place until 2025. Read the release HERE.

By Thomas K. Pendergast 

The SkyStar observation wheel in Golden Gate Park was about to get a four-year extension when an email from several San Francisco Supervisors sent the plan spinning into uncertainty. 

On Jan. 20, just when the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) was considering approval of a Certificate of Appropriateness for keeping the 150-foot-tall wheel in its present location at the Music Concourse in Golden Gate Park, District 1 Supervisor Connie Chan, District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston and District 11 Supervisor and Board President Shamann Walton sent an email to that commission asking them to hold off on their vote. 

A plan to extend the stay of the Observation Wheel in Golden Gate Park for four more years was approved by the SF Recreation and Park Commission, but, at the request of three supervisors, the Historic Preservation Commission delayed their decision on whether or not to approve the extension. The wheel was placed in the Music Concourse last year as part of a planned celebration of the park’s 150th anniversary. Proponents of the extension see economic and entertainment benefits. Opponents have environmental and aesthetic concerns. Photo by Michael Durand.

The HPC complied and delayed the decision to a future meeting, possibly on March 3. But the very next day, the SF Recreation and Park Commission (RPC), aware of the supervisors’ concerns, went ahead and approved the full four-plus-year extension. RPC is the governing body of the Recreation and Park Department (Rec. and Park). 

Regardless of that vote, however, Rec. and Park still needs the Certificate of Appropriateness from the HPC to complete the deal. 

When asked why they decided to intervene, two of the supervisors expressed concern about the big wheel getting that much more time. It was supposed to be temporary when it was put up a year ago as part of a celebration planned for the park’s 150th anniversary celebration. However, since then it has been closed most of the past year because of restrictions put in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus. 

It was supposed to come down by March 31, but Rec. and Park General Manager Phil Ginsburg is trying to keep it there until 2025. During an HPC Zoom meeting, he was as surprised as anyone when the supervisors’ email was announced. 

When asked by email why she took this unusual step, Supervisor Chan issued a statement explaining her action. 

“I appreciate the Ferris wheel as part of Golden Gate Park’s 150th Anniversary celebration,” Chan said. “It was unfortunate that the celebration did not take place as planned due to the impact of pandemic. I can see that it could stay for another year for folks to enjoy as our city is reopening and recovering from the pandemic. But a four year extended stay of the wheel without sustainable mitigation for the impacts on wildlife, noise and air pollution, and an equitable and free use of a public park space, is a misstep.” 

Jen Snyder, a legislative aide to District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston, also issued a statement on his behalf. 

“The Ferris wheel has been an amazing way for families to enjoy the park together during this time, and we all need a little levity these days,” Snyder said. “The question before the Historic Preservation Commission next month is whether to approve the requested four-year extension. To date, we have not heard any justification for an extension of that length and the Sierra Club has raised some critical concerns regarding the impact of the Ferris wheel on the environment.”

An emailed request for comment to District 11 Supervisor and Board President Shamann Walton received no response by press time. 

Aside from the fact that the wheel was only used a fraction of the time it was supposed to because of the pandemic, among the other reasons given by Rec. and Park for extending the time was to help the City’s economic recovery when it eventually emerges from the health crisis. 

“This can assist the City and small businesses with recovering from the pandemic,” a spokesperson for the department, Dana Ketcham, told the commission. “We had extensive conversations with members of the economic task force and business leaders and came to the conclusion that … this temporary installation for another four years will really help.”

Extending the wheel’s stay is controversial, as indicated by many people speaking both in favor of and opposing the extension during the meeting. Reasons given for opposing the extension ranged from its affect on local birds, like the Great Horned Owl, to light and noise pollution complaints. 

After public comment, it was announced that an email had been received from supervisors Chan, Preston and Walton asking the HPC to consider instead at least a six-month temporary approval but not more than a year. 

Commissioner Jonathan Pearlman said he was not supportive of a four-year extension even before the supervisors’ email, so he was willing to put off the decision to see what they had in mind. 

“I think it is important to give the supervisors, in particular Supervisor Chan, the opportunity to address both sides of this,” Pearlman said. “They are vocal, but I don’t believe they are a minority, the people in opposition…. I wouldn’t have voted for an extension, certainly not a four-year extension. I don’t think that’s appropriate. 

“But I am very willing to vote on a six-month extension … for the supervisors to really work with Rec. and Park to come to some agreement that everybody feels can be supported,” he said. “There are a lot of voices in opposition and I think there’s a significant amount of very good points…. I don’t believe that this should be in Golden Gate Park. There are plenty of places it could be in the City and still support economic recovery. 

“I don’t think it’s our job, as Historic Preservation Commission, to be concerned about the economic recovery, because our job is to look at the impacts to the historic fabric of our city.”

And District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin also called in to give his opinion. 

“I believe that what Supervisor Chan is seeking, which is the opportunity to work this out in a mature and policy-responsible way, is absolutely appropriate,” Peskin said. “And I think giving a little time and space for that conversation would serve everybody in this just right. I would concur that the notion of a relatively short continuance will not be a burden to any of the parties.”

Ginsburg expressed his surprise at this development. 

“I don’t know where this went sideways, but we’re happy to work with Supervisor Chan on her concerns,” he said. 

(On Feb. 23, Supervisors Connie Chan and Aaron Peskin called for an investigation of SF Parks Alliance to focus on Rec. and Park’s Golden Gate Park 150th Anniversary agreement. Read the press release HERE.

The colorful lights on the Observation Wheel in Golden Gate Park delight some and annoy others. A plan to extend the duration of the attraction’s length of stay in the park is being reviewed by the City. Photo by Michael Durand.

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