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

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.

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