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

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.

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