The City That Would Be King

To maintain its natural position atop the local political food chain, San Francisco must be benevolent, as well as strong

"It's got to be cleaned up. It's in an environmentally sensitive area. We've got creeks and wetlands nearby. At some point, we have to tackle getting the lead from the old shots out of there," says Peterson. "It really is at a toxic level. In children, at an earlier age, it can inhibit the development of the brain. If the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department does not come in and clean this site up, we would be dealing with a public health risk."

Recreation and Park Department spokeswoman Becky Ballinger said last Wednesday she was "investigating" the status of city plans to clean up the site, after I inquired about the matter Tuesday. She hadn't gotten back to me by press time the following Monday.

For 10 years San Francisco has hired consultants to study the lead-deposit site. Various consultants have said it's necessary to dig up the soil and cart it off, at a cost of around $1 million. When one study's done, the city sits on it for a couple of years, then hires a different consultant to conduct another study, in a cycle that has repeated itself four times.

"To this date, they have done nothing. We reapproached them in 2001. They wanted to reopen the investigation, which we felt was a waste of money. It's really simple. It's a matter of digging the soil out and moving it to a place that will accept lead contamination," Peterson says.

Peterson has considered a lawsuit.

But, he says, "Our experience and history with the City and County of San Francisco is that it does little good to do any kind of enforcement. They seem more willing to defend lawsuits than do the work."

Still, Peterson says, he's keeping legal options open: "We have got our district attorney involved."

There's also a mosquito problem in the Lion King's extended savanna. According to an article in the Pacifica Tribune, San Mateo County's chief mosquito cop has been asking San Francisco to help with the $18,000 it would cost to poison the insect swarm that emanates from the swamp next to the Sharp Park Golf Course. "Right now, they are ignoring the issues, which is what they have done with mosquito abatement all along," the paper last month quoted Robert Gay, manager of the San Mateo County Mosquito Abatement District, as saying.

Closer to the throne, in Golden Gate Park, anyone stepping into the street between the hours of 7:30 and 9:30 a.m. or 4:30 and 6:30 p.m. is to risk death by inflamed motorist. Commuters, largely from Marin County, race through the eastern one-third of the park during these hours, either hoping to nab a free parking place before taking a bus or trolley car downtown in the morning, or jockeying to get home in the evening. This derby of furious, aggressive drivers cuts off walking access to playgrounds, trails, meadows, and other park facilities for all but the brave.

San Francisco supervisors last year sought to abate this menace, voting 6-to-5 to plant meters in an estimated 1,600 free parking spaces in the east end of the park. As a byproduct of making the park safer, more tranquil, and more beautiful, the parking meters would have garnered an estimated $1.4 million a year in annual fees.

In response to the meter plan, the San Francisco Chronicle, staffed in significant part by out-of-town commuters, went on what might be called an editorial rampage. The paper's political reporter announced the proposal in alarmist terms. Then the Chronicleeditorial page published unsigned pieces denouncing the parking meter proposal, arguing -- I'm not making this up -- that the meters would be more unattractive than a twice-daily traffic jam in an all-day parking lot. The paper's second-section columnist devoted a page to the proposed meters and referred to the supposed travesty of the meters in several subsequent columns. When supervisors tabled the meter measure following the Chronicle-fabricated "backlash," the paper's political reporter did a follow-up, saying city politicians had responded to the cry of the people.

Just as it's true that a small disturbance in an ecological system can throw the entire natural balance askew, it's sometimes possible to restore this equilibrium with a minor tweak or two. Nature takes care of the rest. So it is with San Francisco's unraveled natural order.

There is a Circle of Life more powerful than the one lorded over by San Franciscans. It is run by financiers on New York's Wall Street and San Francisco's Montgomery Street. These Lion Kings eat more gazelles and bunnies during a single lunch than the City and County of San Francisco could consume in a lifetime. As it happens, they may become key to restoring the smaller, concentric, local Circle of Life by the bay.

In the east end of Golden Gate Park, bisecting the site of the twice-daily out-of-towner parking derby, construction workers are building a huge underground parking garage, a privately financed add-on to the new de Young Museum rising there. Billionaire developer and financier Warren Hellman, the new museum's primary backer, had initially proposed that the garage be built with private donations. But he couldn't raise the money. Instead he devised a scheme by which the garage would be built with money from revenue bonds, to be repaid with fees collected from those using the new garage.

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