By Harry S. Pariser, guest op-ed
July 20, 2013
Visiting the San Francisco Botanical Garden at Strybing Arboretum is not what it used to be. Locals used to enter as late as seven in the evening or later behind the Hall of Flowers. While never well-maintained or administered – the eleven gardeners allegedly assigned to the facility always appeared to be scarce on the ground – it afforded a rustic charm, a lovely wabi and sabi respite from the commercialism of the Avenues.
All this began to change when the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society forced a change of name and then, after several failed attempts, added a “temporary” one-year visitor fee, trumpeted as a revenue fix by Supervisors Chris Daly, Eric Mar and David Campos in 2010.
Ticket booths were installed at tremendous expense to the taxpayer, gates were shut, and a new wall was built. At the end of the year, despite an anemic attempt by Avalos to end the fees, the fees were extended another two years. Supervisors Scott Wiener and David Chiu extolled the visitor fees as an important revenue source, ignoring the Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi-requested Harvey Rose audit which castigated Rec and Park, calling the revenue projections “quite optimistic.” Supervisors Carmen Chu, Mark Farrell and Sean Elsbernd, said not a word. Supervisor Jane Kim managed to vote both for the fees and against them. The day before the vote, the San Francisco Chronicle waxed eloquently in a disingenuous Op Ed, calling for fees for everyone.
Two years since, the visitor fee extension has nearly passed. The Hall of Flowers is empty most weekends, its most reliable tenant being an evangelical church, because the local flower clubs and botanical associations can no longer afford the high fees. Next door, at the entrance to what is now called San Francisco Botanical Garden; $150,000 has been spent on unnecessary gaudy new signage, along with overpriced bicycle racks and benches. Locals at the ticket booths find that they must pony up for their “out of town” guests, visitors and relatives while those who have plunked down $75 to join the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society are admitted free along with a guest. Adding insult to injury, “reciprocal garden members” pay no entry fee, and the maps handed out, paid for on the taxpayer’s dime, omit any mention of City ownership.
Should a local not produce an ID, he/she must either shell out $7 or the park patrol will be called. Inside, a visitor will find $4 million in newly paved roads paid for by State bond money, corporate-styled signage paid with City bond funds and even an obscene installation – an amalgam of plastic and fragments of glass – by Topher Delaney. The one thing that will not be found in quantity is people. The meadows, once alive with Frisbee throwers and people reading books have been colonized by defecating geese. Meanwhile, plans are afoot for a new 2.4-acre, fenced-in $15-million complex, dubbed in the finest Orwellian fashion as a “Center for Sustainable Gardening,” which most San Franciscans do not know about despite the fact that their tax dollars are helping to pay for it. The Sierra Club ardently opposes it. No government initiated meetings have ever been held with residents about either the fees or the building. No meetings are held by the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society for either members or the general public.
How did this sad state of affairs occur?
Money, that’s how – lots of it. After paying Davis and Associates for the first attempt, Don Baldocchi, President of the Society’s wealthy and insular Board of Trustees, hired lobbyist Sam Lauter to the tune of tens of thousands per quarter to lobby the Board for the fees, falsely claiming that they were needed to support a “new nursery.” Although two meetings had been held at the Hall of Flowers in 2009, one promulgating proposed resident and nonresident fees and then, when that caused too great a stir, one advocating only “nonresident fees,” no meetings have been held since. No Supervisor has called a hearing on the impacts of the fees or made any serious attempt to engage constituents in a community dialogue about the fees.
The most recent round of legislation around these fees has been the most egregious yet in terms of abuses. Only those closely monitoring the issue have been aware that the permanent fees were up for consideration. Both the fees and a 60-plus page contract were hidden within the entire $200 million dollar park budget, apparently in the hope that they would remain unnoticed. Despite the fact that the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society was issued a grant of $725,000 in 2012, RPD claimed that they received, after expenses, $250,000 per year from the Society. The reason for this exact sum is that the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society hires the $11-per-hour ticket takers, and then bills taxpayers for those salaries, administrative salaries and every other charge imaginable from security guards to long-stemmed carnations. The Society then pays $250,000 towards “three gardeners,” the only such set-aside within the department.
On June 16, the Budget and Finance Committee voted three to two to make the non-resident visitor fee permanent with Supervisor London Breed asserting that locals had not stopped visiting, despite the fact that she had not visited there since taking office and had visited there only once while on the campaign trail. On June 16, the vote by the full Board was pushed up by a week without public notice. That morning, the San Francisco Chronicle announced that the vote was planned in a misleading article secured behind their pay wall. The Supervisors, RPD, and the elites had ensured that there would be no public pushback. With only Avalos, Campos and Mar opposing the permanent fees, the 30-year management agreement (which give gives the Society near-complete control over the facility, along with free utilities and $100-per-month rent) was passed. No amendments were added, nor was public comment permitted. The only press coverage (by The Examiner and the Chronicle) distorted the truth and quoted no concerned locals.
This coup by the wealthy had succeeded. The Commons have been stolen.
This is Alice in Wonderland logic. In a City with a $7.9-billion budget, which squanders upwards of $20 million on the America’s Cup, how does collecting $250,000 for the privatization of 55 acres of public land make sense when you are spending upwards of two million dollars on maintenance?
It makes perfect sense if you want to keep people out, and that is what the elites have been up to and have succeeded. A corporatized facility with wine tastings in the redwoods, yoga on the grass, visiting food trucks and members-only evenings and picnics, has been the recent reality. Worse is sure to come.
Don’t like it? Call our “elected” officials and complain. And don’t take any half-baked pabulum for an answer. Demand answers, demand changes and push back. These 55 acres belong to everyone, including the undocumented and generations yet unborn.