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San Francisco's parks:
Public space or corporate occupied territory?

Yerba Buena Gardens looks like a public park; has grass, trees, open spaces etc.
But don't be fooled by appearances, this park is managed and operated
like a private corporate asset.
Photos by John-Marc Chandonia

By Erika McDonald, special to Fog City Journal

July 27, 2007

San Francisco's parks are some of the city's greatest assets, providing a place for recreation, entertainment and interacting with fellow community members. As citizens prepare to participate in Mayor Gavin Newsom's upcoming community forum to discuss improvements in local parks, there is some concern regarding partial or complete privatization of some park developments.

The Green Party has a long history of engaging in outreach activities in San Francisco's many public parks. These activities have included setting up a banner and ironing boards or portable tables with various materials such as flyers, voter registration forms, and buttons. We often call this organizing effort "tabling." For several years running, we have had a visible presence at Dolores Park for the annual Independence Day premiere performance of the San Francisco Mime Troupe.

The Green Party were present
at this year's Independence Day festivities in Dolores Park.

Recent events involving limitations on this type of political activity at Yerba Buena Gardens (YBG), however, have given us pause. Volunteers from the San Francisco Green Party came to this location on July 21 with the intention of engaging in political outreach with audience members present for the Mime Troupe show that day. According to Sue Vaughan, co-chair of the Green Party's Grass Roots Outreach Working Group (GROW), she and her fellow GROW members were "swarmed" by security personnel and told that these activities were not allowed.

The volunteers obeyed YBG security staff, and left the park to return our political materials to the Green Party office on Howard Street. Returning later to watch the Mime Troupe performance, our members requested additional information regarding the rules and regulations at YBG. This is when the card pictured below was obtained from security.

We were quite surprised to see the regulation prohibiting "posting signs or distributing flyers without a permit". Banning the distribution of flyers without a permit is a drastic departure from Section 7.08 of the San Francisco Municipal Park Code, which states:

"No permit may be required to engage in petitioning, leafletting, demonstrating or soliciting so long as engaging in any of these activities, or any combination of these activities, does not involve 50 or more petitioners, leafletters, demonstrators, or solicitors at the same time within an area circumscribed by a 500-foot radius, provided, however, that a permit is required to solicit in the Music Concourse Area of Golden Gate Park."

Section 7.02 (G) of the park code defines leafletting as "distributing leaflets, handbills, notices or any written material to the public." This definition would therefore clearly include the distribution of flyers.

The rules on the card we were given are different from those that are posted at various entrance points to YBG.

The sign does not mention the regulation barring "posting signs or distributing flyers without a permit".

Yerba Buena Gardens is a public park on city-owned property, but YBG is under the jurisdiction of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency and not the Recreation and Parks Department. YBG is a "privately managed and maintained property", as also stated on the card.

In the days following the July 21 incident, I spoke at length with Mary McCue, General Manager for MGM Management Group, regarding the rules and regulations for YBG. She told me that Yerba Buena Gardens does in fact follow the San Francisco Municipal Park Code, which may be viewed in its entirety online.

After speaking with Mary, I familiarized myself with the park code. I later brought it to her attention that the rule barring flyer distribution without a permit, as stipulated on the card we were given, contradicts the park code. She then told me by email that "the code did change with regard to the flyer distribution and we need to update that card." According to the park rules posted online, however, Section 7.08 quoted above has been in place since 1981.

Also at issue is why security personnel told our volunteers that YBG was a "private park" and that "no political activity" was allowed.

Indeed, our investigation into the rules at Yerba Buena Gardens raised as many questions as it answered. Adding to confusion over park rules is the fact that members of the Green Party have had difficulty engaging in political outreach at YBG before. In 2006, Green Party Congressional candidate Krissy Keefer visited YBG to distribute flyers, and was told that such activity was not allowed. Krissy obeyed orders, but later saw then-Democratic Party Assembly candidate Fiona Ma leafleting. After some intervention on her behalf, Krissy was able to resume campaigning.

The Green Party certainly respects the work that goes into keeping YBG and all parks attractive and useful spaces for the public. I made it clear to Mary McCue when we spoke that our goal is to understand the rules and to honor them. Regulations relating to conduct in the parks need be consistent, fair and properly enforced.

The broader issue here is the future of political speech in San Francisco's parks. Complete privatization of parks clearly threatens the free speech rights of citizens. The experience of Green Party members at Yerba Buena Gardens seems to suggest that private management of parks may be a step in this direction.

Numerous projects are currently being developed under the purview of San Francisco's Redevelopment Agency, and many of these projects purport to include "public" and/or "open" space. The question is if these public spaces, which may also be managed by private firms, will allow for what should be First Amendment protected activity.

In fact, private management over public space could quickly become the norm. If so, will these firms be required by law to follow the park code? What accountability mechanisms will be in place to ensure that the rules are properly enforced? These are just some of the questions free speech advocates should be asking as the new development projects move forward.




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