Golden Gate Park

Letter to the Editor: Stop the Privatization of Our Park

Editor:

In her latest “Commentary,” San Francisco Supervisor Connie Chan maintains that she is an acolyte of John McClaren’s concept of Golden Gate Park as a sanctuary from the hubbub of urban life and against the concept of “pay-to-play.” Yet, ironically, she ends up endorsing commercialization and steep admission fees.

Chan ignores the elephant in the room: Two public spaces which should remain public are to be turned over to the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society. Without any public discussion, the formerly free Conservatory of Flowers was turned over to Parks Alliance. While it is great that Supervisor Chan has circumvented the most egregious aspect of the transfer (the payment of over a million dollars to the Parks Alliance from the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society), we are still transferring a publicly administered garden to a private entity. The San Francisco Botanical Garden Society pays only $100 rent for its offices to taxpayers; everything else is on us. We have already seen restricted hours at the Arboretum, closed gates and $50 evening concerts and other such Blueblood-oriented events.

We can expect to see incredible commercialization of the Conservatory and Tea Garden if this horrific lease agreement is ratified. Think sushi dinners and sake tastings in the pavilion at a cost of hundreds of dollars, “magical” hundred-dollar evenings in the greenhouse, wedding receptions on Saturdays curtailing use (much as they do in the Shakespeare Garden) and all sorts of egregiously horrific LED lighting, much as we see elsewhere in the environs.


The lease agreement and ordinance both give Phil Ginsburg unilateral authority to set whatever rates he desires.. While stopping the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society from fleecing visitors on weekends, it still means that the Board is voting to forfeit complete control of the Tea Garden and Conservatory to a private business that pays no taxes.

As the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society maintains control over whatever revenues are gained after the substantial collection costs, they maintain control over what amounts to a slush fund. They will be free to spend this money at their whim, and they are quite likely to buy from donors or others who do favors. We already see this, in that they purchase from certain vendors repeatedly, and there is every possibility of abuse.

The San Francisco Botanical Garden Society has never held an open meeting. Its trustees never meet with locals, and the meeting notes are no longer archived in the library. We are harassed if we do not have the right entry papers proving our residency; outrageously, we must pay for each and every guest; gates have been closed and access hours cut.

The San Francisco Botanical Garden Society has also employed racial profiling on at least one individual, calling the police numerous times on the late Inner Sunset resident, a Salvadoran immigrant and USMC veteran. We see Black and Brown people not in the Arboretum itself, but on the cover of the Annual Report and those full-color non-biodegradable advertising posters that our tax dollars pay for.  There is no doubt that the entry taxes are about keeping people out, while ensuring after-hours control for profitable events.

But the best reason to reject this elitist privatization is that the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society has shown itself to be a horrific administrator. They bungled the construction of the State-funded asphalt roads; they completely devastated the charming Demonstration Garden, using taxpayer funds to pave it and turn it into a corporate event space. After an extensive process, a highly controversial lease agreement was legislated giving the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society the right to construct a large building, dubbed “The Center for Sustainable Gardening” on top of the hill. New parking spaces were planned, and there was to be a fence around the compound.

However, a large taxpayer-funded sign literally rotted on the spot while the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society, humiliatingly, failed to raise funds for their august edifice. So the project was downsized and moved to the current location of the nursery. An immense amount of vegetation was pulped, as were many trees collected in this “museum.” This time around, neither EIR nor public outreach was done: the contract was simply revised behind closed doors. It is unclear why this permanent fence should be constructed where none was before. But for that matter, it is unclear as to why taxpayers funded a $1.1 million fence, yet are asked to pony up for their guests and suffer other indignities, such as having the gates to 55 acres closed for months because the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society could not collect money due to COVID.

Before the Arboretum was privatized, then Supervisor Mirkarimi ordered Harvey Rose to evaluate the fee agreement. The report excoriated the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society, while also harshly critiquing RPD. Supervisor Chan should order another such report before we willingly contract decades of private control of public resources.

The public should retain administrative control of the Tea Garden and reclaim control of the Conservatory. Both should be free to enter, just as they were in previous years; we can charge tour buses to make up some of that “deficit.” In addition, the Board should legislate that the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society needs to hold regular public meetings, make its trustee notes freely available, keep the Arboretum open after 4 p.m. for free from April to November and make every single state, local or national holiday a day where all are free to enter.

With the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society clutching a $20-million endowment and a city budget of $12 billion, we have the financial means to easily make this happen. The question is whether our donor-dependent “progressive” supervisors will have the integrity and vision to stand up against elites who do not live here, let alone have any long-term interest in the betterment of our city.

Let’s not allow them to get off the hook with their customary platitudes, hand wringing, false platitudes about “environmentalism” and channeling their inner Kristen Sinema. Contact them today! Also send a statement to brent.jalipa@sfgov.org and ask that your words be placed in the public-comment files for both File 21-1305 and File 21-1295.

Harry S. Pariser

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