Fore Play

The city's new New Deal: Privatizing public parks

Gardener Zachary Salem, 44, hoists five brass sprinkler heads from the cement stair leading up from the end of California Street to Lincoln Park Golf Course, walks along the fine gravel path to the 17th hole, and offers a paean to San Francisco's expansive public realm.

"Ansel Adams grew up a couple of blocks from here, and some of his first photographs were of the Marin Headlands from this spot," Salem says, as we look over the fairway through a dozen cypress, past a light blanket of fog, at the Marin cliffs, the bridge, and the sea. "Every San Franciscan should catch the sunrise out here. It's awesome."

Those wishing to follow Salem's advice should be quick. This beautiful view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin County shore, as well as hundreds of acres of exquisite city parkland, will soon become private if Mayor Gavin Newsom and Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin have their way.

Mayor Newsom last week submitted a resolution aimed at privatizing Harding Park Golf Course and Lincoln Park Golf Course, the latter of which is a cliff-side monument to San Francisco and America's early-20th-century fascination with the expanding things and places society holds in common. This worldview, at its height during the New Deal of the 1930s and '40s, championed giving every man access to opulent public parks, pools, playgrounds, golf courses, tennis courts, horse stables, amphitheaters, trail networks, beach houses, auditoria, schools, municipal buildings, public monuments, hospitals, roads, sewers, airports, bridges, aqueducts, artworks, and more.

Lincoln Park, located at San Francisco's northwest corner where the ocean meets the bay, hosts a two-story 1939 New Deal Works Progress Administration clubhouse. And the 1902 course and park itself was one of the city's first great public amenities. Along with its role as a golf course Lincoln Park serves as one of the city's most beautiful free public parks for walkers, joggers, and others who love a beautiful setting and view. Newsom's proposal to give up Harding Park and Lincoln Park in a long-term lease to a private corporation — in a phony money-saving gesture that will end up costing the city millions of dollars more than it would save — would represent a dramatic, lamentable retreat from this New Deal-era ideal.

"The implications are closing out the public, and re-eliting the public landscape. It's taking us back to the 19th century, those wonderful days of recessions, closed spaces, and stolen spaces, when so much of the public spaces were taken and reprivatized," said Gray Brechin, author of Imperial San Francisco, who is now working on a book chronicling the public monuments of the New Deal. "The New Deal was a huge expansion of the concept of the public. Before the New Deal, golf was a very elite sport, like skiing, or tennis. It democratized those sports by creating facilities for the public, so the ordinary Joe could do them. And it really worked."

The one thing that could derail the privatization scheme, Peskin said, would be a strong outcry from organized labor. Such an outcry would be reasonable, because Newsom's resolution argues for privatizing these two city parks based on the idea that the work of city gardeners, plumbers, tree trimmers, mechanics, and staff supervisors "can be performed by private contractor for a lower cost than similar work performed by city and county employees for golf course maintenance services."

As a matter of logic, this applies equally to the entire Department of Recreation and Park staff. Newsom could reuse this resolution replacing the words "golf course" with "park," and thereby eliminate the jobs of hundreds of city gardeners and maintenance workers.

Newsom may nonetheless manage to get this resolution past the unions by pushing it through the Board of Supervisors swiftly, quietly, and without giving up many specifics on how it would work. The proposal was submitted without fanfare last week as a one-page proposal bereft of specific plans. The June 11 resolution merely calls for "awarding a contract for a private contractor" for Harding and Lincoln beginning July 1, 2007 — less than two weeks from when this newspaper hits the streets.

Local labor's political arm, the San Francisco Labor Council, has already declared its opposition in principle to golf course privatization, but by last week had not directly addressed the mayor's resolution.

I would be the last person to argue that privatizing public services is always a bad idea. Government is rife with tales of programs that could have been done better and more cheaply elsewhere. But the question of whether to privatize a public service in a specific instance is, as an attorney would say, very "fact sensitive."

That's because privatization schemes are sometimes fertile ground for conflicts of interest, corruption, and private services that don't end up serving the public very well. A prime example is the last time San Francisco privatized golf courses a decade ago. Then, Willie Brown manipulated a bidding procedure to grant a contract to manage a Public Utilities Commission-owned golf course to his former chief administrative officer in the Assembly. Another example: The contract under which an apparently well-connected private firm now lavishly bills the city to manage the clubhouse and other elements of Harding Park Golf Course.

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