Friday, May 21, 2010
The San Francisco Botanical Garden Controversy
Next door to the Hall of Flowers building in Golden Gate Park, near 9th Avenue and Lincoln, is the San Francisco Botanical Garden at Strybing Arboretum, a place I had never visited in my 35 years in San Francisco.
The 55-acre garden has been much in the news lately because the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department are facing a 12 million dollar budget deficit this year and are looking for any way they can to raise funds.
They proposed an entrance fee for the garden last year, but the attempt was beaten back by a dedicated consortium of neighbors and lovers of the garden, so this year they have tried to wedge in an admission fee of $7 for adults if they live outside of San Francisco.
The department is being supported in this new fee increase by a combination of union organizers who want to keep revenue coming in to pay their members and the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society, a "Friends of" group that acts as if they own the public space and would rather the peasants not come in unless they pay or are invited.
Recently, the Society has been paying $10,000 a month for a political lobbyist while pleading poverty when it comes to helping out with operating funds.
The Inner Sunset neighborhood is again up in arms about the proposal, as are quite a few other San Franciscans who are horrified by the creeping privatization of public facilities that we see all around us.
It wasn't that long ago that the Golden Gate Park's Conservatory of Flowers and the Japanese Tea Garden were also free of charge to the public, but those days feel like ancient history.
The passions on both sides have been raised to fever pitch as the issue seems to resonate far beyond the simple fate of the Botanical Garden.
On Wednesday afternoon, there was a hearing at the Budget and Finance Committee of the Board of Supervisors, where an uptick in the Coit Tower elevator fee was also proposed, and for hours citizens from the Society and those on the other side spoke quite eloquently about their vision of the garden and its place in the public commons.
Phil Ginsburg (above), The Rec & Park General Manager, testified for hours and kept pulling figures out of his ass about projected revenue from the proposed fee which were convincingly disputed by opposition commenters who had completed their own surveys. Rather like the Muni fare inspectors whose salaries are higher than the actual revenue they take in, the new fee will probably be eaten up by the overhead required to collect and audit it, and the visitor numbers will probably go down dramatically.
Supervisors Elsbernd, Avalos and Mirkarimi came up with a couple of amendments before voting to pass the measure on to the full Board of Supervisors next Tuesday. Those amendments asked for a sunset clause for the fee after a year if other revenue magically pops up, and another sunset clause if the $250,000 annual revenue figure that Rec & Park is claiming they will collect turns out to be so much hot air.