Commission approves soccer project but pushes the city to restore habitat

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Artist rendering of the artificial turf soccer fields the city will build at the west end of Golden Gate Park.

The California Coastal Commission today upheld San Francisco’s plan to replace the Beach Chalet grass soccer fields at the west end of Golden Gate Park with artificial turf and high stadium lights after an emotional five-hour hearing, but not before voicing concerns about the loss of natural terrain and urging the city to do wildlife habitat restoration work on adjacent land.

The soccer project has been repeatedly approved by city agencies despite strong opposition from some neighbors and environmentalists, who say it conflicts with a Local Coastal Plan that calls for it to be a “naturalistic” setting. Their appeal to the commission -- which enforces the California Coastal Act of 1976 and regulates development in the coastal zone statewide -- was supported by commission staff, giving hope to opponents.  

But the dearth of playing fields in the city and bad conditions on this often soggy, gopher-ridden site drove the local approvals of the project, and advocates for soccer and youth dominated public testimony at today’s hearing, which was held in San Rafael. Supportive speakers made arguments ranging from the exodus of families from the city to the need to combat youth obesity and diabetes to concerns that the woods surrounding the field is now “a fornication playground for gay men, it’s a shooting gallery for drug users, and it’s a toilet for the homeless,” all ills they say the turf and lights will help dispel.    

“I urge you to reject the appeal and allow San Francisco to manage our park system,” Sup. Scott Wiener testified to the commission, adding, “San Francisco has a crisis in that we are losing our families and losing our children.”

Former Sup. Aaron Peskin took the opposite position, calling the commission’s staff report “well-reasoned” and telling commissioners they have an obligation to protect coastal areas on behalf of all Californians: “It is the role of the commission not to succumb to political pressure.”

After public testimony and before a lunch break when he needed to leave, Commissioner Steve Blank made a motion to adopt staff recommendations and deny the city’s project, rejecting the various arguments made by supporters as irrelevant to whether this project complied with the Coastal Act and should be built so close to the ocean.

“Our review is based on the needs of 38 million Californians. One of the reasons our coastline looks the way is does is because of this commission,” Blank said, later adding, “This project looks like an industrial sports facility which is the antithesis of a naturalistic setting.”

He acknowledged arguments that the site has been soccer fields for more than 60 years and that many San Franciscans want them there. But he analogized it to the city’s one-time embrace of the Embarcadero Freeway before decades later realizing it wasn’t an appropriate waterfront use and tearing it down.

After a lunch break, the commissioner who seconded his motion, Esther Sanchez, continued Blank’s arguments against the project. “Our purview is different than the city and county of San Francisco,” she said. The commission’s role is ensuring compliance with the Coastal Act and LCP -- which was developed by the city and approved by the commission decades ago -- and its call to “emphasize naturalistic land use qualities of the western part of the park for visitor use,” saying the city should use other parks if it wants artificial turf fields.

But Commissioner Steven Kinsey called for the commission to defer to the city process and argued that turf and lights don’t necessarily violate the vague language in the LCP. “Grass alone does not make the site naturalistic,” Kinsey said, making a motion to approve the city’s project.

Commissioner Martha McClure then strongly sided sided with Kinsey and the city, and Commissioners Robert Garcia and Wendy Mitchell followed suit, saying how they personally liked turf more than grass. “It’s great for the environment, it’s water reducing, it stays green,” Mitchell said, noting that she’s replacing the lawn at her Southern California home with turf, calling the staff report “arrogant,” and saying, “I’m disappointed that we’re hearing this item.”

Garcia said the project will improve the public’s access to the coastal zone, which is something the Coastal Act also encourages.

“Artificial turf has become a savior for us, we can keep all our fields in play,” Commissioner Carole Groom, a member of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, later said, making her the fifth solid vote for the city’s project.

That left four swing votes on this 11-member commission who all said this was a difficult decision. They were inclined to let the project go through, but they were bothered by converting seven acres of real grass to artificial turf and wanted to mitigate that loss of wildlife habitat.

Chair Mary Shallenberger took issue with Mitchell’s comments. “I think they is absolutely properly before us,” she said. “This is how the process is supposed to work. Staff ended their presentation by saying this is a judgment call,” commending project opponents for filing the appeal.

“This was a very hard one for me,” Commissioner Dayna Bochco said, raising doubts that “seven acres of plastic would be a natural and healtful condition.”

Commissioner Jana Zimmer shared the concern and seized on a comment that SF Recreation and Parks Director Phil Ginsburg made earlier expressing a desire to restore as a naturalistic setting a long-neglected four-acre site next to Beach Chalet that used to be the city’s old wastewater treatment plant, noting that $6.5 million in the city’s last parks bond was set aside for habitat restoration in Golden Gate Park.

“I’d like to find a way to link the finding here to that requirement,” Zimmer said, asking Ginsburg whether he could make that commitment.

Ginsburg said that would be the top staff recommendation for the bond money, but that a public process and environmental review would be needed and he couldn’t make the commitment.

“I do believe mitigation is required here,” Bochco said. “We’re taking away seven acres of habitat and I want it replaced with something.”

A majority of commissioners, those for and against the project, strongly urged Ginsburg to follow-through on his pledge to pursue habitat restoration on the adjacent site. But with concerns expressed about tying the two projects together -- which raised both legal and local control issues -- the motion to do so failed on a 5-6 vote.

With Ginsburg’s pledge and the writing on the wall, the commission then voted unanimously to approve the project, clearing the way for the city to break ground as early as this summer.