Privatizing the Botanical Gardens

Non-resident fees, exclusive events, and the transfer to a private group compromise what was a natural gathering spot

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Fees at the Botanical Gardens have been getting more attention than the flowers.
PHOTO BY MARKE B.

news@sfbg.com

The Board of Supervisors last week voted to continue the collection of "non-resident fees" at the Botanical Gardens in Golden Gate Park for a minimum 10-year period. Then it approved a companion measure to allow construction of a new, privately run nursery that will be the home of corporate parties and members-only activities, giving a private group unusual control over a public space.

The proposed plan will replace the existing nursery with a new Center For Sustainable Growth, funded as a "gift-in place" from the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society, a nonprofit that has supported the gardens since 1955, when it was known as Strybing Arboretum.

"This vote means we are basically privatizing 55 acres of Golden Gate Park and handing it over to a nonprofit with no public accountability," Harry Pariser, a longtime resident of the Inner Sunset, activist, and author told the Bay Guardian. "Essentially we're allowing the government to make us show an ID to come onto public land. It's also going to be a space where there's going to be a lot more commercial activity. I think inevitably there is going to be fees for everyone."

The new agreement consists of demolishing an existing 4,600 square foot greenhouse, which will be replaced by a new 9,800 square foot nursery. A real estate evaluation report on the nursery project performed by Clifford Advisory, a limited liability corporation, compares the project to allegedly positive public-private development efforts such as the Hunter's Point Shipyard project.

The lease agreement between the Botanical Garden Society and the City of San Francisco allows the society to use the premises for "special events," designate members-only hours for the facility, and waive the non-resident fee for those events. According to the lease, the city shall avoid interfering with the Society's "quiet use and enjoyment of the premises," namely by allowing them to throw private parties.

"The Botanical Gardens is an incredible asset to the city, it's a great place for families and kids, and now they're no longer treating it as a public asset," Sup. John Avalos, who recently voted against the non-resident fees and the lease agreement, told the Guardian. "They're making it more exclusive."

 

LAND GRAB

The SFBGS has a history of campaigning for private exclusivity on public land as well as generating new revenue sources. In 2010, Avalos pushed a plan to replace the revenue brought in by non-resident fees with $250,000 pulled from the city's real estate transfer tax.

SFBGS, backed by London Breed before she was elected the supervisor of District 5, which includes the Botanical Gardens, opposed Avalos' effort and helped shoot down the proposed plans, continuing the fee collections.

A large part of the board's approval is derived from the lobbying efforts of Sam Lauter, a lobbyist hired by SFBGS who has continually pushed for permanent fees and the new conservatory. Lauter also helped support and fund Breed's supervisorial campaign last year.

While the lease and management agreement purports that the SFBGS's management shall be subject to the city's definition of the gardens as a public space, it offers an exception in cases of SFBGS-sponsored special events, circumventing its status as a public space. The lease also allows the Society to use other buildings on the premises, such as the County Fair Building, for special events, free of charge.

Although the SFBGS is essentially taking over operation of the gardens, the city will continue to pay for utilities and offer a "rent credit" that requires the Society to pay just $100 in rent annually. Additionally, SFBGS will be reimbursed for non-resident fee collection expenses.

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