‘Can I buy your park?’

Pub date August 12, 2009
WriterSarah Phelan


Saul Bloom, executive director of Arc Ecology, recently donned his best suit and a sandwich-board saying "Can I buy your park?" then headed to some of the city’s most popular open spaces: Dolores Park, Golden Gate Park, Crissy Field, and Ocean Beach.

Bloom’s quest? Pose as a developer and videotape reactions to a fictitious proposal to sell 25 percent of the parks for housing, a ruse designed to illuminate how the city and its master developer, Lennar Corp., have never been nearly that honest about their plan to get the state to sell 25 percent of Candlestick Point State Recreation Area so Lennar can build luxury condos on prime waterfront parklands.

Predictably, responses to Bloom’s poll were mainly negative, occasionally violent. "A couple of people tried to clock me over the head," Bloom recalled. "They got aggressive. They said ‘You’re an asshole, man.’ But the predominant reaction was ‘I love my park.’ People asked, ‘Why do you want to sell them?’ They feel there’s not enough open space."

Perhaps the most chilling response came when Bloom told folks about the city’s actual plan to build condos at Candlestick Point SRA in the Bayview District. "Their response was, ‘Oh, it’s in the Bayview? Who cares?’" said Bloom, who fears that apparent indifference to the plight of the Bayview may explain why the city and Lennar see Candlestick Point SRA as a development opportunity.

Arc isn’t the only group accusing Lennar and the city of not properly informing the public that a vote for Proposition G, which was billed as the "clean-up the shipyard initiative" during the June 2008 election, was also a vote to push Senate Bill 792, state tidelands legislation that authorizes the Candlestick Point sell-off.

Introduced by State Sen. Mark Leno in February, SB 792 has since been amended and approved by the full Senate and is currently scheduled for a hearing by the Assembly Appropriations Committee Aug. 19. Passage by the committee is virtually certain, given that it only delays legislation based on fiscal impacts.

But even some Prop. G supporters, including Bloom, are now raising questions about the deal.

San Francisco’s Park, Recreation, and Open Space Advisory Committee (PROSAC) unanimously approved a resolution recommending that the city’s Recreation and Park Commission and the sponsor of SB 792 require both the city and Lennar to "provide detailed accounting of the park and open space acreage in the Candlestick Project." The committee asks that no net open space in the region be lost in the transfer.

PROSAC claims it was in the dark about the deal and asked those who pushed Prop. G to "provide documentation of when PROSAC and any other relevant advisory committees were informed of the intention to purchase state parkland for the Candlestick Project." So far Lennar and the city have pointed to conceptual maps and a couple of notices of public meetings as evidence that the public was adequately informed before voting.

But according to Bloom, who studies the maps and attends the meetings, "There really is not anything other than two graphics, neither of which call out the alteration to the park boundary. You’d really have to know what you were looking for. And why would the city’s own advisory committee be asking Lennar and the city for information if they were in fact told of this plan?"

Adding fuel to the fire is a July 21 resolution by Sups. Chris Daly and John Avalos, which argues that it should be official policy of San Francisco to oppose SB 792 in its current form and remind city lobbyist Lynn Suter "to accurately represent the City and County of San Francisco policy in Sacramento."

The resolution has been assigned to the board’s Land Use Committee and likely won’t be heard until September. It contends that SB 792 is "premature and preempts the process for public input and environmental assessment since the environmental impact reports for the proposed development on Candlestick Point and the Hunters Point Shipyard will not be released until the fall of 2009."

Noting that the state "purchased this beautiful waterfront parkland for $10 million in 1977," Daly and Avalos assert that "this land represents a valuable and irreplaceable asset to the state of California that should not be disposed of for private development."

The resolution notes that many people oppose the transfer "because of the impact of environmental racism caused by selling a clean park to a private developer for condominium construction denying Bayview Hunters Point residents equal access to healthy open space as is enjoyed by other neighborhoods in San Francisco."

As Daly told the Guardian, "Everyone wants the shipyard site cleaned up, development that works for the community, and real open space opportunities on the shoreline. And Prop. G was billed as doing this, which led to a division of people who believed Lennar and those who didn’t."

As a result, Daly said, people like Saul Bloom, who supported Prop. G, are coming out against SB 792. "So now, it seems, the skeptics are right," Daly said. "A lot of promises have been made. But unless you get them in writing, and have an insurance policy, Lennar is not delivering."

But Lennar Communities of California, the developer’s major political action committee, seems to be delivering when it comes to advocating for the park sell-off. In the second quarter of this year, Lennar more than doubled its spending on lobbying, including on SB 792. And Aug. 3, it alerted its Prop. G supporters that help is needed "passing SB 792 through the California State Legislature."

The e-mail blast claims that SB 792 is "straightforward and necessary legislation that reconfigures the state park boundaries at Candlestick Point and exchanges under-utilized land (most of it dirt, rubble, and a parking lot) for tens of millions of dollars of needed new improvements to the state park and a steady stream of dedicated funding to operate and maintain the improved park and open space."

But recently, there has been talk of an SB 792 compromise. According to insiders, the city and Lennar are willing to concede 20 acres of the contested 42-acres of park, although the developer insists it needs to build hundreds of condos (of which only 15 percent will be below market rate) on the 22 remaining acres of state park land if its entire 700-acre development is to pencil out.

Privately, environmental advocates say they may be unable to stop the land grab. And they worry that seven of the 20 acres Lennar is prepared to concede could be inundated by rising seas caused by global warming, as shown in a 2007 study by engineering firm Moffat & Nichol. It would be an ironic fate given Mayor Gavin Newsom’s July 30 announcement of a proposed United Nations center focused on climate change and green technology as part of Lennar’s project.

The Sierra Club opposes selling state parklands, building a bridge over Yosemite Slough, and capping a radiologically-affected dump on the shipyard’s Parcel E2. But the club does not oppose Lennar’s entire redevelopment plan. Arthur Feinstein, the group’s local representative, said, "We’re interested in saving as much land as possible. We are pushing to save the park’s grasslands. It’s existing habitat."

Noting that some amendments to SB 792 have been made, including removing proposed exchanges of parklands for shipyard land, Feinstein said that "there’s now a map that defines the project and no longer carries shipyard land."

Michael Cohen, Newsom’s chief economic adviser, said, "At Leno’s request, we’ve made amendments to address concerns, including taking steps to ensure there is no adverse impact on wildlife habitat."

Cohen called Newsom’s United Nations Climate Center "the perfect institution" for the entire redevelopment project, since it provides the shipyard with a green technology anchor. Cohen said he was unaware of the study showing the area could be flooded by global warming.

"But no one disagrees," Cohen continued, "that the state park will benefit from infrastructure and much needed capital for operations and maintenance."

Leno told the Guardian that his goal is to arrive at the best possible bill. "At the request of the opposition, we did amend the bill so that land at Hunters Point Shipyard won’t be part of any exchange," Leno said. "But it is conceivable that once the cleanup is completed, there could be a gift from the city to the State Parks Commission."

Leno said he hadn’t seen the flood map and joked, "If someone thinks they know exactly where the water is going to stop, they can place some bets now."

Assuming a more serious tone, Leno added that "the entire park system is under threat." He recalled how Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed to eliminate all General Fund money for parks and said, "We fought back and were able to restore most of the money."

But with the state’s ongoing fiscal woes and political stalemate, "Anyone who believes CPRSA is going to be open and funded indefinitely is not thinking clearly … so this deal has the potential for being an opportunity for our taking responsibility for the future of our state park system."

As currently drafted, SB 792 provides millions for improvements and $700,000 annually for operations and maintenance, Leno explained. "So I’m trying to make a bad situation better in a way that brings along this bill’s opponents so that they see that they are being taken seriously."