How the Wealthy Stole 55 Acres of Golden Gate Park

Written by Harry S. Pariser. Posted in Land Use, Opinion, Politics

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Published on July 20, 2013 with 6 Comments

San Francisco Botanical Garden: What was once a publicly-owned jewel in Golden Gate Park, has been privatized.  Photo: Harry S. Pariser.

San Francisco Botanical Garden: What was once a publicly-owned jewel in Golden Gate Park, is now privatized. Photo: Harry S. Pariser.

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.

Harry S. Pariser

Harry S. Pariser is a writer, author, photographer and graphic artist who has resided in the Inner Sunset for more than two decades and San Francisco for nearly three. He is direct neighbors with the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society and is the author of Experience Indonesia!, a travel app, as well as apps for Barbados and St. John.

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Comments for How the Wealthy Stole 55 Acres of Golden Gate Park are now closed.

  1. I believe he was referring to print coverage. SFBay covered it ONLY on the day of the first vote.

    What was needed was for people to have been informed way before then, something London Breed, Scott Wiener and company had no intention of doing, as they didn’t want any problems with their rubberstamping of this absurd turnover of land to the wealthy!

  2. boys and girls,

    Just posted this to my own blast’
    group and it seems to add to your
    argument …

    Here’s a short history.

    I believe it was Jim Lazarus who told me
    a number of years back that Swells had
    already taken complete control of around
    80% of the most precious City real estate
    icons (we were talking about the Mint at
    that time – yes, they got it) …

    He said that the Opera House crowd wanted
    to do a massive renovation of the Vets
    building including a theatre to match the
    one one in the Opera House.

    All they had to do was get rid of the
    Veterans and get the taxpayers to pay for

    They immediately began driving the Vets
    out of most of the building (they took the
    best of the art objects in the alcoves
    and small museum in the building home to
    their own mansions in an ‘on-loan’ status.

    They stacked the various Vets’ posts on
    top of each other like dead soldiers in
    mass graves, doubling and tripling the
    post office into tiny cubicles.

    Then, they went to the voters around 10
    years ago with a huge bond issue to fund
    the renovation.

    City voters said: “Fuck you, Swells!!”.

    That’s cause at the time there were enuff
    principled elected officials to join with
    Vets to oppose the project.

    Lazarus and his crowd just waited until
    a majority of the Board of Supe seats were
    occupied by total puppets of the wealthy.

    And, he found a way of financing the project
    with tax dollars without the people of SF
    being allowed to weigh in at the polls.

    The mechanism is called a ‘Certificate of

    On Wall Street they’re called, ‘Junk Bonds’.

    Newly elected fiscal conservative supe,
    Mark Farrell outta D-2 ranted against the

    I confronted him to first congratulate him
    and then tell him that in a couple of months
    at most he’d be a big supporter of the grab.

    Of course, I was right.

    The new Moderate, Chiu Board voted unanimously
    to fuck the electorate and raid the General
    Fund to the tune of a million bucks a month
    in interest alone for the next 30 or so years
    for the project tossing Vets out of the Vets
    building and adding more party and dining
    space for the wealthy.

    Even fuzzy thinking, so-called Progressives
    like John Avalos jumped on their bandwagon.

    Much as he did on Ellison’s America’s Cup.

    I honestly get tired of this guy voting for
    the rich and then whining that he was unfairly

    Then, they tossed in a new Hall of Justice
    building that had also been rejected by SF

    Via … ?

    Certificates of Participation!

    Projects for the wealthy and other special
    interests groups funded with these Junk
    Bonds are, I believe, over a billion dollars

    There are numerous other financial scams
    that have been devised by lawyers like Lazarus
    over the last decade which circumvent the

    Mark my words.

    When the next serious financial dip hits
    the City these buildings will be up for sale
    and the City, State and Feds will lease-back
    their own property just so’s they’ll be able
    to continue to have little things like courts
    and jail cells.

    They already tried this a couple of years
    back Governor Arnie and Gavin Newsom trying
    to sell half of the structures in the Civic
    Center to unnamed Eastern European investors.

    Sale was brokered by Dick Blum through his
    ColdWell Banker Richard Ellis Highwaymen
    Real Estate Brokerage.

    The Dickster is Diane Feinstein’s hubby and
    has already sold a hundred million in SFUSD
    property for a pretty commission and is
    moving US Postal Property around the country
    at fire sale prices.

    And, along the Bay we’re seeing the same sign
    appearing around the 75 long-time SF businesses
    ejected for Ellison’s (with help of Daly and
    Avalos) …

    Sign reads:

    Private Property

    KEEP OUT!!

    Maybe you better invest in full barrel of vaseline.

    On the upside, Giants beat First-Place
    Diamondbacks last night.

  3. I have to laugh when you call the old Arboretum a respite from the “commercialism of the Avenues,” because we have few chain stores and many mom and pop businesses. I don’t think the arboretum looks any better groomed with the influx of the out of town fees. Many of the areas look like they’ve been neglected. I’m sure that I used to see far more flowers in bloom before they spruced it up.

    • KFC, Starbucks, ugly stretch of stores on Irving with video screens, numerous other chains and franchises… 5 and 10 on Irving closing — rent too high…. GGP was supposed to be refuge, not a theme park!

  4. Thanks for this article Harry. Unfortunately there are probably very few of us who have lived in the city for a while that actually read it. These things are going on all the time, and it’s hard to argue with right leaning friends and colleagues about the cost of government when our own government, if you can call it that, the fraud of directors are stabbing us all in the back at great cost.

    One could get pretty deep about the state of this and other cities. About how they are trying to drive the average person out to create a “sanctuary city” for the elitists. Hopefully there are other citizens of the city out there who, like me are just too damn stubborn to give in and leave the city. At least here, unlike some of the other local hamlets we have someone with a voice like you.

  5. They are doing the same thing out here at the beach, with their horrible soccer field renovation. I don’t know anyone in the neighborhood who wants it. The Coastal Commision was against it, util they were bought off by the promoters. Disgusting.