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

Mufasa's ghost: Simba, you have forgotten me.

Simba: No. How could I?

Mufasa's ghost: You have forgotten who you are and so have forgotten me. Look inside yourself, Simba. You are more than what you have become. You must take your place in the Circle of Life.

Simba: How can I go back? I'm not who I used to be.

Mufasa's ghost: Remember who you are. You are my son and the one true king. Remember ....

San Francisco is a city that knows how to throw its weight around. We built our scuzzy jail in San Bruno, our smoggy and loud airport in San Mateo County, and our dams and water facilities in a half-dozen counties far, far from here. We truck our solid waste to distant landfills and produce oceans of pollution for the wind to blow to Fresno.

Thus it should be. San Francisco is California's Lion King. Though we may mete out the aforementioned burdens, like a wise ruler we also provide our subjects with moral and political leadership, jobs, and a host of amusement attractions.

This -- to cite the work of Broadway tunesmiths Tim Rice and Elton John -- is the Circle of Life:

Nants ingonyama bagithi baba [There comes a lion]

Sithi uhhmm ingonyama [Oh yes, it's a lion]

Siyo Nqoba [We're going to conquer]1

When the Circle functions properly, lions frolic with their gazelle and bunny friends, attacking and devouring one of them every so often in a just, conscientious way, only to resume play once dinner's done.

Lately, though, this natural Circle, in which San Francisco lords over its neighbors, and they revere us in return, appears compromised. A series of little-known breakdowns points to potential Circle-wide weakness, which, if left unchecked, could ultimately compromise our city's dominion.

If we don't repair the Circle soon, we risk becoming, rather than eating, lunch.

The Circle of Life is unraveling in three ways in the San Francisco savanna, otherwise known as the city parks system.

In city-owned Sharp Park, located in the San Mateo County town of Pacifica, San Francisco has for 10 years given the brushoff to county officials who have repeatedly asked us to clean up an abandoned shooting range that is now a lead-contaminated toxic waste site.

San Francisco has also ignored requests to help kill mosquitoes on Sharp Park's ample marshlands, San Mateo County's greatest source of these potentially West Nile virus-bearing creatures.

Within San Francisco, meanwhile, we've compromised the Circle of Life by letting Marin County commuters turn the eastern half of Golden Gate Park, one of the greatest landscaped green areas in the world, into an automobile-choked hazard for two hours every morning and afternoon. San Francisco supervisors voted to halt this menace last year with a measure that would have put parking meters in these outsider-threatened areas. But in a clear sign of weakness of the Lion King's will, the city allowed a series of editorials by the largely commuter-produced San Francisco Chronicle to beat back the parking meter proposal.

As the tale of the Lion King shows us, when the Circle of Life breaks down, the savanna becomes a brutish and bereft place. So it is in San Francisco that San Mateo County offers us veiled threats of lawsuits; Marin County motorists make it deadly for our children to play in the park; and the Hearst media corporation of New York successfully keeps things this way.

To restore the natural order, San Francisco must ponder the words of the wise Lion King Mufasa.

Mufasa: Oh, there's more to being king than getting your way all the time.

Simba: There's more?

Mufasa: Simba, everything you see exists together in a delicate balance. As king, you need to understand that balance and respect all the creatures from the crawling ant to the leaping antelope.

Simba: But Dad, don't we eat the antelope?

Mufasa: Yes Simba. But let me explain. When we die, our bodies become the grass, and the antelope eat the grass, and so we are all connected in the great Circle of Life.

For someone who ought to consider himself a subject of San Francisco, San Mateo County Environmental Health Director Dean Peterson uses unusually forward language.

"The challenge here is that we've been -- San Mateo County has been -- generously polite. But at the end of the day, this is a San Francisco facility, and San Francisco did create the environmental mess," says Peterson, referring to toxic lead deposits in Sharp Park.

Until 1882, Sharp Park was the estate of wealthy San Francisco lawyer George Sharp. His widow donated it to two San Francisco parks commissioners, and now it's one of the more peculiar parcels in S.F.'s menagerie of parklands. It consists of some beachfront, a golf course, some marshland, an archery range, and a fenced-off abandoned rifle range, which the S.F. Recreation and Park Department shut down in 1988 because neighbors were finding spent bullets in their yards.

Not long after, San Mateo County began asking San Francisco to clean up the 36 years' worth of expired slugs that may be leaching lead, arsenic, and antimony into the groundwater at the former range. In return, San Francisco parks officials, for more than a decade, shined San Mateo health bureaucrats on. The San Mateo bureaucrats have become progressively angrier.

"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.

But because of the intervention of the Chronicle, and in defiance of this larger Circle of Life, the new garage will be surrounded by 1,600 parking spaces that will be free. There is every chance that people wishing to partake of the new de Young will be willing to stroll a short distance through beautiful Golden Gate Park and avoid a $10 parking charge.

If this happens, the financial lions holding the parking garage bonds would be at risk of losing money. The Circle of Life occupied by bondholders, rating agencies, bond lawyers, and investment banks would be broken. Billionaire benefactors behind the new de Young might clamor for Golden Gate Park parking meters.

And the Chronicle might have a hard time foiling them, no matter how many pages it devoted to a media campaign.

The Circle would be rejoined. The meters would drive fee-paying motorists into the garage. Their money would flow toward Wall Street bondholders. Those who parked in metered spaces would help fund the excavation of lead-contaminated soil from Sharp Park and the spraying of mosquitoes in the nearby swamp. Marin County motorists would lose their free park 'n' ride lot. Once again, to cite Rice and John, the Circle of Life would move "us all, through despair and hope, through faith and love, till we find our place, on the path unwinding, in the Circle, the Circle of Life, in the Circle, the Circle of Life."2

1 Chorus from "Circle of Life," music by Elton John, lyrics by Tim Rice, presumably spoken in an African language understood by humanlike animal species of the African savanna.

2 Ibid.

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