By Thomas K. Pendergast
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously approved combining the operation of Golden Gate Park’s Botanical Garden, Conservatory of Flowers and the Japanese Tea Garden last month, then placing them under management of the Botanical Garden Society.
These three attractions will now be collectively known as the Gardens of Golden Gate Park, although the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department will still maintain the popular attractions and the plants therein.
The new “flexible pricing” approach to charging entrance fees for people who are not military veterans nor San Francisco residents, however, got hung up at the Board’s Budget and Finance Committee. That other shoe is expected to drop sometime in March when the details are completely ironed out and the legislation gets sent to the full Board for a vote.
Flexible pricing for all three of these popular tourist destinations has already been in place since January of 2020 but Eric Anderson, the superintendent for Open Space for Rec. and Park, said this was just a temporary pilot program that they now want to make permanent.
The new arrangement will allow for a “multi-garden ticket,” which would be a group ticket allowing visitors to go to all three gardens.
“The ordinance allows greater flexibility and would allow pricing to be set consistently based on overall demand times and seasons … and all price changes would require a 30-day notice,” Anderson said.
For various reasons, putting all three under control of the Botanical Garden Society could be considered complicated, including the fact that there was no competitive bidding for other possible vendors.
“Because the management of these three gardens has never been competitively procured, we don’t know if the costs are reasonable or if there are other vendors that would bid on a competitive solicitation,” said Nicholas Menard of the City’s Office of the Budget and Legislative Analyst (BLA). “So, we therefore consider approval of the lease amendment to be a policy matter for the Board of Supervisors.”
As for the proposed new flexible pricing plan “it does not constrain the price changes to certain periods, like certain months, as it is right now,” Menard told the Committee.
“The annual revenue loss from eliminating (San Francisco) resident fees would be about $271,000 and about $300,000 for the non-resident veterans.”
“It has really been a vision for those who came before us for generations, including John McLaren, I would say, that this is supposed to be a green oasis for all the people that come and how can we make it free,” District 1 Supervisor Connie Chan said.
“But most importantly, in the event that we have to offset the cost of operations, how can we make sure that it will remain affordable for people that actually come to visit?” she asked. “I’m supportive to have a non-resident fee.”
District 4 Supervisor Gordon Mar brought up a report from the BLA which pointed out that the existing lease and management agreement does not have performance metrics for the Botanical Garden Society.
“It seems like that’s important as well, especially because we’re waiving the competitive bid requirement, to really have fiscal oversight,” Mar said. “The fact that there’s no performance metrics included in the agreement is something that, I think, is something really to be looked at.”
Dana Ketcham, the director of property management at Rec. and Park, responded that they could look into adding a requirement to submit an annual report to Rec. and Park.
“I think that would help to strengthen our oversight of this really important agreement,” Mar said.
At one point, Ketcham said the price of getting into the Botanical Gardens would cap at $15 but Chan challenged Ketcham about this.
“There is no specific cap dollar listed as $15 to say that is the maximum. The language, however, is saying that you could increase … the department general manager … may approve a temporary increase of up to 50% to the non-resident adult fees with not less than 30 days’ notice,” Chan said. “So there’s no specific language that’s capping you at $15. In fact, at any 30-days-notice you could increase by 50%.”
“We want to use this nimbly and smartly in the best interest of these gardens. Just increasing prices is not an effective thing to do,” Ketcham said. “You have to look at market demand and all of these things. And we need to be nimble and able to respond to those changes.”
But Chan was not convinced.
“Why are we allowing flexible pricing as a methodology to increase the price?” she said. “And what is wrong to technically, in the language itself, to allow a set fee table and you come back to the budget committee like everybody else, and then you propose why you need a fee increase on an annual basis?
“The flexible pricing, as a methodology for price increases, even now at this moment, does not make any sense to me. And it’s because they are allowed to decrease the fees, we can have language saying, ‘you are allowed to decrease your price.’”
Chan said her issues with the ordinance at that time were not resolved so she asked the committee to continue the item to March 2.
“All of the revenue generated by the three different places – the Tea Garden, the Conservatory and the Botanical Garden – all are reinvested back into the operations and staffing,” said District 11 Supervisor Ahsha Safai. “I think that’s a good thing to note; these are not money makers; this is just covering the cost of operating and repairing.”
But during public comment at least one citizen was having none of it.
“This is a public garden. We pay for those gardeners,” Harry Pariser said. “I really resent this enterprise model of our public spaces being farmed out for profit. That’s outrageous!
“We pay taxes to use them. We shouldn’t be prohibited from using the Shakespeare Garden because of a wedding and they should not be renting out the Tea Garden – which they will be doing for private $300 sushi parties – to raise money.”