Beach Chalet - a Simple Solution
What is the big deal with the controversy over the Beach Chalet project? Why has a coalition of environmental organizations and neighborhood groups filed an Appeal with the Board of Supervisors?
Isn’t this just a conflict of birds vs. kids? That is what the Department of Recreation and Park (RPD) would have you think. Well, that is NOT what this is about. San Franciscans of all ages and backgrounds love Golden Gate Park AS A PARK, and kids and active adults also love sports. The real problem is—how do we reconcile the two?
The simple answer is to swap the field materials for the two projects. Keep the natural grass in Golden Gate Park and put the artificial turf in West Sunset.”
Sometimes the best solution to a problem is the simplest one.
Eight blocks south of Beach Chalet are the West Sunset Playing fields. The 2012 Parks Bond calls for the renovation of the 9-acre West Sunset Playing fields with natural grass. West Sunset is already given over to sports — basketball, baseball, soccer, and a great new kids’ play area. It is not a place where one goes for a “walk in the park.” Yet, oddly enough, RPD is planning to put real grass there.
The 7-acre Beach Chalet fields are in Golden Gate Park, where San Franciscans do go to enjoy prime parkland. The area is appreciated by hikers, dog walkers, and joggers. It is also habitat — the fields provide food, rest, and shelter to wildlife. Over 80 species of birds have been recorded there. All sizes of birds dot the fields, often even when there are teams playing. This is NOT barren land; it is living parkland. All this will be lost if this project installs over 7 acres of artificial turf and 150,000 watts of night lighting in the Park.
The simple answer is to swap the field materials for the two projects. Keep the natural grass in Golden Gate Park and put the artificial turf in West Sunset.
Let’s repeat this obvious solution. Swap the field materials for the two sites — same benefits, same costs. The folks who have proposed this alternative have been talking about this for over a year. They have been ignored - so they have been forced to file an Appeal to the Board of Supervisors. They tried to meet with the RPD General Manager for months before the Appeal and were refused.
Why is this? Wouldn’t it be more valuable to forge a compromise now? Wouldn’t it save money for the City, instead of paying the City Attorneys (5 figure salaries + benefits) to handle the Appeal? The City has already spent over $1 million on trying to justify this project in the environmental report. Now RPD is adding the cost of an Appeal and potentially even more costs for a court battle, as well as earning the increased enmity of San Franciscans who could be allies in caring for our parks.
What does this mean for the future of our parks? The Mayor and RPD want San Franciscans to encumber themselves with over $195 million in the 2012 Parks Bond. Yet, both have shown indifference to funding park operations from the City budget, instead treating our parks as cash cows, building or renovating facilities and then raising fees or, even worse, trying to lease the new facilities out to private companies. This has led to a city-wide distrust of RPD.
The Beach Chalet soccer complex is an example of Bond funding gone wrong. Funding for the Beach Chalet fields was in the fine print of the “2008 Clean and Safe Neighborhood Parks Bond.” The 2008 Bond passed by a slim margin. Most of the people who found out about the proposed Beach Chalet project later said they would not have voted for the 2008 Bond if they had known it would put artificial turf and sports lights in Golden Gate Park. It is therefore logical for people to wonder about RPD’s motives.
The Mayor and RPD need to earn the trust of people regarding our parks. It’s fine to court wealthy donors, but in the final analysis, if you ignore the needs of the electorate, they will not support you or your programs. The first step for RPD and the Mayor is to meet with both sides and work out the very simple swap alternative for Beach Chalet.
And the first step for the public is to write to the Mayor and to the Board of Supervisors. Tell them that Golden Gate Park is too important to pave over. Tell them that there is an alternative, and that you are watching to see if San Francisco will protect its crown jewel, Golden Gate Park. The second step is to plan to attend the BOS Appeal hearing, scheduled for July 10, 2012, 4:00 p.m., at City Hall.
Gregory P. Miller, 36 year SF resident, retired senior financial analyst, US Navy veteran.
Golden Gate Park The Beginning of the End
With a few, quick votes, on May 24th, 2012, the SF Planning Commission and the Recreation and Park Commission approved the destruction of the western end of Golden Gate Park. How did they do this? By saying that they saw no problem with taking prime parkland and paving it over with 7 acres of artificial turf and installing 150,000 watts of night lighting, right next to Ocean Beach. This vote was arrived at in the face of the Departments receiving over 1,000 e-mails regarding the project, the majority of which were opposed to destroying the Park.
The other four seemed more intent on currying favor with the sports fans present, than with upholding their responsibility to carefully evaluate an environmental document that will decide the fate of one of the few large meadows in Golden Gate Park and in the City. ”
There were two sets of votes, neither of which reflects well on the Commissions involved. The Planning Commission approved the Environmental Impact Report (EIR), despite the submission of over 300 pages of arguments and documentation from the Environmental Law firm of Lozeau-Drury stating that the EIR is incomplete and inadequate. In fact, only one Planning Commissioner seemed to understand the duty of the Commission. The other four seemed more intent on currying favor with the sports fans present, than with upholding their responsibility to carefully evaluate an environmental document that will decide the fate of one of the few large meadows in Golden Gate Park and in the City. Park supporters were appalled that the Planning Commission did not uphold either the California Environmental Quality Act or the California Coastal Commission regulations.
After a very brief discussion of the 369-page “Draft EIR”, and the 1,600-page “Comments and Responses” and letters, the Planning Commission voted to certify the EIR. From the limited discussion that took place, it was clear that the majority of Commissioners were unfamiliar with both the document and the concept of naturalistic parkland. They then took all of 30 seconds to adopt the CEQA Findings in the EIR, and another 30 seconds to approve the General Plan Conformity Findings. For those of you who are not policy wonks, this means that despite the City’s Planning documents stating clearly that this part of Golden Gate Park must retain its naturalistic character, the Planning Commission decided to throw out the planning documents. As one person testified, this is like throwing out the Downtown Plan in order to build skyscrapers.
Outside of City Hall was a well-stage media circus — teams of kids playing on the natural grass at Civic Center — an ironic counterpoint to the claims of how terrible natural grass is and how it should be replaced with artificial turf.
Next up was the Recreation and Park Commission. It has been documented that this commission always agrees with the Department. Dissension on this Commission is as rare as, well, finding anything living in a field of artificial turf. On the Recreation and Park Department website is the following statement about Golden Gate Park:
“We’re proud to welcome more than 13 million visitors each year to Golden Gate Park, one of San Francisco’s greatest treasures. From a vast, windswept expanse of sand dunes, park engineer William Hammond Hall and master gardener John McLaren carved out an oasis—a verdant, horticulturally diverse, and picturesque public space where city dwellers can relax and reconnect with the natural world.”
The natural world did not rate mention by the Commissioners on Thursday. They ignored the pleas by parents, environmentalists, neighborhood activists, and child advocates alike to protect our scarce parkland from being plowed under.
This is a Rolls Royce of a project - the budget is up to $13 million and rising. Yet the Commission ignored the proposed win-win solution of a much-less expensive renovation of the Beach Chalet fields with natural grass and no sports lights, and sharing the rest of the 2008 Bond funding with other playing fields for kids all over San Francisco.
There is a big fight going on in the City now over the pittance of funding for parks in the 2012 Bond. Does the City really have enough money to throw at one pet project? Of course, project supporters will say that part of that funding will come from the Fisher-family-financed City Fields Foundation. An email from Viking Youth Soccer League stated that the donor will only pay for Beach Chalet or the money will have to be returned. Why is a private foundation deciding what happens to our Parks? Are we so short-sighted as to allow this leveraged buyout of our parkland, when there are other options available for getting kids a place to play soccer?
The 1998 Golden Gate Park Master Plan protects parkland for everyone — old, young, healthy, not so active, of all ages and backgrounds. That is the purpose of Golden Gate Park — active and passive recreation in a natural setting, but open to all. The soccer players claim 7,000 kids who play soccer. That is great — and they should have a place to play (see the win-win solution above). But at the Thursday meeting, the Recreation and Park Commission, in their rush to support one user-group, rode roughshod over the 790,000 people in San Francisco who don’t - or can’t - play soccer. In the space of a few minutes, the Commission overrode the Master Plan and approved the project.
This is the beginning of the end of our parkland. There are many people who view parkland as space that is useless unless it is built on. Or, in the words of a Rec and Park Commissioner, it produces “site specific revenue generation.” There will be more development projects, and they will come thick and fast. And each one will look like a great idea, it will have its own constituency, and it will be approved, all because the Recreation and Park Commission does not have the backbone to stand up for our Parks.
It is a sad day for Golden Gate Park, when the City departments charged with stewardship of our parks decide to destroy our crown jewel.
We still hold out hope for the win-win solution. There are other locations for this project — but there is only one Golden Gate Park!
Gregory P. Miller 37 year SF resident, retired senior financial analyst, US Navy veteran.
(Editors note: The group SF Ocean Edge is considering filing an Appeal to the Board of Supervisors. Info www.sfoceanedge.org.)
Time Is Running Out To Protect Golden Gate Park!
The Final Comments and Responses (C&R) for the Environmental Impact Report for the Beach Chalet Athletic Fields will be published on May 9, 2012. This sports complex will replace over 7 acres of grass in Golden Gate Park with over 7 acres of artificial turf. In addition, the project will install 60 light standards with sports lights — 150,000 watts of light —- right across the Great Highway from Ocean Beach. The parking lot for the fields will be expanded by 33%, seating for over 1,000 spectators will be installed, and more paving and lights will cover the once-living landscape.
Tell them that you want real grass and NO sports lights in Golden Gate Park. Act now! Once this project is built, the western end of Golden Gate Park will be destroyed forever.”
The joint hearing for the Final C&R is tentatively scheduled for May 17th. This hearing will involve both the Planning Commission and the Recreation and Park Commission. If the EIR is certified and the project is approved at this hearing, and if SF Ocean Edge and their partner groups feel that this is the wrong decision, then those groups will consider filing an appeal with the Board of Supervisors. That appeal would take place in June and would also involve a public hearing.
There will be very little time between certification of the Final EIR and a Board of Supervisors appeal hearing. If you want real grass and no sports lights in Golden Gate Park, you need to let City officials know right now!
Send an email to:
Tell them that you want real grass and NO sports lights in Golden Gate Park.
Act now! Once this project is built, the western end of Golden Gate Park will be destroyed forever.
Contact SF Ocean Edge to be put on their alert list: www.sfoceanedge.org . Check their website regularly for public hearing advisories.
Katherine Howard, ASLA, is a certified landscape architect. Feedback: firstname.lastname@example.org or website: www.sfoceanedge.org
Beach Chalet Soccer Fields Cost Lots of Dollars But Don’t Make Sense
We have been told over and over again that one of the reasons for using artificial turf in Golden Gate Park is to save money. However, the figures do not bear this out.
The public has just learned the cost for the legally-mandated Environmental Impact Report for the Beach Chalet athletic fields project is $400,000. Yes, that is a lot of money. The cost reflects the fact that the project may have major negative impacts on Golden Gate Park and Ocean Beach, and the EIR must cover the potential impacts in detail.
Before our readers get upset over the cost of following the environmental laws, let’s look at the real costs involved in this massive construction project.
The overall Beach Chalet project budget has been quoted at $12 million dollars. Where is this money being spent? The project includes artificial turf fields, new grading, new irrigation, new concrete, expensive site amenities, and 60 foot sports lights. Let’s be clear about the lighting. The night lights are for the adult soccer leagues who play at night, and many of whom include players from outside of San Francisco. The lighting will have a limited impact on the number of hours that the kids can play.
Now let’s look at the Golden Gate Park Polo Field. The Polo Field has just been completely renovated with new grading, new irrigation, soil amendments, and new natural grass. The Polo Field occupies an area twice the size of the Beach Chalet fields —so, how much do you think that costs? Was it $24 million? $12 million? Maybe only $5 million, since it is natural grass? If you guessed any of those amounts, you would be far afield (sorry for the pun). The Polo Field renovation contract with natural grass cost $1 million. And it did not require an EIR!
What is wrong with this picture? For $500,000 or only $100,000 more than is being spent on the EIR alone, the Beach Chalet fields could be renovated today. No wait of 18 months for the EIR, and no more legal battles, which will cost the City even more money with uncertain outcomes.
Or, looking at it differently, if so much extra money is lying around for the Beach Chalet fields, they could be renovated with natural grass every year for 24 years with the $12 million!
Let’s look at what will happen if artificial turf is installed. It will have to be replaced in 8 years for hundreds of thousands of dollars. This is the fate of all the artificial turf fields in San Francisco.
Among all the city’s fields that will have to be renovated every 8 years, which fields will get budgeted? Will Beach Chalet be chosen at the expense of neighborhood artificial turf fields, that will be left to crumble into trash heaps of gravel, old plastic and rubber?
One other argument given in favor of artificial turf here is that the grass fields have to rest. The answer to that is easy -- Rec and Park has said that it does not need the construction area which is located next to the soccer fields. There is enough land there for at least one more multi-use meadow—in fact, it is designated in the Golden Gate Park Master Plan.
San Francisco’s kids need safe, natural fields to play on. They need them now. Kids all over San Francisco need funding to pay for renovations of parks closer to their homes - studies show that there are many more children in other parts of San Francisco than in the outer reaches of the Sunset and Richmond Districts.
The artificial turf playing fields in Golden Gate Park do not make sense. They do not make sense in the context of Golden Gate Park. They do not make sense environmentally. They do not make sense in providing the most benefit for kids all over San Francisco. And they do not make sense in dollars and cents.
Katherine Howard, ASLA -The EIR for the artificial turf fields will start in December. If you are interested in being notified so that you can attend the scoping session or write a letter expressing your concerns about this project to be included in the official record, contact: email@example.com, website: www.sfoceanedge.org
GG Park's New Water Treatment Factory
The SF Public Utilities Commission has announced an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for a new water treatment plant in the western part of Golden Gate Park. This factory will be located northeast of the historic (and soon to be restored) Murphy Windmill and Millwright’s Cottage. The project includes approximately 40,000 square feet of buildings as well as new roads, parking, and lighting. The plant would filter and disinfect pre-treated sewer and storm water that will then be used to irrigate Golden Gate Park, the Presidio Golf Course and Lincoln Park. Currently, potable water from the aquifer under Golden Gate Park is used for this irrigation. According to the PUC, the purpose of the project is to mix the aquifer water with Hetch Hetchy water to make drinking water for San Franciscans. The treated water from the recycling plant will then be used for irrigation. Estimated construction cost of the proposed project is $109 million with construction planned for completion in 2015.
The placement of the plant above-ground in Golden Gate Park raises a number of issues about the location and design of the facility. According to the 1998 Golden Gate Park Master Plan, this part of the western end of Golden Gate Park should be converted to recreation and parkland uses. The Master Plan also states that if a water treatment plant is installed, it must be placed completely underground with recreational uses on top of it. But the SFPUC is planning to build large buildings above ground, at a height of 30 feet in some places. There are many questions about this project: Why was this location selected? Why aren’t the buildings being placed underground? Why are we giving up valuable parkland to what is essentially an industrial use? Why are we giving up open space to paving, buildings, parking, and lighting?
The factory will be built on what is now a construction yard. One argument given by the SFPUC in favor of the factory is that it will ‘return’ open space to the Park. But building a factory is not adding open space. Has anyone asked San Franciscans what other uses they might like to see for this precious open space? This land could, and should be, used for park and recreational uses. Golden Gate Park can always use more recreation areas and meadows — try to find a picnic table on a busy weekend!
The need to come up with ways to address San Francisco’s drinking water supply for the future cannot be denied. But it is important that all concerns about our parkland are addressed before this factory is constructed. Public input at the early stages of this EIR process is very important in order to protect and preserve open space in Golden Gate Park.
What I Heard at City Hall
If you have read my previous articles in this newspaper (Perils to our Parks), you will not be surprised to learn that I support the proposed Charter Amendment which would change how Recreation and Park Commissioners are appointed.
Currently, all 7 Commissioners and the General Manager are appointed by the Mayor. The amendment calls for 3 to be chosen by the mayor, 3 by the Board of Supervisors, and one by a joint selection by the Mayor and the President of the BOS.
I attended a the Board of Supervisors Rules Committee hearing on June 18th to consider this amendment. The testimony of Commission President Mark Buell was particularly enlightening. Herein, I quote some highlights – I encourage readers to consult sfgovtv, (http://www.sfgovtv.org/ video on-line) to view the meeting.
Commissioner Buell: “. . . We have this enormous budget problem and we are trying to deal with it.. . . .
. . . . Mayor Newsom approached me and asked would I go on the Recreation and Park Commission with a specific goal intended. And that was to find a way to bring more resources, private resources, philanthropic resources, and some stability in funding Rec and Park, at the same time trying to get it off the General Fund because of the problems that you are only too well aware of that are systemic at a state and national level in terms of revenue . . . .
. . . . When the Mayor talked to me, he mentioned that one of the things that he was impressed with was the New York Park Central Park Conservancy. As you may be aware, that really got started in the 80’s, but in 1998 they contracted with the city of New York as a private nonprofit and took over Central Park as an operation. 80% of the employees belong to the conservancy, 20% to the City. . . ..
. . . . So you are coming at a time when Rec and Park, I think, has never been better and we are trying to shape a philanthropic portion of the community which really hasn’t been there to a great degree. So at the same time we are improving services, cutting our budget, trying to generate new revenue (and I’m sure that you will hear from people who disagree with the way that happens), that you are going to put on the ballot a divisive measure that I think will discourage philanthropic dollars and I think give less confidence in the Rec and Park Department . . .
. . . So I guess what I’m telling you is be very careful as you put something on the ballot that will be publicly debated and, I think, be divisive at the same time that we are making an effort to try to bring major philanthropic dollars that have in the past not been there.”
So…… Let me get this straight-- according to Commissioner Buell: Our parks are being managed better than ever. BUT San Francisco can no longer afford its parks. THEREFORE, we desperately need the aid of wealthy donors. BY THE WAY, public discussion of such matters is damaging.
I applaud Commissioner Buell for his clarity and candor, and I do not doubt his good intentions. However, his statement raises important issues:
1. Does Mr. Buell’s statement outline the long-term policy of Mayor Newsom?
2. Will there be a formal announcement of this policy and a detailed
plan for the public’s review and discussion? Or will it be implemented quietly, bit by bit, until we turn around and our parks are out of our reach — or at least fenced and closed to general use? Sue Bierman Park is covered with the tent of a private theatrical enterprise. The Stow Lake Boathouse is planned to go from a community-friendly gathering place to a high-end restaurant. Threatened by RPD with the withdrawal of gardening staff, the Arboretum will charge for admission - yes, residents won’t have to pay the $15 per family this year, but remember that is the path that the Japanese Tea Garden took. First charge only non-residents -- get the infrastructure in place -- and then get the residents to pay just a little, then more, then more…. It now costs $5.00 for residents and $1.50 for resident kids. For kids! City staff are being dismissed and replaced by volunteer labor. City buildings are leased long-term at low rates to private organizations.
3. Why is RPD using the City’s current financial crisis as a rationale
for sweeping permanent changes? Fiscal problems are generally temporary and are best handled with temporary measures. San Franciscans built and maintained their parks largely through public funding for over 100 years, even through the Great Depression. Now in the middle of an economic downturn, we are told the only solution is to throw ourselves on the mercy - and the control - of private donors. Why is that?
4. If we “get it off the general fund” and rely on the “major
philanthropic dollars”, who will be making the key decisions about
our parks? What role will the ordinary citizens and their elected representatives play in this new world? The Parks Trust is having a fund-raiser in the fall. The higher categories of donors get a private meeting with the General Manager. Since the General Manager has two and half hours of open office time for the public each month, this may be worth the price.
5. Has the Board of Supervisors been consulted, or at least briefed, about the plans to privatize and commercialize our parks?
6. The Board retains ultimate control over the City budget. The General Fund contribution to our Parks is around $30 million each year -- this is about ½ of one percent of the City budget. Does the BOS see any other means of dealing with the situation short of permanent privatization and commercialization of our parks? Has this even been talked about?
7. Why is a Charter Amendment that includes more diverse representation
considered “divisive” by RPD? If massive changes are required, wouldn’t the actions of a more representative body be more likely to gain widespread public support?
8. Why would the proposed Charter amendment “discourage philanthropic
dollars?” Do private donors object to a democratic process? Aren’t private donations most appropriate and appreciated when solicited to support objectives chosen by the majority of citizens?
If you are concerned about such issues, write to the Commission, write to the Mayor, and write to your Supervisor NOW to support the Recreation and Park Commission Charter Amendment.
Gregory P. Miller, 36 year SF resident, retired senior financial analyst, US Navy veteran. Feedback: firstname.lastname@example.org
GG Park: The Peril to Our Parkland
In my first two articles, I explored some of the problems threatening our parkland today and what has caused them. Here are some ideas for solving them. I encourage readers to look closely at these ideas and come up with some of your own – if you wish to see parkland continue as open space in San Francisco, your parks need you to become involved!
(Photo caption: Sue Bierman Park - This parkland has been rented for a
low amount of money and with minimal public discourse. Is
the selling of our parks the prototype for future funding
by RPD and the Commission?)
1. San Francisco lacks a clear and sustained public vision for its parkland
There is a public statement of this vision for our premier city park. It’s called the Golden Gate Park Master Plan, and it outlines a detailed plan for the protection of the Park. There is a need for a broader vision for all of our parkland. This vision should be formed through outreach to all communities in San Francisco, and should take place over at least a few years, so that the short-term needs of the moment are not over-riding in its formation.
2. It is difficult to maintain citizen interest in protecting open space.
Without a John McLaren or other leading citizen who has the prestige and power to protect our parkland, the next best solution is to turn to an institution to protect our parkland. This institution should be the Department of Recreation and Park. Yet the RPD is intent on selling our parks. How can we have more oversight, so that RPD focuses on preservation instead of cashing in on our open space?
One solution is to change the make-up of the Recreation and Park Commission. Since the Commission is currently appointed by the Mayor and the General Manger is appointed by the Mayor, the decisions of both are often in lock step. A more balanced division of powers needs to be instituted so that the Commission can do what commissions are supposed to do – provide citizen oversight for City departments.
3. ‘Recreation’ and ‘parks’ are not the same.
The needs of our specialized recreational communities and the needs of our general citizenry for healthy parkland are both legitimate. They deserve separate and independent public advocates; this option should be studied carefully, but it would have to be done by someone outside the Department who did not report to RPD. A government agency or private firm from outside of Recreation and Park and reporting to the Board of Supervisors would be more likely to be responsive to public comment as well as less likely to slant the report towards the current RPD management preferences.
4. Donated projects are not necessarily “free” projects— Park land is not “free” land.
Any time we carve off another piece of our public parks for a single purpose use, the taxpayers are making a very valuable gift to a small user community. Park land is NOT free! We need to realize this and stop this practice of accepting projects that respond to a small community just because someone has the money to finance them. The correct process would be for the Recreation and Park Department in conjunction with the Commission and with due process and public input, to decide on what projects are needed. Only after the projects have been decided, should gifts be sought to support those projects.
5. Bureaucracy Abhors Public Discourse:
Public institutions instinctively avoid an open public discussion of their plans. It is easier to work quietly with carefully-chosen “stakeholders”, develop detailed plans, organize support, and finally roll out the results. The message to the public is, ‘We worked really hard on this – we hope you like it -- because this is what you are going to get!”
We need Sunshine laws with real teeth in them, so that if a project does not go through a comprehensive, open process, it can be rescinded AT ANY TIME. This should include an appeals process that goes outside of RPD.
6. Capital Projects Are Sexy (Operational budgets are so boooringggg):
Living, green parks are labor intensive. There is a strong temptation to shift park costs from the “operating budget” that pays gardeners to the “capital budget” that builds things. It becomes increasingly tempting to convert our labor-intensive parks into hardened sites that need less care - a process also known as “paving the park”.
To reverse this process, each new capital project must also have an endowed maintenance budget to keep it going in future years. This money should be untouchable – it can’t be pillaged the way the Open Space Fund is now. This will prevent expensive, non-maintainable projects from being built and also save the RPD budget for our existing parkland from being robbed.
These are just a few of my ideas for changes that would help to better protect our parkland. Perhaps the readers would also like to submit ideas!
UPDATE ON POINT #2 and WHAT YOU CAN DO TODAY TO EFFECT CHANGE: A charter amendment has been submitted at the Board of Supervisors to change the way appointments are made to the Recreation and Park Commission. Under this balanced proposal, the Mayor will appoint 3 commissioners, the BOS will appoint 3 commissioners, and 1 additional commissioner will be selected jointly by the Mayor and the President of the BOS. With a Commission reflective of a variety of viewpoints, there is hope for more accountability from RPD to the citizens of San Francisco.
Please contact the Supervisors in support of this charter amendment for a balanced Recreation and Park Commission. Encourage them to put this issue before the voters, and let the voters decide!
Gregory P. Miller, 36 year SF resident, retired senior financial analyst, US Navy veteran. Feedback: email@example.com
GG Park: The Peril to Our Parkland
On April 15th, the SF Recreation and Park Commission (RPC) approved replacing the existing natural grass athletic fields at the west end of Golden Gate Park with over 6 acres of artificial turf. The area will be illuminated every night of the year until 10 p.m. with almost a quarter million watts of night sports lighting. The SF Planning Department paved the way with its earlier ruling that the proposal was a routine renovation and no Environmental Impact Report was required.
These decisions were made despite the written concerns of over 1500 residents and over 80 neighborhood, environmental, and historic preservation groups.
While the City’s decision is disappointing, the most depressing aspect is the predictability of that decision. In my prior article, I outlined institutional and attitudinal factors that undermine the preservation of our treasured parks (www.westsideobserver.com/special10/soccer.html).
Here are a few more factors:
6. Bureaucracy Abhors Public Discourse: The soccer complex has been in
the works since 2007, yet the general public learned of the
proposal in late 2009. This was six months after the City Fields Foundation
(SF’s private partner in this venture) alerted the Bay Area soccer community
to the project. The few public outreach sessions have been
combination sales presentations and pep rallies. There was no earnest
discussion of alternatives or flaws in the plan. In one meeting, an innocent
asked if new natural grass fields might be a better solution in the context
of Golden Gate Park. City Fields replied that artificial turf and night
lighting are non-negotiable. End of discussion.
We should not be surprised. Public institutions instinctively avoid an open public discussion of their plans. It is easier to work quietly with carefully-chosen “stakeholders,” develop detailed plans, organize support, and finally roll out the results. The message to the public is, “We worked really hard on this – we hope you like it -- because this is what you are going to get!”
And that is why we have the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). CEQA can compel our public institutions to open up the process to a full public environmental review.
“ Private donors are reluctant to endow operational staff. It’s only human for a donor to want to point to a substantial building with pride – pointing to a guy mowing a lawn has less psychic reward. And, many donors don’t trust the City. They can verify that a building was built, but how do they know that a department won’t find some clever way to move the money to some other pet project?”
7. Investment Analysis is for Sissies: The Recreation and Park Department
(RPD) claims that artificial turf is cost effective compared to grass
fields. Their claim is not obvious from the information made available
to the public. Field utilization may increase with plastic grass, but
the proper base reference is not the current, poorly-maintained fields
but, rather, new grass fields constructed using modern techniques. Both
grass and artificial fields have maintenance costs – estimating these
costs is rife with controversy. Other costs have not been factored in,
for example, the City pays for the electric power, and stadium lights
are not cheap. The City will have to maintain the plastic/tire crumb mat
to the manufacturer’s specifications, and then replace everything in 10
years with public funds.
A detailed financial analysis of such issues is routine for any sizeable private company. If the City has done such a careful analysis, it remains carefully hidden. This is surprising, considering the SF/City Fields partnership has built a number of soccer fields over the past several years.
With the help of a sympathetic Supervisor, I asked RPD about a proper financial analysis, and received no response during the past two months.
8. Capital Projects Are Sexy (Operational budgets are
so boooringggg): Living, green parks are labor intensive. There is a strong temptation
to shift park costs from the “operating budget” that pays gardeners to
the “capital budget” that builds things.
This concept is facilitated by Federal tax law and State law that prohibit using bond money to fund operational expenses. Private donors are reluctant to endow operational staff. It’s only human for a donor to want to point to a substantial building with pride – pointing to a guy mowing a lawn has less psychic reward. And, many donors don’t trust the City. They can verify that a building was built, but how do they know that a department won’t find some clever way to move the money to some other pet project?
As a result, existing facilities tend to be poorly maintained, decline, and are shunned. It becomes increasingly tempting to convert our labor-intensive parks into “hardened” sites that need less care - a process also known as “paving the park.”
9. A Flawed Process is a Denied Process: So let’s walk the destruction
of the west end of Golden Gate Park through the steps we have
Desperate for ‘free’ funding to shore up a department that is bleeding red ink, RPD forges ahead. No evidence of careful analysis of all the long-term costs is made public. The Planning Department EIR decision is released on a Friday. Six days later, the RPC meets. No real outreach takes place – as recently as four days before the RPC meeting to approve this project, many residents with homes overlooking the park had not even heard of it. The opinions of the Historic Preservation Commission and three major historic preservation organizations that the project would cause a significant negative impact on the most valuable historic park in SF are ignored by the RPC. The RPC praises the privately-funded and well-organized soccer leagues and states that the project opponents are close-minded and insensitive to the needs of the community. The RPC, which rarely disagrees with staff proposals, votes to approve the project.
RPC watchers are not surprised…but we are disappointed.
How can we fix a system that is so obviously broken? I have a few ideas, but send your suggestions in to the Westside Observer. Let’s get a dialogue going.
NOTE: SF Ocean Edge, environmental and neighborhood organizations are planning to appeal the CEQA ruling to the BOS. Contact www.sfoceanedge.org for more information on the appeal and how you can participate. The protection of our parkland is in the hands of the citizens of San Francisco.
Gregory P. Miller, 36 year SF resident, retired senior financial analyst, US Navy veteran. Feedback: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Peril to Our Parkland
Many San Franciscans are shocked when they learn the details of the proposed “renovation” of the Beach Chalet Soccer Fields in Golden Gate Park. How did San Francisco come to the point where converting over 13 acres of parkland into an artificial, brightly lighted, single-purpose sports complex is acceptable to City officials and some of its citizens? Our Soccer community has legitimate needs, but why has there been no serious public exploration of alternatives which would be less destructive to our Park?
Our city parks, once bucolic refuges open to all citizens, are under the increasing threat of being partitioned into small fiefdoms. To protect our open parkland, we need to understand the forces that are undermining these wonderful treasures.
1. San Francisco lacks a clear and sustained public vision for its parkland Most San Franciscans think of Golden Gate Park with a mixture of warmth and pride. Our experience may be limited to a few favorite activities such as a family picnic, an afternoon baseball game, bird watching, a summer bluegrass concert, or a quiet morning walk. But a park’s overall impact is greater than the sum of the individual parts. The verdant, bucolic parkland, with its vistas across open meadows and peaceful secluded pathways, forms a framework which enriches our individual experiences. While we value urban living, we also need the balance that only nature can provide. Golden Gate Park is our countryside, our contact with the natural world.
There is a public statement of this vision for our premier city park. It’s called the Golden Gate Park Master Plan, and it outlines a detailed plan for the protection of the Park. But, like any other public policy, it is only effective if the public and officials actively support it.
2. Specific plans from special interest groups always have a tactical advantage. Every year, groups put forward new proposals for developments in our parks. They have a need, and they see a clear solution. The groups are well organized and bring intense pressure on public officials to approve such proposals.
But there are far more projects than can fit into our open space. A few years ago, someone drew up a plan of what New York’s Central Park would look like if all projects proposed for the Park had been implemented. The result resembled the densely-packed financial district of lower Manhattan. In the early 1900’s it was proposed that Golden Gate Park be torn up for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition. Fortunately, that proposal died after a public outcry. If we pack too many activities and attractions into our parks, we will turn them into amusement parks—attractive to tourists but not the refuge that we seek.
“By formally joining “Recreation” and “Parks,” we force the Department to choose between often-conflicting priorities. At times they have done an admirable job— witness the Golden Gate Park Master Plan. At other times, they must weigh protecting our parkland against addressing the desires of special interest groups. Under this pressure, long-term protection of our parklands often becomes a casualty.”
3. It is difficult to maintain citizen interest in protecting open space. While San Franciscans love their parks, it is difficult to arouse public passion for our parkland on a continual basis.
San Francisco has been blessed with park administrators such as William Hammond Hall and John McLaren who possessed a vision of Golden Gate Park as a natural haven for our citizenry. In other periods, the Park was administered by short-sighted officials and much damage ensued. Without John McLaren, the next best solution is to turn to an institution to protect our parkland. This institution should be the Department of Recreation and Park.
4. ‘Recreation’ and ‘parks’ are not
the same. In 1949 the voters combined Recreation and Parks into one department. While well-intentioned, this merger ignored a major conflict of interest. a “Parks” department should protect our parklands as open space systems that celebrate nature. A “Recreation” department should embrace all of the activities we envision in our parks. These would include individual activities such as strolling, picnics, wildlife observation, jogging, and contemplation. In practice, “Recreation” today means organized activities with specialized staff and capital investments such as recreation centers, playing fields, and swimming pools. While parks often contain a number of “Recreation” facilities, a large collection of “Recreation” facilities does not necessarily constitute a “Park.”
By formally joining “Recreation” and “Parks,” we force the Department to choose between often-conflicting priorities. At times they have done an admirable job— witness the Golden Gate Park Master Plan. At other times, they must weigh protecting our parkland against addressing the desires of special interest groups. Under this pressure, long-term protection of our parklands often becomes a casualty.
The needs of our specialized recreational communities and the needs of our general citizenry for healthy parkland are both legitimate. They deserve separate and independent public advocates.
5. A donated project is not necessarily a “free” project,
and Park land is not “free” land. When a donor offers to fund a project,
the decision seems easy – take the money, and we get a free project. But
is it free? In the case of the soccer complex, the City taxpayers will
pay for a good chunk of the $9 million project. Taxpayers will be on the
hook to replace the artificial turf fields every 8 to 10 years. And 13
to 16 acres of parkland, which have been used by a variety of people for
picnics, informal games, concerts and even kite-flying, will be lost forever.
The soccer community will receive a new playing surface (don’t forget
that there are fields there now that could be maintained as natural grass,
a surface preferred by professional players), but the space will be lost
permanently to all other citizens. Golden Gate Park encompasses 1000 acres,
and an illusion of unlimited space persists. But much of the Park acreage
is already devoted to roads and specialized facilities.
What is the value of the land that we, the taxpayers, are contributing? Using a low estimate of $125 a square foot, the estimated value of 16 acres would be $87 million! Even this may be too low. The large contiguous parcel would be difficult to duplicate anywhere in the city – and is therefore worth a great deal more. Any time we carve off another piece of our public parks for a single purpose use, the taxpayers are making a very valuable gift to a small user community. Park land is NOT free!
Coming next month:
6. Bureaucracy Abhors Public Discourse
7. Investment Analysis is for Sissies
8. Capital Projects are Sexy (Operational Budgets are boorriinngg)
9. Scorched Earth for Undesirables!
Gregory P. Miller, 36 year SF resident, retired senior financial analyst, US Navy veteran.
BRIGHT LIGHTS, ARTIFICIAL TURF IN RUSTIC GOLDEN GATE PARK?
The current grassy meadow as seen today. Imagine this area with bright
striping, taller fences, sidewalks, and lots of lights. The trees vary
in height, from 20 to 40 feet. The new 60 foot light poles will tower
above the fields and be clearly visible from both within and outside
of the Park, day and night. Photos: K. Howard
San Franciscans are currently facing a proposal to destroy the meadow
and woodland in the western end of Golden Gate Park by developing a
15 acre soccer complex.
Within the complex, 7.5 acres of parkland will be covered with artificial turf. The beautiful grassy green meadow will be ripped out. The top soil that has been carefully nurtured for over 140 years will be trucked off and dumped. In its place will be a thick layer of gravel. A plastic carpet with fake grass blades will be laid on top of the gravel and filled in with a mixture of tire waste and sand. Bright yellow and white stripes will be permanently painted on the carpet. More concrete and asphalt paving will be poured for sidewalks and parking.
The existing meadow is surrounded by trees, many of them planted to protect the park from the stiff ocean breezes. This project requires removal of a minimum of 65 trees and many shrubs; many of the remaining trees may be damaged by the construction. The project arborist’s report does not deal with the potential damage to the rest of the Park’s vegetation once the western windbreak has been compromised.
The lighting is perhaps the most objectionable element of this proposal.
Sports lights will be mounted on 60 foot poles - over two
times the height of the surrounding trees. New sidewalks and
an expanded parking lot will have lighting. All lights will
shine brightly until 10:00 p.m. every night. Many people go
out to Ocean Beach to enjoy the sunset, to walk on the beach
at dusk, to look at the stars, or to sit around a fire ring.
The joy of these experiences will be destroyed by the sports
lights. In addition, this lighting is disastrous to wildlife.
Visit the South Sunset Playing Field at 40th Avenue and Wawona
to witness the impact of commercial sports field lighting. (Shown:
South Sunset Playing Field – sportsfield lighting seen from four blocks
away. What will be the experience at Ocean Beach with this type of lighting
The only reason the City can afford these fields is donations from the City Fields Foundation, run by the Fisher family. But what will happen in 10 years, when the plastic fields wear out? Can anyone guarantee that in 10 years the City will have the money and the commitment to replace all the artificial turf fields? Will we have traded woodland and meadow for bare gravel and unplayable soccer fields?
The City has not played straight with San Franciscans about this project. Artificial turf was not mentioned in the Voter Information Pamphlet for the 2008 Parks bond, Proposition A. Public outreach has been one-sided. Private soccer leagues were mobilized to support the project last spring, but local residents weren’t told until public meetings in the late autumn. The soccer supporters convinced some Supervisors to introduce a special resolution, but most San Franciscans don’t even know about this project. Is the City worried that when San Franciscans learn what is planned for Golden Gate Park, they will rebel? That’s what happened at Rossi Park and Potrero Hill, when the neighbors learned that their beloved parks were about to be hijacked for projects they never wanted.
The 1998 Golden Gate Park Master Plan is very clear about keeping the western end of Golden Gate Park free from development and preserving the ‘pastoral’ nature of this area. The Master Plan was certified after 10 years of research, an Environmental Impact Report, input from City Departments, neighborhood organizations, consultants, and community members. Why does the City spend tax-payer money on a long-range plan and then ignore it?
We agree that kids need to play. But kids also need to learn that nature has a value in itself. What are we teaching them - to choose between playing soccer and being a good environmental steward? Kids shouldn’t have to make this choice.
There are alternatives – renovating the grass fields, installing gopher barriers, improving the drainage, investigating new soil products, and planning effective maintenance. Many soccer players prefer natural grass. Let’s give people a sustainable choice.
We urge the Recreation and Park Department to use the same creativity it is using to meet the budget deficit to preserve the landscape of Golden Gate Park. RPD has just proposed an apprentice gardener program - How about assigning an apprentice to the playing fields? Enlisting a donor to endow a permanent groundskeeper? Urging the City Fields Foundation to rethink their single-minded devotion to artificial turf and night lighting? Selecting some of the other 15 parks listed in the Bond Report book for renovation? Let’s repair the Golden Gate Park grass fields and use the rest of the $9 million for all the other parks that desperately need the funding.
Golden Gate Park provides the experience of nature for the poor, the young, and the old who do not have the means to travel to nature outside of the City and are otherwise restricted to a hard-edged environment. The Park has always provided San Franciscans with a respite from City life. This is what the Park was designed for, and this has been its primary use since it was planted in the sand dunes.
Since its creation, Golden Gate Park has been threatened by City officials who have no understanding of the intrinsic value of a woodland park. In 1915, the City fathers proposed to build the Panama Pacific International Exposition in the Park. In 1951, the City planned to build a freeway through the Panhandle and the Park. Both times, the people of San Francisco rose up to say, ‘Don’t destroy our Park!’
Golden Gate Park is San Francisco’s forest, her meadows, her lakes. Golden Gate Park is too important to pave and light up like a suburban parking lot.
Please tell the Planning Department and RPD: We need an EIR to explore these issues. We need an EIR for fair outreach to the community. We need an EIR to find alternatives. We need an EIR so that the Bond money can be spent wisely. ( Please copy us on your letters.)
“Tree and Large Shrub Report, Golden Gate Park Soccer Fields,” prepared by Hortscience for the City Fields Foundation, February 2010. Download: www.sfoceanedge.org
Golden Gate Park Master Plan, http://www.sfgov.org/site/recpark_page.asp?id=30236 or google “golden gate park master plan”
Katherine Howard, member, American Society of Landscape Architects Historic Preservation Professional Interest Group, Chair (elect), Citizen’s Advisory Committee to the Golden Gate Park Concourse Authority, Golden Gate Park Preservation Alliance. Guest Lecturer: UC Berkeley Certificate Program in Landscape Architecture, Landscape Design History. To learn more: www.sfoceanedge.org, feedback: email@example.com.