The shelter of a slim door frame, the outstretched palm asking for a dime: this is how hundreds of San Francisco’s homeless get by, once the soup kitchens close and the shelters cry “No Vacancy.”
But panhandling, blocking the sidewalks, and lodging in public are a few of the 15 quality-of-life violations for which the San Francisco Police Department regularly issues citations. In the 30 months that Mayor Gavin Newsom has been in office, the cops have issued more than 31,000 such tickets.
And according to a study by Religious Witness with Homeless People, it’s been a colossal waste of money.
The study — released at a City Hall press conference Aug. 31 — revealed that more than $5.7 million in taxpayer money has been spent on police, paperwork, and court staff issuing and prosecuting these violations.
The group reviewed documents from the Police Department, Sheriff’s Department, district attorney, public defender, city attorney, and the Traffic and Criminal divisions of the SF Superior Court, as well as interviewing nearly 200 homeless people about their experiences being swept off the streets and into the courtrooms and jails. According to Sister Bernie Galvin, who founded the interfaith coalition in 1993, no study of this scope and magnitude has ever been conducted in San Francisco.
“Most of these people haven’t committed a crime,” Galvin said. “They’ve received [tickets] for simply existing: the crime of being poor and on the street.”
Approximately 80 percent of the citations are dismissed in the courts when the violator fails to show or can’t pay the $100 fine, but then a warrant is issued for the person’s arrest. Here’s the rub: with an active arrest warrant, a homeless person can’t access city services, the very essentials that eliminate the need to sleep in the park and pee on a tree.
“We’re spending all this money, and the result is counterproductive,” said Elisa Della-Piana, a legal advocate for the homeless.
Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan, one of several religious leaders, lawyers, and homeless advocates at the press conference, pointed out that a simple background check for employment or housing would reveal the arrest warrant. “Housing, jobs, drug treatment, federal and state benefits are all threatened by these little green pieces of paper,” he said, gesturing to the mountain of paper violations stacked on a nearby tabletop.
“If you’re homeless on the street and receive a citation for over $100, this is a Kafkaesque moment,” he went on to say. Homeless people are currently granted $59 of public money a month under Newsom’s Care not Cash program, down from $419.
Newsom has said he’s reduced the number of quality-of-life citations by 17 percent; however, Galvin contends that number draws from a pool of eight possible violations when there are actually 15 that fall in the category. Within that 15, some have doubled in number, with public camping violations having tripled.
While Galvin made a point of commending the work Newsom’s Project Homeless Connect has done in galvanizing volunteers and reaching about 1,000 people in need, she said, “Until we have the capacity to meet the needs of all these other people, it’s morally unjust to criminalize them.”
“I went to Project Homeless Connect, and they really helped me. Two days later, they arrested me for not paying my tickets,” said one of the homeless people interviewed for the study. Another said, “I never got a ticket in my life for anything, then I lost my job, couldn’t pay my rent, became homeless. I got tickets now and probably warrants all for just being in the park. They just keep beating you down.”
Galvin added that Newsom has not responded to four letters requesting a meeting. “This is the first mayor who’s refused to meet with us,” she said of Religious Witness, which got its start fighting Mayor Frank Jordan’s tough-love Matrix policy of the ’90s. “Mayor Newsom is responsible for this city,” she said. “He must stop enforcement of these unjust laws.” SFBG
by Amanda Witherell
I just returned from ten days on an idyllic island in downeast Maine. For the seaside hamlet from whence I hail, it’s local custom to leave your car keys in the ignition so you don’t lose them and your front door unlocked, or even wide open, so the cat can come and go while you’re at work. After a few days of openly worrying about my friends’ unlocked bicycles, I settled back into the local population and the comfortable human trust they maintain, where everyone is innocent until proven guilty.
Welcome back to San Francisco, where a Honda Pilot is the new street weapon of choice and the annual murder rate is climbing to fresh heights. Scan the daily headlines and it’s easy to believe the streets are not safe and no one is watching your back. Again and again I hear people say San Francisco isn’t like other cities. It’s small for a metropolis and each neighborhood is like its own little town taking care of its own, clustered among dozens of others on a peninsula that acts more like an island.
Well, if that’s true, then in the Guardian’s hood, all hail the New Portrero Market. A couple days ago I ventured up the hill to buy a bottle of water and inadvertently let $60 fall out of my wallet. I’m not really in the financial position to be so cavalier with money and I was dismayed by the loss. I figured it was payback for my preadolescent penchant for the five finger discount, and let it go. Who the hell tries to track down the owner of sixty bucks?
But I was thinking about it today on my lunchbreak and stuck my head into the market, just to see if maybe there’s an honest soul out there…
Well hell yeah! There are two. As I made my meek inquiry, Marwan punched the “No Sale” button on the register and immediately handed me my wandering Jacksons. Mike, who I’d been chatting with while I wasn’t paying attention to my wallet, had found them after I left the market, and Marwan had tucked them under the drawer for safekeeping should I ever return for another bottle of water. I’ll be certain to now. Hooray for the small town neighborhoods we still have in this city!
by Amanda Witherell
This week Wal-Mart cranked up the PR knob with a new bout of ads touting the company’s social worth with the gloss of a dirty politician trying to spin some positive image. According to The New York Times the spots make a point of the $2,300 an average family saves shopping at Wal-Mart and paint Sam Walton as a red-knuckled entrepreneur of yesteryear.
Unfortunately, that image in no way resembles the $312.4 billion, Fortune 500 corporation of today.
by Amanda Witherell
At the Guardian’s Best of the Bay party last night, we caught up with city officials fresh from a meeting on what to do about that pesky Halloween party in the Castro. Supervisor Bevan Dufty’s attempt to quash the celebration last week caught the ear of Mayor Newsom, who quickly mobilized city department heads including the SFPD and the Entertainment Commission, to brew up an agreement that protects the sacrosanct Castro event.
The Entertainment Commission took the stance that cancelling the city-run event would never work: it is ingrained in the Bay Area psyche to report to the Castro for All Hallow’s Eve, whether the people who live there like it or not. Police Chief Heather Fong said she would cancel cop vacation time instead and a full force would be dressed in blues and billy clubs for October 31. The plan is to shift the event from Castro to Market Street, but most importantly, the right to costumed revelry is no longer under attack.
The Mayor’s Office of Communications has for months been fighting with Sup. Chris Daly and several unrelated activists over the release of public documents. By denying and ignoring Sunshine Ordinance requests — including some by the Guardian — the office has garnered a reputation for secrecy that has transformed a disparate group of activists into a united force pushing the boundaries of the city’s landmark open government law.
The Sunshine Ordinance Task Force (SOTF) on July 25 found the MOC in violation of the Sunshine Ordinance on two counts, but the mayor’s spokespeople defied its decision and refused to release seven pages of MOC e-mails that Daly requested. Jennifer Petrucione, who spoke for the mayor at the meeting and left before a final decision had been reached on one of the violations, told the Guardian, “I was contemptuous of the process.”
Her view and that of mayoral press secretary Peter Ragone, as they explained to the Guardian, is that the voluminous nature of some requests and the political motivations of document requesters like Daly violate the spirit of the Sunshine Ordinance, which voters passed in 1993 to encourage public access to how decisions are made in city hall. Instead of disclosing documents, the MOC has found loopholes in the broadly written law permitting them to hide information.
“We have the right to withhold certain documents if they are recommendations,” Petrucione told us July 28, even though the task force generally supports disclosure of such documents. In another case of ignoring a request, she chalked it up to an accident: “That was not us trying to avoid Sunshine, it was us doing it too quickly and overlooking things.”
While both Ragone and Petrucione insisted it’s their policy to release everything they can, even if it’s logistically difficult given the volume of requests they receive, they’re still having a hard time producing documents in a timely fashion. So some activists have reacted to early inaction with ever more voluminous and complicated requests.
The day after we discussed the MOC Sunshine Ordinance policies with Petrucione and Ragone, Mayor Gavin Newsom appeared at a town hall meeting in the Richmond, where we asked him about the dispute with Daly’s office. “I haven’t been privy to the details,” he told us. “I would like to see us readily provide whatever information is being requested. I said, ‘Peter, just send all the information, even in the spirit of the ordinance. We have nothing to hide.’”
Two days later, Petrucione called the Guardian to say the mayor had ordered her office to release the disputed documents after all. She told us, “You guys want to make an issue of it, so we decided to just put them out there.”
The disputed e-mails requested by Sup. Daly involve Ragone’s purchase last year of a tenancy in common (TIC) from which two disabled residents had been evicted by a landlord evoking the Ellis Act, as first reported by the blog www.beyondchron.org.
Daly was curious if there might be any connection between Ragone’s new digs and Newsom’s vetoes of proposals that would have protected tenants from those kinds of evictions. Daly’s office filed an immediate disclosure request for any documents regarding evictions or condominium conversions.
After the MOC initially responded that they didn’t have any such documents, which Daly’s office didn’t believe, the issue dragged out over four months in front of the SOTF, with the MOC eventually turning over about 25 relevant documents but withholding seven e-mails, with Petrucione citing Section 67.24 of the Sunshine Ordinance: “Only the recommendation of the author may, in such circumstances, be withheld as exempt.”
Daly appeared at the meeting to speak on his own behalf. “I’m not attempting to have a gotcha on the Mayor’s Office. I’m attempting to form a decision,” he said.
The task force doesn’t have the power of subpoena or investigative authority — its members can’t look at the e-mails and decide if they’re public — so the matter was referred to the Ethics Commission, which does. Petrucione, who had the documents at the meeting, could have just handed them to Daly. She told the Guardian, “We’re not concerned about what the e-mails say. We’re trying to adhere to the letter and the spirit of the law.”
In fact, the documents contained only mildly embarrassing information, with a pair of e-mails from Petrucione plotting ways to overshadow the news of Newsom’s tenant protection veto last September by releasing word of the veto late on a Friday and coupling it with a high-profile announcement of San Francisco’s Hurricane Katrina relief efforts, “which will bury any interest in the Ellis release.”
But the MOC’s resistance to disclosure — both to Daly and to activists also seeking information during that same time period — has only served to galvanize those seeking public records.
Everyone starts with a little kernel of concern, a reason to wonder or worry about what those elected officials are up to. Kimo Crossman last year wanted to know more about the sketchy municipal wi-fi deal with Google and Earthlink that Newsom was proposing. After hitting initial roadblocks when making requests for specific information like a copy of the contract, Crossman started asking for reams of documents, anything remotely related to the TechConnect plan. His concerns have now expanded to disaster preparedness issues and finally to the Sunshine Ordinance itself.
Last week at the SOTF meeting, where Crossman is now a regular member of the audience, he filed a complaint that the mayor had not provided the opportunity for public comment at a Disaster Council meeting June 5. After reviewing video and transcripts of the meeting and hearing Petrucione’s evolving explanations, the task force found a violation.
Crossman — who at one time was being considered for “vexatious litigant” status by city officials who wanted to tone down his voluminous requests — was pleased and said, “I thought it was a success that the mayor was held accountable to Sunshine just like everyone else in the city.”
Perhaps the violation will inspire the Mayor’s Office to fulfill the outstanding records requests of other citizens, like Wayne Lanier, who had a little home improvement issue.
About a year ago, Lanier and a few of his neighbors repaired the sidewalk around a few trees and planted some flowerpots in front of their homes. Then the city slapped them with a $700 tax, under the Occupancy Assessment Fee for Various Encroachments.
The ordinance was introduced by the mayor and passed the Board of Supervisors in July 2005. It was designed to tax property owners who eat up the public right-of-way with stairways and fences, but the ordinance became what Lanier likes to call the “tree and beauty tax.”
Lanier wanted to know what kinds of meetings and discussions had led up to this ordinance, so in March he sent a Sunshine Ordinance request to Newsom. “I requested his calendar prior to July,” Lanier told the Guardian. “A very simple e-mail request under the Sunshine act.”
Lanier says he has yet to receive an answer to his request, let alone any correspondence or acknowledgement from the Mayor’s Office that they’re working on it. Later, he had concerns about avian flu, where he was again rebuffed in his attempt to get documents.
THE PRICE OF DELAY
The frustrating stories of Crossman and Lanier eventually caught the interest of Christian Holmer, who championed their causes and set out with Crossman on a project they think could streamline the practice of releasing public documents.
Holmer is the secretary of the Panhandle Residents Organization Stanyan Fulton, which has a Web site compendium of all the Sunshine Ordinance requests he knows about. He posts a running countdown of how many days each request has been outstanding, as well as details on the runaround and excuses he receives from city officials.
His goal is to standardize how various departments produce documents and make them more easily accessible to the public “in as few keystrokes as possible,” as he puts it. And to do that, he’s made lots of Sunshine Ordinance requests, which MOC officials argue are too onerous for them to deal with, particularly given Holmer’s lengthy, heavily annotated e-mails, which he fires off to a variety of city departments on a daily basis.
As the many city reps who receive these e-mails will attest, it can take well over an hour to read the entire contents of one e-mail, only to find out it includes enough attachments to keep the reader busy for the better part of a day.
Petrucione and Ragone, who have received Holmer’s request for the mayor’s daily calendar but not yet answered it, cite the difficulty in figuring out exactly what Holmer wants. However, even the Guardian’s simply worded requests for that same information, as well as documents related to the recent health care measure, weren’t filled by the timelines set out by the ordinance.
Ragone says his office is just trying to keep up with the deluge of document requests. He raised the possibility of reforms, such as a designated Sunshine Ordinance officer or standardized form, but the MOC hasn’t formally proposed any.
Matt Dorsey of the City Attorney’s Office is wary of standardizing the system: “I don’t think the law should create a barrier — a ‘you didn’t sign this so I don’t have to answer it’ situation.” SFBG
“This year, $25,613 for 16 officers. Last year, $4,650 for 7 officers,” fest organizer Robert Kowal told the Guardian. “We just want to put on a free concert, and the public stance toward us has been extremely obstructionist and inflammatory.”
Captain James Dudley told us the bill was a draft based on last month’s North Beach Festival, where the addition of a beer garden to the event scheme actually made their job a little harder because of multiple entrances and a confused private security.
“So we fully staffed it,” said Dudley.
After threatening a lawsuit, Kowal and his co-organizers sat down with Dudley and worked out a plan that would require more private security and volunteers and fewer of the costly badges and billy clubs.
“The police are to be commended for sticking with what keeps them safe, but we’re a much smaller event, and we only have one street closure,” said Kowal. Only in their wildest woodwind dreams would the Jazz Fest organizers hope for a crowd as large as the North Beach Festival’s. And they are hoping. Due to the change in alcohol policy and the additional security, the fest is still expected to cost $15,000–$20,000 more than last year.
“We made a lot of compromises to make sure this festival is still free,” said Kowal. “We’re hoping someone comes forward with a big donation. But we need a miracle. We need a really sunny day and we need to sell a lot of Angel Passes.”
For jazz fans who want to chip in, the fest is offering “Angel Packages” for $100, which include tickets to all four night shows (which are not free) and an “I Saved North Beach Jazz Fest” T-shirt. (Witherell)
Outside of North Beach, the party is still on. That’s good news for San Francisco festivalgoers, but it leaves one outstanding question: What exactly is current city policy on promoting partying in public spaces?
Once again, the forum was the Recreation and Park Commission’s monthly meeting, this one July 19. It wasn’t exactly a reprise of the perplexing mess surrounding the North Beach festivals (see “The Death of Fun,” 5/23/06), but it did involve the same question of whether to allow drinking in city parks.
The commission approved a request from Seven Star to produce a two-day World Beat Music Concert in Sharon Meadow on May 19 and 20 next year. The application included codas for a modified sound policy and permission to sell beer and wine, which was granted without so much as a clarifying question, a scrutiny of beer garden site plans, testimony from event planners, or a peep of public comment.
This permit is practically identical to the permits submitted by the North Beach Festival and North Beach Jazz Festival for use of Washington Square Park, which incited no end of grief among event planners, neighborhood activists, local businesses, musicians, fans, and fun lovers throughout the city. The one apparent difference is that it’s not in Washington Square Park, whose use as a festival site has raised concerns among North Beach residents.
“That’s why it sailed right through,” said Dennis Kern, director of operations for the Recreation and Park Department. There are 56 greenways listed in Section 4.10 of the Park Code that prohibit consumption of alcohol. Introduced back in 1981, the code has been amended four times over the years to include additional parks. Washington Square joined the list in 2000, but in the case of the festivals, the code has historically been waived without fanfare.
This year, however, Kern broke with tradition by recommending that beer and wine not be sold in the park during the North Beach Festival and North Beach Jazz Fest. The festivals ultimately appealed, and a compromise was reached allowing alcohol sales outside the park.
When questioned by the Guardian as to whether future recommendations would follow suit, Kern said, “Yeah, probably. Each one is a separate case, but we’ll continue to follow the Park Code. The commission can always grant their exceptions.” SFBG
The biggest deterrent for the east-west migratory subset of species homo sapiens is a lack of niche habitat in San Francisco. While a unique western habitat like San Francisco offers much “to do” for the migrating easterner, the difficulty has been ingratiation with local population. Repeatedly, the search is for “common ground.”
On a steamy Sunday afternoon bird walk along Land’s End, this is how the ecologists were rapping — about pigeon guillemots and oystercatchers, and not bereft New Englanders. But during the three hour tour from Suttro Baths along the cliffs toward China Beach, the crowd of twenty or so had a chance to get pretty chummy. My own recent migration from east to west has left me looking for a niche, and I felt a bit at home with this pack of ornithologists. I am not a bird nerd, but in my past life I spent some serious QT with researchers on an offshore island so I can at least feign binocular interest. Mostly I was there to hear what the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy has planned for the area. Within the 49 square miles of San Francisco, there are 41 natural areas, some as well-known and loved as the Presidio, and others as small and locally cherished as Kite Hill. They are all considered potential habitats where a coyote, a California Quail, or a native live oak could find a home, and a human could find a place to connect with the wilder aspects of the city. Much of that area has been invaded by non-native species like eucalyptus, nasturtium, feral cats, and pet dogs, and on Wednesday, July 26, the Recreation and Parks Department will be holding a special meeting to decide how to proceed with protecting these areas. There’s been a lot of controversy between dog owners and native species advocates, and this is something of a final showdown between the two factions, so it should be interesting to see how the commission decides.
The Presidio, converted from military to civilian use 12 years ago, has six million square feet of former officers’ quarters, barracks, and buildings that make it unlike any other national park in the country.
This public space has become home to a mixed bag of occupants — primarily private citizens, a smattering of nonprofit organizations, and an increasing number of commercial enterprises — as the Presidio Trust pursues a controversial congressional mandate to be financially self-sustaining.
Two different museums have also vied for residence at the site of the park’s Main Post: the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center (CIMCC) and the Disney Museum. Both submitted viable proposals for exhibition space, representing starkly different futures for the Presidio.
This is the story of how one may get to stay and the other just had to go. This is also the story of how the Presidio Trust is transforming a prized national park into just another piece of real estate to be claimed by the highest bidder.
In Presidio Trust literature, the Main Post is called the “heart of the Presidio.” The centrally located seven-acre parcel includes an enormous parking lot surrounded by dozens of buildings that provide a steady stream of traffic pumping through the arteries of Presidio Boulevard and Doyle Drive. If you were hoping to attract a regular flow of visitors to your museum, the Main Post would be an ideal place to put it.
Photographs of classic Presidio architecture usually show the northwestern edge of the Main Post where Buildings 103 and 104 are a stately couple among a quintuplet of identical four-story brick structures. They are now empty, except for some temporary office space. Approximately 44,000 square feet each, the historic barracks were built between 1895 and 1897 to accommodate troops returning from frontier battles during the conquest of Native American tribes.
When the National Park Service was handed the Presidio in 1995, the CIMCC became one of the first “park partners” to set up office. For almost two years, the museum negotiated with the park service to lease additional space for the first living museum of Native American culture in California.
The museum planners took a shine to Building 103, paid for a $44,000 renovation study, and kicked off the necessary fundraising with a $2 million allocation from then–Senate president pro tem Bill Lockyer. Joseph Myers, a Pomo Indian, lawyer, and chairman of the CIMCC Board of Directors, said there was a lot of enthusiasm for the project.
“Even when we just had office space here we had international visitors wandering through, wondering when there would be a museum here,” he said.
Things were looking hopeful, and on Sept. 21, 1996, the Presidio, originally home of the Ohlone tribe, hosted a formal dedication of the return of a Native American presence to the park. Then-mayor Willie Brown attended the ceremony and pledged his support to the project.
Not long after, the Presidio’s power structure radically shifted. The park was split into two areas, with Area A along the waterfront managed by the park service and the inland Area B and the bulk of its buildings, including the Main Post, managed by the Presidio Trust — the result of a newfangled proposal by Rep. Nancy Pelosi that won acceptance in a Republican-controlled Congress.
The Presidio is the first national park with a mandate to pay its own way; the trust’s finances are governed by a board of seven presidential designees — initially chaired by downtown-friendly Toby Rosenblatt and including Gap founder Donald Fisher. The new landlords informed the CIMCC that all real estate negotiations were on hold.
“We tried very hard to convince them we would be good tenants,” Myers told the Guardian. “The Presidio is originally one of the places where Indians suffered at the hands of Spanish conquistadors. They were tortured and killed for not being good slaves. That’s old history, but it’s certainly morally and culturally acceptable to consider the Presidio a good place for a museum.”
But over the course of three years, serious discussions with the trust were delayed, and alternate plans and proposals for different buildings were ignored. In September 2000, at Myers’s insistence, the CIMCC finally met with Presidio staff and was encouraged to submit a proposal to renovate three dilapidated buildings near Lombard Gate.
The deadline to submit was short, but the CIMCC met it and museum planners say they were promised a decision within 14 days. Nine months later they received a formal response with, according to Myers, no solid answer. They continued waiting until an article in the San Francisco Chronicle informed them that the buildings had been leased to a private foundation from Silicon Valley.
The results of that deal now stand within sight of the Main Post: the Letterman Digital Arts Center, 850,000 square feet of space renovated and leased for $5.6 million a year by the private company Lucasfilm.
According to Presidio spokesperson Dana Polk, negotiations didn’t work out because the CIMCC couldn’t pay rent or put money into the work on the building. “They weren’t able to do either,” she said.
Somehow the museum was able to do it elsewhere. After withdrawing all proposals and vacating its office space, the CIMCC purchased a 24,000-square-foot building in Santa Rosa. The museum pays $10,000 a month in mortgage for the building, now worth $3 million, and it’s a better deal than the Presidio offered: a leased space at $50,000 a month after $10 million in renovations paid out from the CIMCC’s pocket. But it doesn’t lessen the irony or pain of the situation.
“The philosophy behind keeping the Presidio alive for public access was not for the purpose of George Lucas and Disneyland, but for California culture,” said Myers. “I think they have their own idea of what cultural projects are, and it’s not us.”
The new museum is still under construction in Santa Rosa and will include displays of indigenous art and archives. The National Indian Justice Center already calls it a home, and there are regular workshops on subjects like storytelling and art, current issues, and traditional uses of California native plants.
“That would have been a perfect fit for a national park,” said Joel Ventresca, chair of Preserve the Presidio, a watchdog group that’s fought past Presidio developments. He likened the CIMCC to exhibits in Yosemite where visitors can learn about the lives and legacies of local tribes. “Where is that in the Presidio? It’s nowhere.”
Actually, he’s not quite right. Directly in front of Building 103, there’s an old, paint-chipped sign with faded letters that reads, “Old Burial Ground. The area immediately to the west of this marker was used by the Indians, Spaniards, and Mexicans to bury their dead — 1776–1846. The remains are now in the National Cemetery, Presidio of San Francisco.”
MICKEY MOUSE PROPOSAL
If the CIMCC had found a home in Building 103, Myers would be preparing to welcome a new next-door neighbor. The Disney Museum is the next bastion of culture vying for residence in the Presidio and it has designs on Building 104.
The proposal comes from the nonprofit Disney Family Foundation — a compendium of Walt’s family, headed by daughter Diane Disney Miller, that split from the Disney Company. Due to a curiosity about Walt Disney apparently unsatisfied by several theme parks around the world (one of which, at 47 square miles, is nearly the size of all of San Francisco), the family is looking for a place to display what remains of Disney’s personal artifacts.
Museum planners hope that by 2009 they can invite the public to view items like the Academy Awards he once won and the cars he once drove. Part of the Disney proposal includes renovating Buildings 108 and 122 as well, and the overarching plan is for office space and a reading room, gift shop, and café.
Walt Disney never lived in San Francisco, and when asked why the Disney Family Foundation selected the Presidio, trust spokesperson Polk said of the family, “They live relatively locally, in Napa. They’ve always enjoyed the Presidio and the history here.”
No agreements have been signed yet between Disney and the trust, and according to Polk the project is still subject to approval by the Presidio board. But the foundation has announced the plan on its Web site and held a celebration in November 2004, where Miller and trust staff answered questions about the project.
When the Presidio was first conceived as a national park in 1994, it was sold to the public as a “global center dedicated to the world’s most critical environmental, social, and cultural challenges.” Part of the National Park Service’s General Management Plan was to house people and organizations inspired by their unique setting to do good work for the public benefit. Then when Congress put a financial noose around the park and designed the Presidio Trust with a mandate for fiscal sustainability, that vision was blurred.
“This underlying issue of letting market forces come into play in a national park, it’s a terrible precedent,” said Presidio activist Ventresca. “People who have an important cultural story to tell are given the cold shoulder, and people with deep pockets are being given a place to build a monument to their father.” SFBG
Can the Presidio Trust afford to listen to its neighbors? If not, it may just find city officials willing to play hardball over a controversial housing project.
Look at a map of San Francisco. Look closely at the northwestern corner: there are 1,491 acres of federally owned and operated land occupying about 20 percent of the city’s space. The Presidio is a bounty of beauty — miles of hiking trails and bike paths, beaches, bluffs, and greenways maintained by the National Park Service and available for San Francisco and its guests to enjoy.
Unfortunately, the city doesn’t have much say about what happens within that acreage. The property is managed by the Presidio Trust, an independent entity formed in 1996, two years after the park service took control of the former Army base. The trust began with the lofty mission “to preserve and enhance the natural, cultural, scenic, and recreational resources of the Presidio for public use.” It also had a tough mandate: financial independence by 2013.
While the park service tends to the trees and the grass, the 768 buildings scattered throughout the property fall into the purview of the trust, which has rehabilitated and leased 350 of the historic structures in the last 10 years. More than 100 remain on the list for a makeover and one in particular has become a poster child for the strained relationship between the trust and the city in which it lives.
The trust’s Board of Directors has been presented with four development alternatives for the Presidio’s Public Health Service Hospital Complex — 400,000 square feet of dilapidated buildings high on a hill at the southern edge of the Presidio, just 100 yards from the single-family homes that line the quiet avenues north of Lake Street, in the city’s jurisdiction.
For three years, the people who live in those homes have been advocating for developing only 275,000 square feet of the PHSH for smaller units that would house about 438 people and, they say, create less traffic in the neighborhood and environmental impact on the park.
At the last public PHSH meeting on June 15, nearly 200 people representing interests as varied as the Sierra Club and the Mayor’s Office voiced opposition. There was almost universal advocacy of “Alternative 3” (see table, page 14) or some sort of smaller development more in character with the neighborhood. There are currently only five dwellings in the Richmond district with more than 50 units, and the largest has 85.
The trust staff has consistently recommended “Alternative 2,” a plan for 230 market-rate, multibedroom apartments. After three years of neighborhood input and agitation, spokesperson Dana Polk told the Guardian, “This represents a compromise.” The original plan called for 350 units but was still the same size.
To the neighbors it represents a doubling of profit for the trust and its partner in the deal, Forest City Enterprises. Claudia Lewis, president of the Richmond Presidio Neighbors, wrote in a 16-page letter addressed to the board, “The difference in revenue between Alternative 2 and 3 is only $540,000, less than 1 percent of the trust’s projected annual revenue for the year 2010. For this modest gain, the trust is willing to sacrifice the adjacent habitats and community.”
The developer’s projected revenue has leaped from $2.8 million to $6.5 million with the “downsizing,” and the trust’s cut from a 75-year lease has gone from $253 million to $685 million. Forest City, the Cleveland-based real estate developer with a net worth of $8 billion, is only willing to renovate all 400,000 square feet of the building. If another alternative were chosen by the board, trust officials say there would not be a developer interested in the project.
Development in a national park is a lot easier than in the city: There are no restrictive city codes, no process of appeal, and no profit lost in social subsidies. Developers don’t even have to build low-income housing, as the city requires of all projects through its inclusionary housing ordinance.
“They have nothing, zero, no affordable housing in there,” District 1 Sup. Jake McGoldrick told the Guardian. “It’s just more expensive, market-rate housing. I would think they would want to be in sync with what we do on the other side of the road,” he said. “They ought to really address affordable housing voluntarily, as a good neighbor gesture. There’s no reason they can’t rethink the whole thing. How much profit do you really need to turn?”
In the “Response to Comments” on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement of the project, published in May 2006, project proponents argue, “Alternative 3 is, at best, marginally feasible as a rental project because it would not generate a sufficient return to induce a developer to undertake the project.”
PHSH is one of the last remaining large-scale renovations for the Presidio, and in order for development to be financially sufficient, trust staff says, it must net the trust at least $1 million annually in base rent. “That’s why the Public Health Hospital is a key project,” said trust representative Dana Polk. “For us, this is one of the only options for that kind of revenue.”
From a strictly economic standpoint, the Presidio Trust is in the real estate business. Since its creation by Congress in 1996, it’s been fixing up property to lease for the profit necessary to operate the park. In addition to Grubb, the six other Bush-appointed members represent a wealth of experience in real estate, investment banking, law, and finance. They know how to make money but not necessarily how to build a Presidio that works well for San Francisco.
It cost $43 million to operate the Presidio in fiscal year 2004–2005 — and that’s just to keep the lights on and the doors open. In that same fiscal year, the trust received $56 million from residential and commercial rentals, with George Lucas cutting the largest rent check, for $5.6 million. After the additional revenue from PHSH, that $56 million isn’t expected to change much and, according to Presidio spokesperson Polk, certainly won’t double with the 40 percent of Presidio square footage that remains to be renovated.
Since its inception, the trust has received an annual financial allowance from the federal government as assistance while it attempts to achieve fiscal sovereignty. That amount, $19.2 million last year, will steadily decrease to zero by 2013, when the trust is scheduled to sever ties with the US Treasury. It has already exhausted the $50 million borrowing power it was also granted, so for the next seven years it only has what it can raise philanthropically or attract economically to rehabilitate the remainder of the park.
While the trust can occasionally handle retrofits and small-scale renovations, buildings like the PHSH and the cluster of barracks at Fort Scott aren’t entirely feasible as in-house projects. “If we had the capital, we’d do it ourselves,” said Polk, who explains that in most scenarios the lessee incurs the cost of renovations in lieu of rent, which also explains why that $56 million isn’t expected to grow much: Rent revenues are disappearing as favors for renovations.
None of the Presidio property can be sold. It must be leased, but if the trust isn’t raising enough revenue to finance its own public interest renovations, what kinds of development can be expected to continue? Who is willing to pony up cash for buildings they can never own? What kind of bank finances loans on property that can never be foreclosed? Only enormous real estate firms with very deep pockets such as Forest City can afford the Presidio scenario.
In the next couple weeks, McGoldrick is hoping to gather reps from the Mayor’s Office, Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s office, the California Department of Transportation, and the local Transportation Authority’s office to try and reach a compromise between what the city needs and what the trust wants.
“One of the problems is they still have an objective to get as much money out of this project as possible,” said McGoldrick. “They should pause and consider trying to get 70 or 80 percent of that $1 million. They should find some way to find the other $300,000. They should find some way to be a good neighbor.”
Otherwise, the city may have to find some way to be a bad neighbor. There’s still a threat on the table to close portions of 14th and 15th Avenues — literally locking the Presidio’s gate to the city — which would severely cripple access to the PHSH. McGoldrick, whose district abuts the southern edge of the Presidio, put forward that resolution along with Sup. Michela Alioto-Pier two years ago.
Although McGoldrick still considers it a possibility, he told us, “Let’s hope we don’t have to go there.” SFBG
"San Franciscans will still be able to enjoy their beer in the park at the event," an elated Robbie Kowal told the Guardian on the afternoon of June 2, fresh out of a meeting in which the Mayor’s Office brokered a deal to save the North Beach Jazz Fest.
The event had been jeopardized by the May 30 decision by the Recreation and Park Commission to uphold a move by its staff and Operations Committee to deny the sale of alcohol in Washington Square Park. The San Francisco Examiner even erroneously declared the event dead on its June 1 cover.
But the Mayor’s Office intervened and hosted a long day of negotiations among the event organizers — Kowal, Alistair Munroe, and John Miles — and representatives from the commission, the Rec and Park staff, and the San Francisco Police Department.
In keeping with the commission’s May 30 decision, alcohol will not be sold in the park but on the street adjacent to the park in a gated beer garden. A portion of the park will be designated for people wishing to enjoy a glass of beer or wine while remaining near the live music.
"We’ve worked something out that allows everyone to move forward and the commission to stand by its policy," Yomi Agunbiade, general manager of the Rec and Park Department, told us.
"It doesn’t change the nature of the event," said Kowal, who had been concerned that a change in practice from minibars in the park to beer gardens in the streets would deter festivalgoers and detract from the general enjoyment of the event.
The organizers were prepared to fight for their vision of the festival and had filed an appeal with the commission to review the issue. Without the sale of alcohol, the festival anticipated losing between $20,000 and $40,000, enough to potentially necessitate calling the whole show off.
But after nearly four hours of public testimony at the last meeting about the jazz fest and the North Beach Festival, commissioners weren’t too excited about another round and were pushing for a compromise. "Everybody was interested in making sure the jazz festival folks knew the event was supported and that we wanted it to stay," said Agunbiade. "The right people were in the room."
Yet those not in the room were the North Beach NIMBYs who forced the booze ban, and it’s unclear how they’ll react to the decision. Event organizers around the city have been closely following the North Beach situation, concerned that it was the start of a conservative trend in policy and a new wave of intolerance for alcohol consumption in public (see "The Death of Fun," May 24).
Commissioner Jim Lazarus cited the inherent dangers of a hard-line policy, telling the Guardian, "The precedent could be very bad. I don’t know how we’re going to deal with it at other parks."
The San Francisco Outdoor Events Coalition, a newly formed group of events organizers and promoters, has been calling for a hold on radical changes in policy until after the summer festival season, and it seems as though that call has finally been answered at City Hall.
"What we all have learned from this process was we should have communicated earlier," Agunbiade said after the meeting. "What we will do after events are over this year is sit down and discuss any changes more in depth and evaluate how it went."
Agunbiade said they will be looking at each festival on a case-by-case basis and will try to work with the individual needs of the venues and events. He added that they plan to "communicate a lot sooner and a lot more often to make sure these kinds of situations don’t occur."
The compromise for the jazz fest has been extended to the North Beach Festival as well, but promoter Marsha Garland faces other obstacles. After the commission denied her festival a permit for booze sales in the park, Garland received permission from the Interdepartmental Staff Committee on Traffic and Transportation for additional beer gardens on the street.
But that decision has been appealed by Anthony Gantner, a local lawyer and president of the North Beach Merchants Association (rival to Garland’s North Beach Chamber of Commerce, which hosts the North Beach Festival).
Garland says she won’t breathe a sigh of relief until after the ISCOTT hearing June 8, just a week before the festival. SFBG
As many predicted, late independent expenditures on behalf of District 12 California Assembly candidate Fiona Ma are flooding into the race, aimed at tarnishing her opponent, Janet Reilly, with Web ads, TV spots, and mailers. To date, more than $750,000 has been spent by nine IE committees supporting Fiona Ma. In addition to the million dollars flowing through her campaign’s piggy bank, that bumps her into the bucks-deluxe category of the 2006 primaries.
More than $500,000 comes from the Sacramento-based Leaders for an Effective Government, which got its initial funding from Ma’s former boss and current political benefactor, powerful former senator John Burton. The other eight IEs are Californians United, Professional Engineers of California Government, Cause Law Enforcement Independent Expenditure Committee, San Francisco Association of Realtors, Peace Officers Research Association, Committee for a Better California, Teachers United with Firefighters and Correctional Officers, and Asian American Small Business PAC. All are based in Sacramento or Los Angeles and have an incestuous web of contributing organizations, in some cases with the same contact information (none of which returned Guardian phone calls).
The Reilly campaign made a big stink back in April when Leaders for an Effective Government spent $33,000 on pro-Ma mailers. The campaign filed complaints on April 27 with state attorney general Bill Lockyer, San Francisco district attorney Kamala Harris, and the Fair Political Practices Commission, claiming an illegal connection between the IE, Burton, and the Ma campaign. It still stands by those concerns, citing a state law that bans coordination between an IE and the campaign its spending benefits.
"Bullshit," Burton told the Guardian when asked about the complaints filed by the rival campaign. As far as his relationship to Ma’s campaign goes, he said, "I don’t have a fucking story. I’m helping her campaign." He claimed no connection to the half million spent on her behalf, but did admit to being a big early benefactor of Leaders for an Effective Government.
Ma is benefiting from the lion’s share of that IE’s spending, although it also spent $33,900 on the Johan Klehs campaign for California Senate. While Districts 18, 45, and 69 are seeing a lot of financial activity, no other Assembly race comes close to touching Ma’s IE total, with the second highest clocking in around $300,000.
"It could be the most expensive primary race ever," Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, told us.
While an IE’s intervention probably isn’t illegal, "it has made campaigns dirtier," said Theis Finlev, a policy advocate for Common Cause. IEs have found new life breathing the polluted air of Proposition 34, passed in 2000 with the good intention of capping amounts of campaign contributions to control the financial investments of special interests. Unlike with campaigns, there’s no limit on how much an individual can contribute to an IE.
"The point of limits is to look like you’re not beholden to anyone, but this is a huge economy with many interests concerned about what happens in Sacramento," said Finlev. In addition to having no spending limits, IE committees disclose contributors at different intervals from campaigns and typically don’t start spending money until weeks before the election.
"It’s like a shell game," Finlev said. "Wealthy contributors can hide until after the election is over."
When asked about the money IEs are spending for Ma, campaign spokesperson Tom Hsieh aligned it with Reilly’s use of personal finances. "Janet and Clint Reilly have spent over $300,000 to date. They’ll probably spend another $400,000 to $500,000 by the end of the election," he conjectured.
Reilly spokesperson Eric Jaye said it was unlikely they’d spend much more: "She’s near the limit. If she has to search the couches, she will."
"We’ve been outspent in the last four weeks at least two to one," Reilly told us. She hopes to keep up financially, but she was critical of the contributing sources of the IEs. "It’s the tobacco lobby, the liquor lobby, large developers, gaming industries, spending unprecedented amounts of money getting Fiona Ma elected."
"I believe the campaigns are equalized by those contributors," Hsieh said, but claimed no control over any of them. "Fiona does not support any of those industries." He said there wasn’t much they could do about the fortuity of hundreds of thousands of dollars being spent to support Ma.
"People in this district should be making the decision," Reilly concluded. "Not the Sacramento insiders." SFBG
On a Sunday afternoon, the Cala Foods at Stanyan and Haight is a dismal sight. Thrifty shoppers, beckoned by the 60–70 percent off price tags walk out into the drizzle, empty-handed. The doors close permanently May 24, and there isn’t much left.
The owner of the building, Mark Brennan, plans to demolish the place, and is negotiating with Whole Foods — the fast-growing organic food chain — to build a new store on the site. Some Haight neighbors are looking forward to the organic option, but many are scowling about the potential for increased traffic in the foot-friendly hood — and the fact that Whole Foods is known for high-end products with high-end prices. They refer to the store as "Whole Paycheck."
According to plans, the 28,000-square-foot store will be capped with 62 residential units, seven below market rate, and will sit on three levels of underground parking, tripling the current number of spaces. It will also be the westernmost Whole Foods location in the city, potentially drawing traffic eastward through the park.
"We talked briefly with Trader Joe’s and Rainbow Grocery, and sent a letter to Berkeley Bowl," Brennan told the Guardian. "Whole Foods is the only one willing to wait for development."
The construction is expected to take up to five years, so those in need of a local supermarket will be hard up for a while. "I’m very worried about the old ladies," said Spencer Cumbs, who’s worked at the Cala location for 11 years and often delivers groceries for the more infirm. "Where are they going to shop?" He tells them to visit him at the Cala on California and Hyde, where he’s been transferred, but that’s a long bus ride. There’s no other full-service supermarket in the area.
Like any chain store moving into a neighborhood, Whole Foods could hurt small local businesses, like Haight Street Market, an organic grocery started 25 years ago by Gus and Dmitri Vardakastanis and currently managed by the third generation of the family, Bobby Vardakastanis. "I don’t know if the neighborhood could support it," Bobby told us. "But we have a lot of loyal customers who don’t want to see us get hurt."
Fresh Organics, on the corner of Stanyan and Carl, is also optimally situated to take a hit. "This place rocks," said Erik Christoffersen, with his daughter strapped to his back and arms full of local produce. But he confesses he’d shop at Whole Foods too. "They don’t get meats and fish," he says of the local corner store. A recent Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council meeting on the future of the site drew some 80 residents. According to Calvin Welch, HANC’s housing and land use chair, the major concerns were that Whole Foods is too high-end and, he included, that "people would prefer a unionized grocery store like Cala."
The union issue is huge all over California, where unionized grocery stores are trying to compete against giant nonunion competitors like Wal-Mart. And the San Francisco supervisors are trying to give locals a degree of protection.
A new Grocery Worker’s Retention Ordinance, signed into law by Mayor Newsom on May 12, mandates a 90-day period of continued employment for grocery workers when retail stores larger than 15,000 square feet change hands. It would benefit workers at union stores, like Cala, that are replaced by nonunion retailers, like Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s.
Sup. Fiona Ma, who introduced the measure, was inspired by a meeting with employees facing potential job losses due to new ownership at three Albertson’s stores in the city, Bill Barnes, an aide to Ma, told us. An endorsement of her run for State Assembly from United Food and Commercial Workers Local 648, which advocated for the ordinance, was probably pretty inspiring as well.
Still, the bill comes too late to help the Cala workers. Employees at the Haight Ashbury store have been transferred to other locations, while ten workers trumped by their seniority have been laid off. SFBG
Members of the newly formed San Francisco Outdoor Events Coalition gathered on the evening of May 3. It had been a long, discouraging day, and the mood was somber.
Robbie Kowal of the North Beach Jazz Festival apologized for not having an agenda ready. "Frankly, I was too busy fighting for the future of my festival at City Hall today," he joked, but nobody really laughed.
Earlier that day, the Recreation and Park Commission Operations Committee voted to deny the jazz festival the right to sell beer and wine inside Washington Square Park. The decision followed a precedent the committee first set last month regarding the larger North Beach Festival (see "Last Call?" 5/3/06).
Alcohol sales provide the bulk of the funding for the free music, but commission president Gloria Bonilla suggested they explore other money sources and sponsorship.
"The idea that there can’t be successful events in the city without alcohol, I can’t buy into," Bonilla said at the meeting.
Unfortunately, the jazz festival isn’t solvent enough for such a firm policy and can’t afford to lose the source of 75 percent of its funding less than three months before the event.
"She wants us to pass the hat," Kowal said at the coalition meeting. "We did that last year and we got 78 bucks."
North Beach Jazz Festival is a big generator of fun and revenue for the city, but its organizers say they don’t make any money off the deal.
"It’s a labor of love," said Kowal, who is considering canceling the festival despite the signed contracts and purchased plane tickets for performers.
Twenty-seven individuals came to the hearing to speak in support of the festival, including Board of Supervisors president Aaron Peskin, who represents North Beach and has been critical of how the North Beach Festival beer gardens prevent underage people from entering the park.
The three-member committee encouraged the Jazz Festival promoters to pursue other options, like beer gardens on barricaded streets, but took a hard line on booze in the park.
"What I’m interested in is a consistent and fair application of the policy. We’ve said no alcohol. While I appreciate having Supervisor Peskin come speak to us today, I think we need to be consistent in this policy," Commissioner Meagan Levitan said at the hearing.
Rec and Park general manager Yomi Agunbiade and director of operations Dennis Kern have said "a growing public concern" caused them to recommend against the sale of alcohol for the two North Beach festivals.
"Rec and Park has a new general manager and a new director of operations who are very experienced but come here from other cities," Kowal said. "There’s some missing institutional knowledge. We are not Walnut Creek, we are not Chicago, we are not DC. We’re San Francisco, and we have our own unique culture."
On May 8, a select group from the coalition met with senior staff from the mayor’s office to express its growing concern over increased fees and decreased city services and to discuss the grave implications of Rec and Park’s recent decisions for other outdoor festivals in the city. After the meeting Kowal was optimistic and said the mayor and supervisors expressed support for the festivals, but he acknowledged, "We don’t live in a city where the mayor can say, ‘This is how it’s going to be.’ It’s going to come down to the commission again. If people want to see this festival survive, they have to come to City Hall on May 30."
That’s the date that the full Rec and Park Commission will decide whether to overrule the Operations Committee and allow booze back into the park during the two festivals. SFBG
Concerns about public drinking in North Beach and stifled public debate are conspiring to cripple a pair of popular outdoor festivals, possibly creating a troubling precedent for other events at the start of San Francisco’s festival and street fair season.
"We’ll have to cancel this year’s festival," Robbie Kowal, who runs the North Beach Jazz Festival, said of the possibility of not getting his alcohol permit. "Seventy-five percent of our funding comes from the sale of alcohol."
The Recreation and Park Commission’s Operations Committee is set to review the jazz festival’s permit May 3, and if sentiments among the three mayor-appointed commissioners haven’t changed, they might not allow Kowal and his partners, John Miles and Alistair Monroe, to set up bars and serve drinks to local jazz fans in Washington Square Park, as they’ve been doing without challenge for the past 12 years.
"We’ve never even had a hearing to get a permit before," Kowal said. "We’ve had no arrests and no [California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control] violations. We’re being punished when we haven’t done anything wrong. We’re caught up in this whole North Beach Festival situation."
Kowal was referring to a dispute involving the neighborhood’s other popular street fair, the North Beach Festival, a 52-year street fair that had its permission to sell alcohol in the park yanked this year. The festival is hosted by the North Beach Chamber of Commerce, whose director, Marsha Garland, is a political adversary of the area’s supervisor, Board of Supervisors president Aaron Peskin.
The problem started when parks general manager Yomi Agunbiade determined that a long-standing ban on alcohol in city parks should also apply during festivals. Two out of three members of the Rec and Park Commission’s Operations Committee agreed with that ruling during an April 5 meeting, and it became official policy.
Then, as the North Beach Festival permit went to the full commission for approval April 20, the words "permission to serve beer and wine" disappeared from the agenda item. Those words had appeared on an earlier version of the agenda, allowing the commission to grant what Garland had received with every permit for the last 20 years. The agenda change meant the commission couldn’t even discuss the alcohol issue, let allow issue a permit that allowed it.
Commissioner Jim Lazarus questioned a representative of the City Attorney’s Office about it and was told that the full commission couldn’t hear the policy if the general manager and Operations Committee were in agreement.
"I was taken aback by the fact that the full request of the applicant to serve beer and wine was not on the calendar," Lazarus told us. "I’ve been on the commission for three and a half years, and I’ve never seen that happen before for this kind of issue."
This story is still unfolding, but observers are openly wondering whether this is an isolated case of political sabotage or whether this battle over beer could hurt the summer festival season.
Wine and beer sales have always played a critical role in the financial viability of many of the city’s summer festivals. In a city that’s never been afraid of a liberal pour, many are beginning to wonder if the good times are over, and if so, why?
"The Rec and Park meeting was so disheartening, and if it’s used as a precedent in any way, it will harm other events. If the oldest street fair in this city can be chipped away at like that, who’s next?" said Lindsey Jones, executive director of SF Pride, the largest LGBT festival in the country.
Some North Beach residents think this Rec and Park procedural shell game is punishment for Garland and her organization’s opposition to Peskin, whom they blame for the change.
"Aaron Peskin would like to take Marsha Garland’s livelihood away," said Richard Hanlin, a landlord and 30-year resident of North Beach who filed a complaint over the incident with the Ethics Commission.
"They want to railroad Marsha," said Lynn Jefferson, president of the civic group North Beach Neighbors. "They want to see her out of business. If she doesn’t have those alcohol sales, she’ll personally go bankrupt."
At the heart of the Garland-Peskin beef is a 2003 battle over a lot at 701 Lombard St. known as "the Triangle," which the owner wanted to develop but which the Telegraph Hill Dwellers wanted for a park after they found a deed restriction indicating it should be considered for open space. Peskin agreed with the group he once led and had the city seize the land by eminent domain, drawing the wrath of Garland and others who saw it as an abuse of government power.
Peskin told the Guardian that it’s true he doesn’t care for Garland, but that he did nothing improper to influence the commission’s decision or agenda. However, he added that he’s made no secret of his opposition to fencing off much of the park to create a beer garden and that he’s made that point to Rec and Park every year since the festival’s beer garden started taking over the park in 2003.
“Just let the people use Washington Square Park. It’s the commons of North Beach,” Peskin said. “The park should be open to people of all ages 365 days a year. That’s just how I feel.”
Yet Peskin said that neither the North Beach Jazz Festival, which doesn’t segregate people by age, nor festivals that use less neighborhood-centered parks, like the Civic Center and Golden Gate Park, should be held to the same standard. In fact, he plans to speak out in favor of the jazz festival’s right to sell alcohol during the May 3 meeting.
Access became the buzzword this year, in response to last year’s decision by the San Francisco Police Department to gate two-thirds of the park off as a beer garden, effectively prohibiting many underage festivalgoers from actually entering a large part of the park. The section near the playground remained ungated, but many families were disillusioned by the penning of the party.
Enter the North Beach Merchants Association, a two-year-old rival of the Chamber of Commerce with stated concerns about booze. President Anthony Gantner learned that the park code banned alcohol from being served in any of the parks listed in Section 4.10, which includes Washington Square as well as nearly every other greenway in the city, unless by permission of the Recreation and Park Commission, which should only be granted as long as it "does not interfere with the public’s use and enjoyment of the park."
Gantner and Peskin both argue that the beer garden does interfere with the right of those under 21 to use the park. "The Chamber is basically doing a fair, and that’s it," Gantner said. "A lot of its members are bars, and they run a very large fair with beer gardens that result in incidents on the streets for merchants."
Though Garland contends that the festival is an economic stimulator, resulting in an 80 percent increase in sales for local businesses, Gantner claims that a number of businesses don’t benefit from the increased foot traffic. He associates alcohol with the congruent crime issues that crop up when the clubs let out on Broadway, and thinks that selling beer and wine in the park only accelerates problems in the streets after the festival ends at 6 p.m.
Gantner has the ear of local police, who are understaffed by 20 percent and looking for any way to lower costs by deploying fewer cops. "It used to be we could police these events with full staff and overtime, but now we’re trying to police them with less resources, and the events themselves are growing," Central Station Capt. James Dudley said.
He’s also concerned about the party after the party. The police average five alcohol-related arrests on a typical Friday night in North Beach, most after the bars close. But those numbers don’t change much during festival weekend, leading many to question the logic behind banning sales of alcohol in the park. Besides, if sales were banned, many festivalgoers would simply sneak it in. Even one police officer, who didn’t want to be named, told us, "If I went to sit in that park to listen to music and couldn’t buy beer, I’d probably try pretty hard to sneak some in."
At the April 20 Rec and Park meeting, Garland presented alternative solutions and site plans for selling beer and wine, which represents $66,000 worth of income the festival can’t afford to lose. Beyond her openness to negotiations, Rec and Park heard overwhelming support for the festival in the form of petitions and comments from 30 neighbors and business owners who spoke during the general public comment portion of the meeting.
Father John Malloy of the Saints Peter and Paul Church, which is adjacent to the park, spoke in support of Garland’s request. "I think I have the most weddings and the most funerals in the city," he said. "I’m praying that we don’t have a funeral for the North Beach Festival. If anyone should be against alcohol, it should be the priest of a church."
So who are the teetotalers? Testimony included 10 complaints from members of the Telegraph Hill Dwellers, Friends of Washington Square, and the North Beach Merchants Association, as well as Gantner and neighborhood activist Mark Bruno, who came down from Peskin’s office, where he was watching the hearing, to testify.
Commissioner Megan Levitan said, "If anyone knows me, they know I like my wine," before going on to explain that she was born in North Beach and even used to serve beer at O’Reilly’s Beer and Oyster Festival. However, she said, she’s a mother now, and parks are important to her.
"It does change a park when alcohol is there," she said. "I do not believe we should serve alcohol in the park."
Will that still be her stance May 3 when the North Beach Jazz Festival requests its permit? The jazz fest has never had beer gardens, and the organizers don’t want them. Instead, they set up minibars throughout the park, which remains ungated, allowing complete access for all ages.
Although there is hired security and local police on hand, by and large people are responsible for themselves. The organizers say it’s just like going to a restaurant for a meal and a drink, except in this case it’s outside, with a stage and free live music.
Though Kowal remains optimistic, he’s rallying as much support as possible, even turning the May 3 meeting into an event itself on his Web site (www.sunsettickets.com). His partners, Monroe and Miles, were concerned enough to swing by City Hall to see Peskin, who agreed to testify and help the Jazz Festival retain the right to sell booze.
"The first person to write a check to start this festival was Mayor Willie Brown," Kowal said. "Peskin has always been a big supporter of the festival, which is why we think it will all work out."
The festival is a labor of love for the three organizers, who barely break even to put the event on; after expenses are covered, any additional profit from the sale of alcohol is donated to Conservation Value, a nonprofit organization that aids consumers in making smart purchases.
"We were the first fair to use Washington Square Park," Monroe, the founding father of the jazz festival, said. "We’re standing up for the right to access the park. It’s not about ‘he said, she said’ or who did what to whom. It’s about hearing free live music."
So now comes the moment when we find out whether this is about alcohol, parks, or simply politics, and whether future street fairs could feel the pinch of renewed temperance. If the jazz festival gets to sell booze, Garland’s supporters argue, that will represent a bias against the North Beach Festival.
The commission will hear Garland’s appeal at the end of May, just two weeks before the festival begins. With contracts already signed and schedules set, the stakes are high. Owing to lack of funds, Garland has already canceled the poetry, street chalk art, and family circus components of the fair. She did receive an e-mail from Levitan promising a personal donation to put toward the street chalk art competition. Even so, she’s preparing for a funeral.
And if alcohol is prohibited at the jazz festival, it could send out a ripple of concern among street fair promoters and lovers around the city. To be a part of the decision, stop by the meeting and have a say. SFBG
PS This weekend’s How Weird Street Faire, on May 7, centered at Howard and 12th Streets, will have beer gardens in addition to seven stages of music and performances. But organizers warn that it could be the last festival because the SFPD is now demanding $14,000, a 275 percent increase from the police fees organizers paid last year.
operations committee hearing
May 3, 2 p.m.
City Hall, Room 416
1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place, SF