As riders near the peak of the 150-foot-tall SkyStar Observation Wheel’s cycle, the massive scope of Golden Gate Park begins to come into view. The living roof of the Academy of Sciences mirrors the sprawling groves of Monterey pine, redwood, Monterey cyprus and Blue Gum eucalyptus trees stretching from the tip of the Panhandle to the breakers at Ocean Beach. Fifteen stories up, riders catch a glimpse of the vast diversity of life present in the park’s 1,017 acres.
This habitat is exactly what fans of the observation wheel want people to see — and it is one of the reasons cited in arguments to keep the wheel spinning for four more years.
Incidentally, it is this very same natural splendor that the wheel’s detractors point to when calling for the structure to come down as soon as possible.
A recent proposal by the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department to extend the wheel’s permit until March of 2025 has residents, city officials, and preservationists at odds. Environmental groups and some locals are vehemently opposed to the proposal, arguing that the wheel threatens the park’s wildlife, while proponents of the wheel say it has provided a much-needed diversion during a challenging year and brought new visitors and economic stimulation to the park.
On February 18, the city’s Recreation and Parks Commission voted to approve the extension, on certain conditions. But the future of the wheel remains up in the air. The plan still needs authorization from the San Francisco Planning Department’s Historic Preservation Commission, which was supposed to vote on February 17 but postponed its decision until March 3 after three hours of deliberation and hundreds of public comments.
“In this last dark year, that wheel showed us a chance for the future,” said Parks Department staffer Dana Ketcham as she presented a photo of a rainbow arcing over the wheel at one of the commission hearings. Ketcham believes the wheel has played a major role in making Golden Gate Park feel like “everybody’s park.” In the month it was open, Ketcham said, it brought people in from all over the Bay Area, and the operator has committed to a monthly donation of 500 tickets (normally $18 for adults and $12 for seniors and children) to nonprofits that support underserved youth in the city. “We’re bringing in kids from Chinatown, the Mission, Potrero, the Bayview, Ingleside, Excelsior and the Western Addition,” Ketcham reported, “giving them an opportunity not just to experience the wheel, but also to experience all one thousand acres of Golden Gate Park.”
Residents from across the Bay Area spoke passionately at the hearings about how the wheel has brightened dull shelter-in-place days, excited antsy cooped-up children, motivated sick family members to heal, and even served as a memorable stage for pandemic engagement proposals.
But opponents of the plan, including the Sierra Club and the local Audubon Society, say that the wheel — with its one million flashing LED lights that shine until 10 p.m. every night — infringes upon the natural habitat and disturbs wildlife.
ECONOMY VS ENVIRONMENT
“If we’re going to start looking at our public spaces and parks as economic generators, then we’re going to be in a lot of trouble when it comes to protecting them from any kind of development,” says Katherine Howard, a member of the Sierra Club’s SF Bay Chapter and a local landscape architect.
“Wildlife needs habitat, they need darkness. Golden Gate Park is one of the few places in the city where animals can find refuge at night,” Howard continues. She also believes that man-made attractions like the wheel deprive park-goers of “a direct experience with nature.”
The fight to protect urban parks is especially important in the face of climate change-induced habitat destruction, according to Howard. “Statewide and nationally, we’ve now passed the 30 by 30 program,” Howard says, referring to the global plan to set aside 30 percent of the planet for conservation by 2030. “I don’t see how we’re going to do that if we keep putting carnival attractions in the middle of our prime habitat areas.”
But proponents contend the wheel will play an essential role in the economic recovery of the region after the pandemic. At the hearings, concession stand operators and small business owners said the wheel has been critical in keeping their operations afloat. Many Golden Gate Park establishments, including the de Young, Legion of Honor, Academy of Sciences, Botanical Garden, Japanese Tea Garden, and Conservatory of Flowers, also submitted comments in support of the permit extension.
Part of the reason the Parks Department wants to extend the permit is to make up for the private operator’s lost revenue. The long-awaited project, commissioned for the park’s 150th anniversary, took two and a half years to build and then sat unused from March to October, opening for just thirty nine days at 25 percent capacity until the winter COVID surge sent the city back into lockdown.
The dispute has also struck a particular nerve in San Francisco by aggravating already tense YIMBY/NIMBY battles over how public space in the city should be used and who it should be for. Some proponents of the plan have accused the wheel’s naysayers of simply wanting to keep the park to themselves rather than acting out of an interest in conservation.
Opponents say that the public park shouldn’t be sacrificed for the profit of a private, out-of-state enterprise. (SkyView Partners, which operates the SkyStar Observation Wheel, is a company based in Missouri.) “San Francisco doesn’t owe this business anything,” an Outer Sunset resident argued at one of the hearings.
But Jane Natoli, a Richmond resident and volunteer at housing development advocacy group Grow the Richmond, sees the flood of opposition against the wheel as part of a broader pattern of San Franciscans saying no to change in the city.
“Change is inevitable,” Natoli says. Sometimes we do need to do our due diligence in examining whether change is for the better or worse, she says, “and sometimes we don’t.”
FUN & GAMES
Natoli recently spearheaded a petition called “Ferris Wheels are Fun!” which had over 1,000 signatures as of press time. “Unfortunately anti-fun scolds are at it again,” the petition laments.
“Fun” is indeed — ironically — one of the more fraught issues in this controversy. People at both commission hearings voiced support for the wheel “because it’s fun,” in the words of one Haight Ashbury resident. On Nextdoor, another site where the debate has unfurled, “fun” and “festive” are two of the descriptors that appear most frequently in defense of the wheel.
Howard says she thinks “the whole fun thing” conveys an unfortunate message: that having fun is more important than protecting the natural habitat. A letter from the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council has echoed this sentiment, asserting that the wheel teaches people “that it is all right to damage nature for short-term gain or pleasure. This is not a lesson we support.”
An anonymous Twitter user, @ferris_sf, has poked fun at the whole debate, chiming in from the perspective of the Ferris wheel itself. “Nobody complains about the buffalo and they’re not even from California,” the Twitter wheel woefully demurs. “As a Ferris Wheel, I am also the rusting relic of an industrial age, made obsolete by the digital world. You would think progressives in San Francisco would love me.” (More darkly: “Those birds had it coming.”)
The Parks Department has already agreed to compromises on the proposal. The wheel’s white lights, which are the most environmentally intrusive, are no longer lit through the night and turn off an hour before the wheel’s closing. The generator will also no longer run at night, as of a few days ago.
Now, it’s up to the Historic Preservation Commission to make the final call. The vote will be open to the public via livestream on March 3.
Clara Liang is a contributing writer. She sometimes tweets @clarablakeliang