“Love” is a word mentioned often at the meeting. As in: “I love this park.” “We all love this park.” “Everyone loves this park.” And the statement most frequently uttered by representatives of San Francisco’s Recreation and Park Department: “We all know how much you love this park.”
This was a meeting held at Dolores Park Church last night, in response to vociferous public outrage that bubbled to the surface at a meeting earlier this month about the park’s renovation.
Almost none of the neighborhood people at the meeting had realized that the parks department had sold two concession permits to sell food and coffee in Dolores Park. The money earned from the concessions (12.5 percent of profits) would flow directly into the department’s general operating budget. The carts are temporarily on hold. The contracts with the carts, as they are written, can be revoked with 30 days notice.
“It’s a simple math problem, folks,” said Phil Ginsberg, the department’s general manager. “Dolores Park is not just loved in this neighborhood. It is loved over the city.”
The park averages 3,000 visitors a day, which is 1.2 million patrons a year. He puts that in perspective: Golden Gate Park, which is the third or fourth most-visited U.S. park, gets 13 million visitors.
The prospect of a 20 percent budget cut means the parks department needs to find a way to raise money.
“Nicole’s team is a startup,” Ginsberg said, gesturing in the direction of Nicole Avril, the department’s director of partnerships and resource development. “We’ve never been in the revenue business before.”
At the last meeting, department staff didn’t know the cost of maintaining Dolores Park. This time, Ginsberg had a figure: $350,000 to maintain the park over a fiscal year.
Last year, he said, there was no reduction of services to Dolores Park. But a 20 percent cut would mean $70,000 less — mirroring the $60,000-$70,000 the department hopes to collect from the combined earnings of both carts. “So,” said Ginsberg, “pick your poison.”
“According to our citywide economic strategy,” said Todd Rufo, who has arrived from the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development looking like a perfectly suited stranger beamed down into the rumpled Mission crowd, “this city has two main areas of exports. Which we describe as buckets. There’s the knowledge/export bucket, where we export our ideas. And then there’s the experience bucket. You come to San Francisco as a local, regional or international visitor, and you have experiences. That is the biggest chunk of our city’s economy.
“What we need to do is persuade the visitors to stay here longer. To do more. Mobile food vendors are a part of this. The more people we can get to come and stay in the park, the better it is for neighborhood businesses.”
“There have been studies done,” added Nicholas Kinsey, assistant director of concessions management, “that say that amenities and concessions are one of the features that are most lacking in San Francisco’s parks.”
Over the last couple of weeks, locals’ objections to a lack of outreach resulted in a freeze on the permits the park awarded to La Cocina, a neighborhood nonprofit that helps low-income workers develop businesses, and Blue Bottle Coffee, founded in Oakland.
Avril apologized to those who had not been aware that the permits were up for grabs.
“We underestimated the amount of passion people would have. We’ve permitted several other parks, and this is the first we’ve heard back about it.” (The other parks are Justin Herman Plaza and Golden Gate Park. Alamo Square wants a food cart, Avril reported, but has been unable to persuade one to open there.)
A new procedure for issuing concession permits will be discussed at the next Rec and Park Commission hearing on October 7, she said. It will include “a community meeting for every issue having to do with this park. Every major event. Every concession contemplated. We will have a selection panel for the park and and invite a community member to sit in. An unbiased community member. We will have a selection panel to come back and present the results to the community.”
Still, many are unhappy.
“Ten years ago this neighborhood was declining,” said a man who identified himself as Michael. “People made this neighborhood out of food and coffee and a love for this park. There’s something parasitic about what you are doing. You are coming along and saying ‘This is wonderful. Let’s use it for our benefit.’”
Another woman raised her hand. “What about bathrooms? I have people on the street coming up to me and asking if they can use the bathrooms in my house. They don’t want to piss in my bush, but there’s nothing for them.”
“I’m not sure how much more of that these vendors will introduce,” Avril said.
“Oh, come on!” a man in the crowd shouted, “Coffee?” There were shouts of “Yeah!” and “Right.”
“We are renovating the bathrooms,” said Avril.
“Yeah,” added a man in a checked shirt, bitterly. “But these guys come first.”
“It means,” said Avril, firmly, “that we do not have to cut $70,000 from Dolores Park’s budget next year.”
“I would love to introduce myself,” said Caleb Zigas, director of La Cocina, one of two vendors given the permits.
Zigas explained their cart. “We’re a nonprofit program. We work with low-income immigrant entrepreneurs. Driven business owners. Women. Mothers. Forty vendors, all ostensibly competing with each other. We only chose two parks to go for, parks with admittedly the most financial opportunity. We’re trying to help these people get their businesses off the ground.”
Another woman, an executive director of a youth program in city, raised her hand to defend La Cocina’s permit. “My sense is that one of these businesses is related in giving back to community,” she said. “And the other feels more commercial. I could be wrong.”
“Well,” said Michael Hamm, who is at the meeting representing Blue Bottle (earlier he passed out an open letter from the owners of Blue Bottle to the Mission). “Since I seem to be alluded to….I have to say, this is a shock to us as a company.”
His defense: good benefits for his employees. “If people want to drive us out, we’re very happy to go,” he said, adding that he moved to Pearl Street four months ago.
“I sat in the park and saw ‘The Big Lebowski’ this Saturday behind about 8,000 people. I want to be that face that people recognize and interact with. So anyway. I know we can be intimidating as a company. I don’t know what it is — our aesthetic maybe?”
Another woman raised her hand. “It’s just that a lot of the people who made this park a destination, who built this community around the park — they were left out.”
“This is not our park,” said a woman in the back, who introduced herself as Jocelyn. “It’s in our neighborhood, but it belongs to the city. We’re free to go to other parks. But you sound so exclusionary. And the city is doing what it can — god, I sound like an apologist for the city, and I’m not — but they’re doing what they can to maintain this park. It’s not like they’re bringing in Quiznos.”
“You guys have been thrown under the bus,” said a bearded man near the front row to Zigas and Hamm. “I’m looking forward to working with you guys. I trust you more than than Park and Rec.”
Alright,” said Crystal Vann Wallstrom of Dolores Park Works, “is anyone interested in a trial run, since La Cocina has a cart that is all ready to go?”
A few hands went up.
“Anyone not interested?”
More hands went up.
“It seems like there are more nos than yeses,” said Vann Wallstrom, a volunteer with Dolores Park Works who has been trying to moderate the discussion, mostly futilely. She looked around awkwardly. No one said anything.
Finally, Zigas interrupted the silence. “It is hard to be in this situation. I don’t want to go into place where nobody wants us. It’s an exciting thing to be a part of a community. And it’s a disconcerting thing to be made not a part of a community. I feel like I’ve been through a lot of process to be here. More than I would go through with anyone else in my life.”
More silence. Then another woman in the crowd raised her hand. “But if it’s not you two, they’ll just pick up two others? They’ve decided. This is done. Two people in the park.”
There was more silence. Finally, a blonde woman in the front row spoke. “If you want your voice to go, as my grandmother used to say, from your mouth to God’s ears, go to the 4 p.m. Park and Rec Commission Meeting.”
“October 7. City Hall, Room 416,” added Vann Wallstrom.
Most of the crowd had gone; everyone who remained looked faintly shell-shocked.
“I’m still really excited about being in the community,” said Zigas.
Until the agenda for the October 7th Rec and Park meeting is released, it is uncertain whether Dolores Park or outreach for concessions will be specific items of discussion, though it is likely that some people from the neighborhood will mention the situation with Dolores Park during public comment. The current freeze on the food cart permits for Dolores Park was implemented by Phil Ginsburg rather than a Commission vote, and therefore can be lifted at any time. The agenda will be released here on Friday.
The minutes for the last Rec and Park meeting, in which numerous people, including Sam Mogannam of Bi Rite, make statements about the Food Carts during the Public Comment session. [PDF] (Much thanks to the reader who sent this in.)
Dolores Park Works is a nonprofit organization that has been trying to establish a consistent channel of communication between the community and Rec and Park. Their forum page is here.