Save the Arboretum in Golden Gate Park

by Harry S. Pariser

“Privatization has always been a sign of increasing poverty among minorities,” so relates Mesha Irizarry, administrative director of the Idriss Stelley Foundation. Irizarry goes on to warn that “this type of fee will be applied to other places in the city. It will lead to increased fees in other areas, such as swimming pools, or expanded to implement entirely new fees – such as at the libraries. The authorities always start with something that will provoke less outrage.” Mesha goes on to maintain that the “fees are elitist and exclusionary and will contribute to environmental classism.”

Arboretum Golden Gate ParkJohn Rizzo, president of the Board of City College, maintains: “This contract would permanently privatize the park in a way that we haven’t seen before, at taxpayers’ expense. Billboards, admissions fees and backroom-deal-style management techniques don’t belong in a publicly funded park.”

What’s this all about? Ask any San Franciscans of a certain age about Golden Gate Park, and they will wax on about the days when every museum in the park was free and they could spend a day visiting all of them. Over the years, while still receiving public subsidies, every institution has been privatized and the entry fees raised to ludicrous levels. The latest being the semi-privatized Conservatory of Flowers, which is now employed as a cash cow for the Parks Alliance, an organization funded and controlled by wealthy elites.

The last bloom in the park is the San Francisco Botanical Garden at Strybing Arboretum. The San Francisco Botanical Garden Society has long plotted to implement fees, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on lobbyists over the decades. Several years ago a $7 “nonresident” fee was imposed and, despite a weak effort to repeal it the following year, it was extended for two more years. Sophie Maxwell voted in favor of the initial one-year “trial” fees, and Malia Cohen voted for the two-year extension of what is really a new tax on working people.

The Recreation and Park Department is planning to have the board make these fees permanent as well as request ratification of a 30-year sweetheart contract with the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society, one which would effectively privatize the facility and hand off total control over these 55 acres to this “nonprofit.”

The City gave the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society a $725,000 grant in 2012 and one for $400,000 in 2011. Unless you can prove San Francisco residency, you must pay the $7, and plenty of people expatriated to the East Bay and elsewhere, who have returned to visit, have turned back at the gates. The Society’s long term plans are to have everyone pay.

Let’s be clear. These fees are not about revenue, because the revenues (after expenses) are paltry. This is about excluding people, especially people who may be undocumented or who find paying $7 to visit a public park to be an economic hardship. The Society plans to be ensconced in a walled $15 million new building set smack in the middle of prize parkland, so money is not the issue here. Control is!

The Budget and Finance Committee will hear testimony on this when they consider the full park budget on June 20, and they need to hear from you. So take a stand! Call Malia Cohen, 554-7670, London Breed, 554-7630, and other supervisors or email them at Board.of.Supervisors@sfgov.org. Tell them to separate the legislation for permanent fees and the contract from the Recreation and Parks budget and to vote to defeat both of these. Failure to act will be a disaster for Golden Gate Park.

Harry S. Pariser can be reached on Facebook.