Fore Play

The city's new New Deal: Privatizing public parks

In order to keep a privatization scheme from becoming a boondoggle, it's important that the city have concrete objectives and a clear, publicly explained process for reaching whatever goal the privatization is supposed to achieve. Newsom's resolution to privatize Harding Park and Lincoln Park has none of these attributes.

The public process so far consists of slipping a brief, vague resolution into Board of Supervisors' hearing records, proposing an unspecified private lease contract for city parkland, to be completed quickly, without much time for public review.

As for objectives, the stated goals of the mayor's parks privatization scheme seem to transform week to week.

A couple months ago, Newsom's staffers were promoting a plan by which a nonprofit created by well-connected Palo Alto lawyer Sandy Tatum would lease the courses for $1. Nonprofits are great at attracting grants, which could be used to spruce up the courses, Newsom's parks director Yomi Agunbiade said at a public hearing.

Now, officials tell me, the likely outcome is to lure for-profit corporations to bid on a 20-year private lease for the parkland.

During the week leading up to Tuesday's privatization resolution, the idea had been sold by Newsom staffers as a way to save between $1.2 million and $1.5 million per year in taxpayer subsidies that now go to public golf course management. But it turns out the scheme would actually cost the city an extra $4 million per year, resulting in a net loss of just under $3 million per year — in perpetuity.

That's because officials in the Recreation and Park Department tell me the 37 city employees whose jobs would be eliminated by the golf course privatization would be reassigned to other city parks. Because golf course fees now pay for 85 percent of these workers' wages, the reassignment would cost taxpayers an additional $4 million in annual salaries alone.

Given the Park Department's history of overly rosy financial projections regarding golf, I feel confident predicting the real cost will be much higher.

Since the golf privatization scheme won't save the city any money, its rationale has again shifted. It's lately been promoted as a way to provide 27 more gardeners to city parks that don't have golf courses on them. But privatizing Harding Park and Lincoln Park will actually do nothing to provide money for adding new gardeners to city parks; the same $4 million-plus the city would spend under the privatization scheme could just as easily be spent simply hiring new park gardeners. In fact, it would be cheaper that way, because Newsom's golf outsourcing scheme buys labor peace by creating 10 new salaried city positions for the truck drivers, mechanics, staff supervisors, and other non-gardener employees who now work at Lincoln and Harding. Under privatization, those positions will no longer be 85 percent covered by greens fees; they'll be paid 100 percent by city taxpayers.

Now that Newsom's privatization resolution has been formally introduced the logic has shifted again, to an assertion of the general principle that privatization is good. Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, a privatization backer, says the city uses private contractors for other services; why not Harding Park and Lincoln Park?

"People don't say, 'Don't explore the possibility of contracting out our budget analyst's work,'" Elsbernd said, referring to the city's contract with Harvey M. Rose Associates LLC to audit city spending. "I never heard people say, don't explore the contracting out of our parking garages."

I do hope, however, that people do say, "Don't privatize Harding Park, and especially not Lincoln Park," a monument if there ever were one to the idea that the best of San Francisco should be in the public realm.

When I told Gray Brechin last week about Newsom's June 11 privatization resolution, he told me an anecdote, one of many he's collected illustrating the populist idealism of the workers who built the New Deal. Every park in San Francisco, many schools, the network of trails on Mount Sutro, and myriad other aspects of this city's public geography were made or improved with help from the New Deal. Brechin is currently creating a San Francisco New Deal map, part of the nonprofit-funded Living New Deal Project, mapping all of California's New Deal history. (

"I'll give you a situation analogous to what's now going on at Harding and Lincoln Park," Brechin said. San Francisco's "Aquatic Park had been a garbage dump before the WPA moved in and made it a public recreational facility, which (famed 19th-century parks designer Frederick Law) Olmsted had proposed. They created that thing, and it's marvelous, the building they call 'the Casino' is filled with public art."

Soon after it was finished, local San Francisco city fathers leased the building to a private restaurant. To keep boys from swinging on the WPA building's handrails, the owner put up "No Trespassing" signs.

"In response, the WPA workers just walked off their jobs," said Brechin, who's interviewed surviving New Deal workers still fervent about their belief in a luxurious public sphere. "It's just inspirational to talk to them. Gavin Newsom and Aaron Peskin both promised me that they would declare a New Deal Day, in which we would celebrate those workers who've survived."

If Peskin and Newsom are successful in pushing through their ill-begotten parks privatization scheme, I hope they have sufficient shame to cancel plans for a New Deal Day.

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