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The Hellman Challenge 

There's only one way to settle the de Young parking garage brouhaha: a footrace between a steely billionaire and a PR-savvy columnist

Wednesday, Dec 1 2004
As useful as the field of public relations is for selling things, it's worthless for communication aimed at finding the truth or a reasonable accommodation between competing views. Because PR language is designed expressly to mislead, its profusion creates a modern Tower of Babel where people talk past one another, attempt to deceive one another, and routinely disagree, without comprehending what the other side is trying to say.

Understanding the corrosive effect of PR-speak is essential for spectators of the years-old fight over the nearly completed new de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park and an underground parking garage being built adjacent to it. Garage backers say the parking structure will "revitalize" Golden Gate Park and is only one piece in a package of improvements slated for the pedestrian, bicyclist, and family oasis anchored by the museum. Opponents say the garage will encourage people to drive to the museum and choke the park with traffic.

Neither group is telling the truth. As I'll explain later, the improvements package is now so short of money as to be meaningless. And the garage plan will likely reduce traffic venturing into the park.

The gap between public statements and reality has created a seemingly endless exchange of contemptuous museum/garage babble. The verbal mud-fight heated up last month as garage officials announced they would widen Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, a two-lane road that meanders up the park's south side, into a four-lane boulevard leading to the garage.

"If this is an effort to reduce the automobile traffic impact on the park, please tell me, what would a plan to increase auto impact be?" asked San Francisco Bicycle Coalition Program Director Josh Hunt, waving a stack of petitions during a public meeting last week toward Mike Ellzey, executive director of the Golden Gate Concourse Authority, a special agency created to oversee construction of the garage.

"I'm not even going to respect that with an answer," Ellzey replied.

Clearly, further talk among these people is pointless.

Their dispute should be settled through a duel, a form of which I will, by column's end, propose.

The crowd of rich art patrons and their acolytes surrounding the de Young Museum has long squabbled with the grimy-handed gardeners who manage the rest of Golden Gate Park, and by inference the dog walkers, joggers, and playground habitués the gardeners serve. Accustomed to commuting between the city and second homes in Marin and Sonoma counties, the de Young crowd also has tended to see automobiles as key to accessing good things.

The legal language of the Golden Gate Park Revitalization Act (aka the successful Proposition J on the 1998 ballot) stated two main purposes. One would create "a pedestrian oasis in the Music Concourse area of Golden Gate Park, situated between the de Young Museum and the Academy of Sciences," the second would "reduce the impact of automobiles in the Park while still providing long-term assurance of safe, reliable, and convenient access for visitors to the Park, including its cultural institutions."

To the de Young crowd, of course, "safe," "reliable," and "convenient access" were all different ways of saying "cars."

The measure promised myriad park improvements, including an 800-car garage to be funded by private donations. These "donations" wound up taking the form of $50 million in tax-exempt revenue bonds, to be repaid with parking fees, a scheme a court later ruled valid. Improvements were supposed to include restoring and repairing the century-old structures in the Music Concourse, along with instituting a bike lane and pedestrian and transit improvements in the surrounding area.

Backers of the proposition hyped these improvements in their PR, and the ballot language spoke about them in general terms. But the proposition itself never required spending the money to actually pay for them. And now there's apparently not enough money left, after paying the garage's construction costs, to actually get them built.

Garage backers low-balled the cost of these improvements and now the Concourse Authority is short "millions of dollars" needed to complete the improvements, according to the consultant hired to manage the work. There's no money for promised benches, or for repairing the decayed, cracked bandstand, stairs, fountain, and other concourse artifacts.

When I asked Ellzey about this shortfall last week, he suggested upgrades were being postponed rather than canceled, adding that the Concourse Authority would seek additional funding from public and private sources.

Garage opponents have their own version of a PR-driven truth problem. The most passionate of them continue to be inspired by their bitter dislike for the architectural design of the new de Young Museum. But now that the museum is 90 percent built and won't likely be torn down in our lifetimes, opponents concentrate their rhetoric on the idea that the parking structure will draw increased traffic into the park. It's on this basis that the plan to widen MLK Jr. Drive has drawn such outrage, complete with 600 angry letters from bicyclists.

The road-widening plan is, oddly, the result of a lawsuit that garage opponents filed -- and, for the most part, lost. In the part of the suit that the opponents "won," a judge agreed that the proposition's language requires the garage's two entrances to be outside the park. The north entrance is outside the park. But to comply with the judge's order, garage proponents have arranged for the lanes added to MLK Jr. Drive to be disingenuously labeled as "dedicated" to the museum garage. In other words, the pro-garage crowd wants to treat two lanes of road across Golden Gate Park as extra-long driveways that just happen to be part of a four-lane road.

This "solution" to the garage-access problem is clearly a bad design created in the name of legal semantics.

"From a planning and design perspective, this design doesn't make any sense," says Doug Nelson, principal at Royston Hanamoto Alley & Abey, the firm hired to fix up the concourse once the garage is built. For garage opponents, however, the widening of MLK is much worse than that: It's part of a scheme to turn the park into a traffic sewer.

Except that it's not.

Buried in the Golden Gate Park Revitalization Act is a passage that says for every parking space added in the garage, one surface space will be removed in the surrounding area. This means 800 parking spaces will disappear from the east end of Golden Gate Park. So people taking children to the park's merry-go-round, playing boccie on the park's fine boccie fields, attending classes at Sharon Art Studio, or going to a concert at Sharon Meadow will soon have to pay $10 or $12 to park their cars. Garage backers are depending in part on this indirect parking tax to pay back their millions of dollars in revenue bonds.

As a result, the 15-minute drive over the hill from the Mission District to play Frisbee in the east end of the park will be a more expensive proposition. And it is very likely, therefore, that fewer people will make the trip by car. This likelihood is inconvenient to the PR message of either group, so it goes unmentioned.

Instead, we have years of increasingly poisonous and dishonest PR dialogue.

Some sort of accommodation is necessary to avoid a cloud of bitterness from further endangering the museum project, which future San Franciscans will doubtless see as a civic asset.

I propose fighting the bad effects of a PR war with more PR.

Six years ago, for reasons unrelated to the garage dispute that is the subject of this column, my predecessor in this job challenged Warren Hellman, the San Francisco investment banker who has been the primary backer of the de Young Museum and garage, to a footrace. The reasons are irrelevant; besides, the race never panned out.

But the stakes are higher now. San Francisco's ability to hold a public conversation is in the balance.

And so it's imperative that Warren Hellman and SF Weekly's news columnist face each other in a footrace.

I propose that Hellman and I race from Mill Valley to the Mount Tam lookout.

Hellman's pushing 70, so I'll spot the banker five minutes.

Should he lose, Hellman would call his Golden Gate Concourse Authority hounds off their disingenuous, auto-garage-at-the-cost-of-everything approach. He would tell them to withdraw the proposal to widen MLK Jr. Drive and figure out a solution to the garage-entrance problem that's satisfying to everyone.

Should Hellman win, I'll denounce the museum garage foes and promote the project's benefits. I'll turn this column into a space for PR flackery. I'll even throw in a column touting the investment strategy of Hellman & Friedman, LLC for good measure.

I can already hear in-the-know readers snickering, thinking I don't know what I'm getting into. As evinced by his single-minded drive to get this museum and garage built, Hellman is a formidable competitor.

"I remember him mostly from the back, which is from where I saw his enormous horselike thighs, where I saw all the sinews, tendons, and veins more pronounced than I'd ever seen in my life," recalls my wife, Fiona, of a trip a decade or so ago her college cross-country team took to Marin County for a 10-mile, hilly run with Hellman. The run was a sort of PR exercise, Fiona says.

"We were forced to hang out with 'special' people and be told, 'You were great, you were Mills women,'" says Fiona, who attended Mills College, a middling girls' school in Oakland. "He gave us all this money, so the coach thought it would be good to run with him. So once a year, that's what we'd do.

"His legs were unusually long. They seemed to end where the top part of my rib cage is," she recalls.

Hellman and the cross-country team set off along a portion of the Dipsea Trail on the side of Mount Tamalpais. Only one of the girls kept up with Hellman, then well into his 50s.

"All our team was like, 'Good God, did you see his legs?' He started out, probably not sprinting for him, but it was for the rest of us. We all kind of tried to find our way alone, until we ended at his house, where by that point I was completely sunburned and exhausted. He wasn't. He casually chatted with the rest of the team," my wife says.

Clearly, I'm putting the reputations of SF Weekly and me at risk by challenging such a man. But Hellman has already imperiled part of his fortune and public stature to build a new museum in Golden Gate Park. It's the least I could do to risk my pride to return honesty to San Francisco public dialogue.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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