Balkans by the Bay

Aquatic Park, long mismanaged by a jumble of self-interested entities, needs public-spirited refurbishment

A 1939 WPA report reflects a time when expanding public life was at the core of our national ideals. "For two decades the people of San Francisco dreamed of an Aquatic Park. The Works Progress Administration gave that dream reality. The vast resources of this government institution were realized, for unlike any specialized business, the WPA has enlisted workers from all professions of endeavor," the report says.

But use dwindled not long after the park was completed, and during World War II, the Army used the area as an extension of nearby Fort Mason, temporarily parking ships and materiel destined for the Pacific theater of the war. In the years since, the park has become ever less the coherent whole once envisioned.

In 1977, Mayor Gorge Moscone transferred the city-owned portion of the park to the National Park Service, which promised to provide lifeguards during summer months and to promote concerts and other recreational activities. The government quit providing lifeguards long ago, and officials I talked to barely remember the public-event plans.

Instead, the area is now run by a jumble of entities whose missions extend beyond San Francisco public life. The municipal pier, which has deteriorated to the point that it's now a strip of rotting concrete and rusty rebar, is one of the more neglected pieces in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area's vast collection of Bay Area open space and public facilities.

The municipal pier could see work "in the next five years," says Rich Weideman, the GGNRA's public affairs director. "But that's a wild guess at this point."

The National Maritime Museum Historic Park controls the Aquatic Park centerpiece building now; its top floor is filled with boating memorabilia. Part of the basement is a maintenance and storage area, and several other rooms are used as a senior citizens' center. The park's grassy area, bleachers, and public swimming facilities are also under the purview of the museum, which seems to view them as a sideline to its central mission of displaying and maintaining antique ships.

The Dolphin Club and the South End Rowing Club, two private recreation facilities at the park's east end, would like to see portions of the park paved over for a parking lot, for the convenience of their members.

To put it simply: There is no entity, public or otherwise, dedicated to putting the park to the city's best use. "This could be so much more of a resource to San Francisco. Our largest open space, when you think about it, is our bay," says Isabel Wade, executive director of the Neighborhood Parks Council. "We have very few recreational programs linked to the bay, this incredible open space linked to our back yard."

Which got me to thinking, as I sat in a City Hall hearing last week, about the potential benefits of a proposed antique trolley line that would connect Giants stadium, the Embarcadero, Aquatic Park, and Fort Mason. The F line of historic streetcars now curves along the Embarcadero, but goes no farther west than Fisherman's Wharf. It could easily be extended along a paved-over rail bed flanking Aquatic Park and through an existing rail tunnel to Fort Mason.

Supervisor Gavin Newsom, who proposed the extension, mentioned the benefit to Marina District residents. Marina dwellers wouldn't have to battle for parking, now that visitors to Fort Mason could take the trolley instead of drive, Newsom said. Others touted increased business for Fisherman's Wharf merchants. And there were advocates for north city commuters, who are now poorly connected to the city's transport grid.

Officials I spoke with suggest the project is a ways off. More urgent transit improvements, such as the Third Street light rail project and improved bus service, need to be taken care of first, officials contend.

But if the concept of social capital were included in budgetary calculations, the prospects of a Fort Mason trolley might change. In such a case, budget planners might consider civic engagement and social trust as values at least as important as Marina District parking. The potential for myriad random interactions among bayside trolley passengers might be contemplated in a budget analyst's report. People might begin to wonder, right out loud, why Aquatic Park, which should be the city's recreation centerpiece, is, for all practical purposes, shut down.

They might form community groups, and take action to see the Aquatic Park beach restored to its former cleanliness and size. They might call for a multiagency task force, and a swift rebuilding of the pier with amazing bayside views. Weekends, they might go to the beach with their children, schmooze with strangers as the kids splash about, take the tykes to the reopened showers, then take them for a hot dog at the reopened snack bar on the pier.

Thus connected, San Franciscans might take a closer look at each other's well-being, at our schools, poverty, unemployment, and crime. They might attend public meetings about these issues. And they might even vote.

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