Harry S. Pariser

Last chance to save the Botanical Gardens


GUARDIAN OP-ED Riddle me this: When is a public space a private space? Answer: When it is controlled by a “nonprofit” in a “public-private partnership.”

For more than two decades, the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society attempted to obtain entry fees to Strybing Arboretum. It first changed its name from the Strybing Arboretum Society, then hired a lobbyist to push through changes to the name of the Arboretum itself, reasoning that the new name was more commercial.

When, in 2009, it found that it could not find support for fees for everyone, it chose to hire lobbyist Sam Lauter, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars, to push through a $7 “nonresident” fee for a one-year “trial”. Gates were closed; entrance hours were extended; and people (many of them residents, yet undocumented) turned away in droves.

Despite this fact, and counter to the recommendations of Harvey Rose and Associates, the fees (which include steep rate rises for rentals at the Hall of Flowers) were extended for a year.

The ruse of “revenues” notwithstanding, the fees are really a tax on working people, one designed to keep people out. As any visitor on a sunny day can attest, it has acheived dramatic events: The gardens are empty! Members of the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society, however, enter for free and benefit from the tax dollars of Californians, many of whom must pay for entry. Mysteriously, the Society received a $725,000 grant in 2012 and one for $400,000 in 2011.

This July 20th, the Recreation and Park Department will present its budget with a Trojan Horse hidden in it — a contract which will effectively privatize these precious 55 acres for perpetuity, making all of us all second-class citizens in our own City.

Philip A. Ginsburg, manager of the Recreation and Park Department, negotiated this contract behind closed doors. We taxpayers wil be on the hook for paying electricity at their new building, a sprawling walled complex covering two football fields which will require a new road, fell some 50 trees and will endanger the habitat of Mark Twain’s frog. The fact that this building — to be used for parties, a store and offices — will be called a “Center For Sustainable Gardening” makes me feel that we have entered an era in which irony can no longer outdo reality.

Is a vision of a future filled with food trucks, ritzy private events and complete control over public space (by a small number of wealthy people with no accountability to the public), what Helene Strybing had in mind? Will a Supervisor not have the courage to step forward and demand that this set of legislation be considered on its own?

If we fail to act one thing is certain: In the coming years we will find an increasingly commercialized with an entrance charge in the double digits for all and sundry.


Apathy and the arboretum


OPINION Nobody believed it could happen, that the ordinance might pass. On the face of it, it seemed inconceivable. The very idea that visitors would have to pay to enter a public park appeared absurd, and had been rejected only the year before. Some believed the hype and were convinced that this would help solve the budget deficit. Others expected someone besides themselves would take action, or believed that that the $7 fee, once imposed, would apply only to nonresidents.

So, by and large, people sat on their hands. Meanwhile, the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society at Strybing Arboretum, the driving force behind the privatization of the arboretum in Golden Gate Park, was using the camouflage of hard times to mask the absurdity of its proposal. The way had been carefully paved. A real estate developer and Bolinas resident handpicked by Mayor Gavin Newsom to head the Recreation and Park Commission voiced his enthusiasm. The rubber-stamp commission he heads passed it on to the Board of Supervisors. Despite the presence of his grandfather’s native plant garden within the arboretum, the mayor lent his support.

The society had craftily employed lobbyist Sam Lauter, who had set up meetings between individual supervisors and wealthy trustees.

The strategy succeeded. Astonishingly, only three supervisors voted against the ordinance imposing a fee on entrance to the arboretum. Leading the charge for the measure was John Avalos, who had added a “sunset” clause along with other vaguely worded amendments. At the hearing, the ever-congenial Chris Daly accused opponents of “elitism.” No public comment was permitted, and no supervisor questioned Recreation and Parks Department head Phil Ginsberg, although Eric Mar did announce his intention to join the Botanical Garden Society.

Much was made about union jobs — as though holding three gardeners’ salaries hostage to the passing of a privatization ordinance was a reasonable proposition.

As things stand now, the society is planning to allow its members free admission to the arboretum. Given that the reason for the $7 fee is all about the budget, this makes no logical sense. Low-income people and the undocumented (not to mention the homeless) will be excluded.

The society is also planning to build a $13 million glorified greenhouse that would have its own entrance on John F. Kennedy Drive. No community discussion has been held, but that has not deterred the society from soliciting the state to pay $7 million toward this so-called “sustainable gardening center,” an edifice that would likely memorialize the likes of Dede Wilsey or similar donor.

So what’s a good citizen to do? If you value public free space, the wings of the society need to be clipped. The best way to do this is to directly contact the offices of your supervisors, especially Sups. John Avalos (554-6975), David Campos (554-5144), David Chiu (554-7450),Michela Alioto-Pier (554-7752), Sean Elsbernd (554-6516) and Carmen Chu (554-7460). And vociferously voice your feelings.

Otherwise, the fee will not sunset next year — or any year.

Harry S. Pariser is a long-term resident of the Inner Sunset. You can join the Yahoo! group at groups.yahoo.com/group/keepthearboretumfree.