San Francisco Bay Guardian - May 6, 1998
By Savannah Blackwell
A year before he took over the Recreation and Park Department in the summer of 1996, Joel Robinson, then superintendent of recreational programs, warned his staff that they’d better shape up and do their jobs – or lose them to a private organization. Robinson feared that a campaign to privatize San Francisco’s park system, like the one that had taken New York’s Central Park, was afoot.
He would soon inherit a department that had spent the past decade reeling from cuts to public funding. The portion of the department’s budget that came from the city’s General Fund dropped from 53 percent in 1987 to 29 percent in 1992. (It has since crept back up to 43 percent.) Rec and Park’s image in the community was at a low: neighborhood activists called the department unaccountable and unresponsive to community concerns.
Now everything Robinson feared may be coming to pass. Robinson’s job is up for grabs, in part because private interests convinced the city that he’s not good enough at dealing with major funders. And an uneasy coalition of foundations and nonprofits is inching closer to controlling the future of the parks.
These groups have one thing in common: financial support from the Haas family foundations, endowed with money from the Levi Strauss legacy, and Wells Fargo heir Warren Hellman. Hellman has pledged to come up with millions of dollars for an underground parking garage for the de Young museum. Foundations and nonprofits with ties to the Haas family pushed for Robinson’s removal. And they’ve been involved in successful plans to privatize other San Francisco resources, including the Presidio and the zoo.
Although almost all the players deny they want to see the parks privatized, the evidence speaks otherwise. And City Hall is going along.
“It’s all about making the park safer for middle-class families and white folks,” Paul Dorn of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition told the Bay Guardian. “More and more of the park is being dedicated to specific activities that are popular among the well-heeled crowd. We could be looking at an upscale restaurant, T-shirt vendors – even a Gap.
“The problem with public-private partnerships is that the public loses its input in policy. The people who write the checks make the decisions.”
Among the evidence that’s emerging:
A nonprofit that handles private funding for San Francisco’s park system already exists. But some influential park funders consider the 8,000-member Friends of Recreation and Parks to be incapable of dealing with large donations.
“They’ve done a lot of good stuff,” said Lew Butler, a member of the Haas- and Hellman-funded San Francisco Partnership for Parks and a proponent of the 28-year-old Friends group. “But it has been relatively small in size. They haven’t made that much money, nor do they have that much clout.”
So Butler, who was a force behind the privatization of Presidio National Park, and others are talking about creating another private body, possibly a nonprofit or foundation, to serve as the private component of a public-private partnership that would govern the park system. Butler said at a March 17 meeting of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) that he wanted to create a foundation or nonprofit that would “pool money from families who want to participate” in parks projects but feel they weren’t getting a return on their money in the past.
The real problem may be that Friends is critical of powerful partnerships with private entities. Friends director Donna Ernston has declared her opposition to privatization of park operations and loss of city jobs.
“There is a place for private funding, but it has to be in partnership with the department,” she told the Bay Guardian. “You can’t just eliminate the public process.”
In the late 1980s the private Central Park Conservancy took over the operation of the country’s most famous urban park – and promptly did everything it could do to please big donors. Central Park’s lawns look immaculate, but low-income and homeless folks have vanished, and former public employees now work for the conservancy.
Butler insisted that the New York model has no relevance to his plans for San Francisco’s parks. But planning commissioner Dennis Antenore, of the Coalition to Keep the de Young in the Park, told the Bay Guardian that both Butler and Hellman had been keen on the Central Park model until the coalition talked them out of it. Sources close to Butler and Hellman, who asked not to be named, say both still support the Central Park model but aren’t pushing it publicly.
Robinson and Ernston both adamantly oppose modeling any public-private partnerships after the Central Park
Conservancy. But Robinson may not be around for long, and Ernston’s group is being marginalized by the Haas-Hellman agenda.
“Even though [Central Park] is a gorgeous park, it doesn’t offer uses or activities to everyone anymore.” Ernston told the Bay Guardian. “You can’t go in and have your own conversation with the park anymore.”
Levi’s Picks A Park Director
In early March, Hellman announced plans to raise money for the parks from private foundations – the tune of $100 million (along with the $40 to $50 million he is lining up for the parking garage). He insisted he wasn’t looking to usurp control of the department.
At the end of April Mayor Willie Brown announced that he wanted a new Rec and Park director who would help generate financial support from foundations. A nationwide search for a new director would take place – and would be entirely funded by a private group called the San Francisco Partnerships for Parks. Haas and Hellman are among the major donors to that foundation, as is Gap CEO Don Fisher. The director is Lew Butler.
Butler will be named to the search committee, according to Brown spokesperson Kandace Bender. The Bay Guardian has learned that the Haas foundations will be influential in determining who else will participate. Hellman says he will steer clear of the whole project.
Hellman and Butler insist Brown is responsible for the search. But sources with the Haas-funded Neighborhood Parks Council, the department, and community organizations say the Haas foundations and Butler really pushed the idea.
Hellman denies that Robinson’s opposition to privatization contributed to his fall. But insiders suspect otherwise.
“Privatization of the whole operation is now a distinct possibility,” a source close to the director told the Bay Guardian.
Margaret Brodkin, of Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth and the Coalition to Keep the de Young in the Park, has denounced the private search.
“Having a search for a public department head funded with private money is clearly inappropriate,” Brodkin told the Bay Guardian. “If we are to conduct a search, there must be significant public input.”
Wells Fargo Builds A Parking Garage
Propositions A and J on the June 2 ballot call for the construction of a massive parking and loading complex to be built under the park for the renovation of the museum’s concourse. Hellman, who’s raising money from foundations for the plans, wants a new private authority to execute the project and accept tax-deductible donations. (Contributions to public agencies aren’t tax-deductible.)
Members of the Coalition to Keep the de Young in the Park, which put the measures on the ballot, believe they have crafted a new authority that would be a model for public-private partnerships that prevents private money from having undue influence.
The garage opponents are wary. The new authority’s decisions can only be overridden by a two-thirds majority of the Rec and Park Commission.
“What bothers me is that you have private funds determining the agenda,” Jennifer Clary of San Francisco Tomorrow told the Bay Guardian. “They are deciding that the people must drive to the park and park in a garage.”
“Propositions A and J are private money setting public policy in our public parks,” Greg Gaar, who serves on the department’s Open Space Committee, told the Bay Guardian. “This sets a really dangerous precedent.”
The city’s master plan for Golden Gate Park was released last spring. The plan, which cost the city $700,000, calls for increased use of public transportation and a reduction in car traffic. But opponents of A and J say the private interests simply don’t want that. When Supervisor Michael Yaki released the terms of the garage plan in late January, he made no mention of the master plan.
Clary said the authority’s resources would be better spent developing a comprehensive public-transit system to take residents to the park. “$1.4 million over five years for a public-transit study is a pittance compared to the $44 million for the garage,” Clary told the Bay Guardian.
Butler, Hellman, and museum director Harry Parker say the garage is needed for the museum’s survival. But No on J activists say museum trustees and donors are hoping to hold big parties there – and they don’t plan to use public transportation to get there.
The Privatization Of The City’s Golf Courses
There’s already talk about privatizing one of the park system’s most profitable assets. Supervisor Gavin Newsom, who serves on the board’s new Parks Committee, is supporting a plan to hand the city’s golf courses over to a private company to raise more revenue for the department. And so is Mayor Brown, according to a source within the task force. The department will invite private companies to submit bids in June.
Privatization of public golf courses in other cities has led to higher fees and resulted in lower pay for gardeners and other workers. Robinson told us the golf course is the only part of the park system he’d consider privatizing and that union golf course workers would be given jobs elsewhere in the park system.
The privatization is one brainchild of the 200-member Neighborhood Parks Task Force, a group formed last summer by Isabel Wade of the Neighborhood Parks Council and Anne Halsted of SPUR, which receives funding from many of the city’s largest corporations. The Task Force team dealing with changing the department’s management is led by Jim Lazarus, who oversaw privatization of the zoo before he was recently fired. Since its formation, the task force has said it hopes to find more private money for the parks.
Supervisor Amos Brown, who chairs the Parks Committee, told Butler and Wade in a March meeting at SPUR’s offices that the committee plans to implement the task force’s recommendations – specifically the new public-private partnerships.
The committee will likely soon help implement a pilot program to privatize the golf courses.
“First this,” golf-course gardener Janet Aguilera told the Bay Guardian. “What will they privatize next, the whole system”?
. . .
Privatization initiatives typically start when a public agency is in crisis. Park activists and local media have suggested that that might be a fair description of the situation at Rec and Park. But Robinson says any problems the department has have resulted from cuts to public funding.
“We are not in crisis,” Robinson told the Bay Guardian. “When given the appropriate resources, we can do the job as well as or better than any private organization.” He has asked the city for a $10 million increase in public funds.
“Robinson is doing the best he can with what he’s got,” Ann Seeman of the Friends of Visitacion Valley told the Bay Guardian. What’s really needed, she said, is more public spending, so community groups don’t have to fight over pennies.
“I think private foundations should not make the decisions,” Seeman told the Bay Guardian. “I’m angry that the parks have been allowed by the city to deteriorate. What we need is an adequate budget.”