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The city's new New Deal: Privatizing public parks

Wednesday, Jun 20 2007
Gardener Zachary Salem, 44, hoists five brass sprinkler heads from the cement stair leading up from the end of California Street to Lincoln Park Golf Course, walks along the fine gravel path to the 17th hole, and offers a paean to San Francisco's expansive public realm.

"Ansel Adams grew up a couple of blocks from here, and some of his first photographs were of the Marin Headlands from this spot," Salem says, as we look over the fairway through a dozen cypress, past a light blanket of fog, at the Marin cliffs, the bridge, and the sea. "Every San Franciscan should catch the sunrise out here. It's awesome."

Those wishing to follow Salem's advice should be quick. This beautiful view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin County shore, as well as hundreds of acres of exquisite city parkland, will soon become private if Mayor Gavin Newsom and Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin have their way.

Mayor Newsom last week submitted a resolution aimed at privatizing Harding Park Golf Course and Lincoln Park Golf Course, the latter of which is a cliff-side monument to San Francisco and America's early-20th-century fascination with the expanding things and places society holds in common. This worldview, at its height during the New Deal of the 1930s and '40s, championed giving every man access to opulent public parks, pools, playgrounds, golf courses, tennis courts, horse stables, amphitheaters, trail networks, beach houses, auditoria, schools, municipal buildings, public monuments, hospitals, roads, sewers, airports, bridges, aqueducts, artworks, and more.

Lincoln Park, located at San Francisco's northwest corner where the ocean meets the bay, hosts a two-story 1939 New Deal Works Progress Administration clubhouse. And the 1902 course and park itself was one of the city's first great public amenities. Along with its role as a golf course Lincoln Park serves as one of the city's most beautiful free public parks for walkers, joggers, and others who love a beautiful setting and view. Newsom's proposal to give up Harding Park and Lincoln Park in a long-term lease to a private corporation — in a phony money-saving gesture that will end up costing the city millions of dollars more than it would save — would represent a dramatic, lamentable retreat from this New Deal-era ideal.

"The implications are closing out the public, and re-eliting the public landscape. It's taking us back to the 19th century, those wonderful days of recessions, closed spaces, and stolen spaces, when so much of the public spaces were taken and reprivatized," said Gray Brechin, author of Imperial San Francisco, who is now working on a book chronicling the public monuments of the New Deal. "The New Deal was a huge expansion of the concept of the public. Before the New Deal, golf was a very elite sport, like skiing, or tennis. It democratized those sports by creating facilities for the public, so the ordinary Joe could do them. And it really worked."

The one thing that could derail the privatization scheme, Peskin said, would be a strong outcry from organized labor. Such an outcry would be reasonable, because Newsom's resolution argues for privatizing these two city parks based on the idea that the work of city gardeners, plumbers, tree trimmers, mechanics, and staff supervisors "can be performed by private contractor for a lower cost than similar work performed by city and county employees for golf course maintenance services."

As a matter of logic, this applies equally to the entire Department of Recreation and Park staff. Newsom could reuse this resolution replacing the words "golf course" with "park," and thereby eliminate the jobs of hundreds of city gardeners and maintenance workers.

Newsom may nonetheless manage to get this resolution past the unions by pushing it through the Board of Supervisors swiftly, quietly, and without giving up many specifics on how it would work. The proposal was submitted without fanfare last week as a one-page proposal bereft of specific plans. The June 11 resolution merely calls for "awarding a contract for a private contractor" for Harding and Lincoln beginning July 1, 2007 — less than two weeks from when this newspaper hits the streets.

Local labor's political arm, the San Francisco Labor Council, has already declared its opposition in principle to golf course privatization, but by last week had not directly addressed the mayor's resolution.

I would be the last person to argue that privatizing public services is always a bad idea. Government is rife with tales of programs that could have been done better and more cheaply elsewhere. But the question of whether to privatize a public service in a specific instance is, as an attorney would say, very "fact sensitive."

That's because privatization schemes are sometimes fertile ground for conflicts of interest, corruption, and private services that don't end up serving the public very well. A prime example is the last time San Francisco privatized golf courses a decade ago. Then, Willie Brown manipulated a bidding procedure to grant a contract to manage a Public Utilities Commission-owned golf course to his former chief administrative officer in the Assembly. Another example: The contract under which an apparently well-connected private firm now lavishly bills the city to manage the clubhouse and other elements of Harding Park Golf Course.

In order to keep a privatization scheme from becoming a boondoggle, it's important that the city have concrete objectives and a clear, publicly explained process for reaching whatever goal the privatization is supposed to achieve. Newsom's resolution to privatize Harding Park and Lincoln Park has none of these attributes.

The public process so far consists of slipping a brief, vague resolution into Board of Supervisors' hearing records, proposing an unspecified private lease contract for city parkland, to be completed quickly, without much time for public review.

As for objectives, the stated goals of the mayor's parks privatization scheme seem to transform week to week.

A couple months ago, Newsom's staffers were promoting a plan by which a nonprofit created by well-connected Palo Alto lawyer Sandy Tatum would lease the courses for $1. Nonprofits are great at attracting grants, which could be used to spruce up the courses, Newsom's parks director Yomi Agunbiade said at a public hearing.

Now, officials tell me, the likely outcome is to lure for-profit corporations to bid on a 20-year private lease for the parkland.

During the week leading up to Tuesday's privatization resolution, the idea had been sold by Newsom staffers as a way to save between $1.2 million and $1.5 million per year in taxpayer subsidies that now go to public golf course management. But it turns out the scheme would actually cost the city an extra $4 million per year, resulting in a net loss of just under $3 million per year — in perpetuity.

That's because officials in the Recreation and Park Department tell me the 37 city employees whose jobs would be eliminated by the golf course privatization would be reassigned to other city parks. Because golf course fees now pay for 85 percent of these workers' wages, the reassignment would cost taxpayers an additional $4 million in annual salaries alone.

Given the Park Department's history of overly rosy financial projections regarding golf, I feel confident predicting the real cost will be much higher.

Since the golf privatization scheme won't save the city any money, its rationale has again shifted. It's lately been promoted as a way to provide 27 more gardeners to city parks that don't have golf courses on them. But privatizing Harding Park and Lincoln Park will actually do nothing to provide money for adding new gardeners to city parks; the same $4 million-plus the city would spend under the privatization scheme could just as easily be spent simply hiring new park gardeners. In fact, it would be cheaper that way, because Newsom's golf outsourcing scheme buys labor peace by creating 10 new salaried city positions for the truck drivers, mechanics, staff supervisors, and other non-gardener employees who now work at Lincoln and Harding. Under privatization, those positions will no longer be 85 percent covered by greens fees; they'll be paid 100 percent by city taxpayers.

Now that Newsom's privatization resolution has been formally introduced the logic has shifted again, to an assertion of the general principle that privatization is good. Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, a privatization backer, says the city uses private contractors for other services; why not Harding Park and Lincoln Park?

"People don't say, 'Don't explore the possibility of contracting out our budget analyst's work,'" Elsbernd said, referring to the city's contract with Harvey M. Rose Associates LLC to audit city spending. "I never heard people say, don't explore the contracting out of our parking garages."

I do hope, however, that people do say, "Don't privatize Harding Park, and especially not Lincoln Park," a monument if there ever were one to the idea that the best of San Francisco should be in the public realm.

When I told Gray Brechin last week about Newsom's June 11 privatization resolution, he told me an anecdote, one of many he's collected illustrating the populist idealism of the workers who built the New Deal. Every park in San Francisco, many schools, the network of trails on Mount Sutro, and myriad other aspects of this city's public geography were made or improved with help from the New Deal. Brechin is currently creating a San Francisco New Deal map, part of the nonprofit-funded Living New Deal Project, mapping all of California's New Deal history. (

"I'll give you a situation analogous to what's now going on at Harding and Lincoln Park," Brechin said. San Francisco's "Aquatic Park had been a garbage dump before the WPA moved in and made it a public recreational facility, which (famed 19th-century parks designer Frederick Law) Olmsted had proposed. They created that thing, and it's marvelous, the building they call 'the Casino' is filled with public art."

Soon after it was finished, local San Francisco city fathers leased the building to a private restaurant. To keep boys from swinging on the WPA building's handrails, the owner put up "No Trespassing" signs.

"In response, the WPA workers just walked off their jobs," said Brechin, who's interviewed surviving New Deal workers still fervent about their belief in a luxurious public sphere. "It's just inspirational to talk to them. Gavin Newsom and Aaron Peskin both promised me that they would declare a New Deal Day, in which we would celebrate those workers who've survived."

If Peskin and Newsom are successful in pushing through their ill-begotten parks privatization scheme, I hope they have sufficient shame to cancel plans for a New Deal Day.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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