Privatizing the Botanical Gardens

news@sfbg.com

The Board of Supervisors last week voted to continue the collection of “non-resident fees” at the Botanical Gardens in Golden Gate Park for a minimum 10-year period. Then it approved a companion measure to allow construction of a new, privately run nursery that will be the home of corporate parties and members-only activities, giving a private group unusual control over a public space.

The proposed plan will replace the existing nursery with a new Center For Sustainable Growth, funded as a “gift-in place” from the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society, a nonprofit that has supported the gardens since 1955, when it was known as Strybing Arboretum.

“This vote means we are basically privatizing 55 acres of Golden Gate Park and handing it over to a nonprofit with no public accountability,” Harry Pariser, a longtime resident of the Inner Sunset, activist, and author told the Bay Guardian. “Essentially we’re allowing the government to make us show an ID to come onto public land. It’s also going to be a space where there’s going to be a lot more commercial activity. I think inevitably there is going to be fees for everyone.”

The new agreement consists of demolishing an existing 4,600 square foot greenhouse, which will be replaced by a new 9,800 square foot nursery. A real estate evaluation report on the nursery project performed by Clifford Advisory, a limited liability corporation, compares the project to allegedly positive public-private development efforts such as the Hunter’s Point Shipyard project.

The lease agreement between the Botanical Garden Society and the City of San Francisco allows the society to use the premises for “special events,” designate members-only hours for the facility, and waive the non-resident fee for those events. According to the lease, the city shall avoid interfering with the Society’s “quiet use and enjoyment of the premises,” namely by allowing them to throw private parties.

“The Botanical Gardens is an incredible asset to the city, it’s a great place for families and kids, and now they’re no longer treating it as a public asset,” Sup. John Avalos, who recently voted against the non-resident fees and the lease agreement, told the Guardian. “They’re making it more exclusive.”

 

LAND GRAB

The SFBGS has a history of campaigning for private exclusivity on public land as well as generating new revenue sources. In 2010, Avalos pushed a plan to replace the revenue brought in by non-resident fees with $250,000 pulled from the city’s real estate transfer tax.

SFBGS, backed by London Breed before she was elected the supervisor of District 5, which includes the Botanical Gardens, opposed Avalos’ effort and helped shoot down the proposed plans, continuing the fee collections.

A large part of the board’s approval is derived from the lobbying efforts of Sam Lauter, a lobbyist hired by SFBGS who has continually pushed for permanent fees and the new conservatory. Lauter also helped support and fund Breed’s supervisorial campaign last year.

While the lease and management agreement purports that the SFBGS’s management shall be subject to the city’s definition of the gardens as a public space, it offers an exception in cases of SFBGS-sponsored special events, circumventing its status as a public space. The lease also allows the Society to use other buildings on the premises, such as the County Fair Building, for special events, free of charge.

Although the SFBGS is essentially taking over operation of the gardens, the city will continue to pay for utilities and offer a “rent credit” that requires the Society to pay just $100 in rent annually. Additionally, SFBGS will be reimbursed for non-resident fee collection expenses.

“We understand the logic of providing benefits for people who donate to the facility,” Breed legislative aide Conor Johnston told us. “It’s very important to remember all San Francisco residents have free access and [organized groups of] youth from outside the city have free access. This structure allows the arboretum to stay open.”

While San Francisco residents still have free access, the agreements with the SFBGS strongly limit this access by instituting members-only hours, forcing residents to show identification at security gates, and renting out buildings for exclusive corporate parties.

Another part of the Botanical Garden’s master plan consists of providing food services in a new visitors center. Consequently, the “public” gardens will enforce a rule barring visitors from bringing in outside food. The plan also details the SFBGS’s plan to bring in new revenue streams through corporate events.

“This is about weeding people out, controlling people and deciding who has access to this place,” said Pariser. “They put up a wall that must cost thousands of dollars and they destroyed this meadow that even London Breed was appalled by. They control this place like it’s a domain and you’re not allowed to say anything.”

 

QUIET TRANSFER

The lack of public outreach and input on the SFBGS’s buyout has left residents like Pariser feeling robbed of public land that their taxes pay to support. Nancy McNally, founder of the San Francisco AIDS Grove, voiced similar concerns regarding the misplaced priorities of both SFBGS and the Recreation and Parks Department, which in recent years has been under growing criticism for monetizing public spaces (see “Parks Inc.,” 7/12/11).

“For me, I can’t even be in the same room as Recreation and Park Director Phil Ginsburg. I think he has done so much harm to the parks,” McNally told us. “He’s created a ton of positions in the marketing and PR department. What do they need four people for to run public marketing for a public space?”

Frederick Law Olmsted, the co-designer of Central Park, is said to have influenced the style of Golden Gate Park. Olmsted’s theory was to bring wilderness into the city. For McNally, this non-manicured, rustic aspect of Golden Gate Park is what makes it so appealing.

“They’re taking away the basic foundation of the park, which is wildness,” said McNally. “The new building is so big, obtrusive, and unnecessary. It’s only about income for the Botanical Society’s select group.”

McNally views the RPD and SFBGS as predatory entities who target residents attempting to use the land by charging egregious fees for weddings, memorials, and other events.

McNally recalled a friend who wanted to have a memorial for another gardening enthusiast in the Arboretum. For 10 people, the RPD wanted $1,000 and to hire a security guard for a group of elderly gardening enthusiasts.

SFRPD did not return the Guardian’s phone calls regarding the management under the SFBGS, which also did not return our call.

Jane Glasby, an ex-librarian for the SFBGS, whose job was terminated in 2010 due to widespread cuts to the garden’s education program, expressed her inside views on the changing tides of park’s atmosphere in a letter written to “friends and garden lovers” as her tenure came to an end.

“Over the last few years, the library budget has been slashed, the children’s program cut back, and the adult education program all but eliminated,” Glasby wrote at the time. ‘With money available to pay a firm to lobby for an entrance fee $10,000 every month for at least the last seven months, it looks very odd to close the library [that was at the Arboretum] with the excuse of saving just $10,000 a year. Charging admissions would put the garden in danger of becoming an exclusive but shallow and flashy entertainment (I am thinking of the Tea Garden and the Academy [of Science]), rather than the living museum that we all love and respect.”

While Glasby’s comments refer to cutbacks dating back to 2010, her experience denotes what is seemingly becoming the protocol of SFBGS. Three years later, the Society has succeeded in charging non-residents indefinitely and turning what was once a public place of solitude for residents and non-residents alike into an increasingly privatized hub for members willing to pay extra for exclusivity of an allegedly public space.

McNally, who is now retired, has taken it upon herself to document the decreasing local attendance of the arboretum, which was once a frequent lunch spot for residents and nearby UCSF students. “On a sunny day at noon it used to be to be carpeted with people having lunch. It’s not anymore,” said McNally. “I have four years of documentation of that empty lawn at high noon, showing it completely empty, with just geese shitting everywhere.”

 

Corrections: The permit fee for the gardening club was corrected. We also added the parenthetical to Johnston’s quote to clarify visitor fees.