At the Dolores Park Meeting: Pick Your Poison

The park everybody loves not wisely, but too well. Photo courtesy of Telstar Logistics.

The park everybody loves not wisely, but too well. Photo courtesy of Telstar Logistics.

En Español.

“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.

Additional Resources:

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.

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29 Comments

  1. anon

    Let me get this straight. A majority of these “neighbors” would like to see the Dolores Park maintenance budget cut by 20%?

  2. cami brunjes

    man, these people are ridiculously self-centered. dolores park is for everyone. anyone can go there. it isn’t just for the neighborhood. i’ve lived in and out of that neighborhood over 15 years. and it was as much my park outing when i lived outside the hood as when i lived in it. these people fighting the food carts are small minded. it isn’t up to them, it is up to the people who go to the park. let them decide if they want the carts – by putting the carts out there. we’ll see how swamped they are on a nice sunny day.

  3. Frank

    As a SF resident I am hugely in favor of the city issuing more permits to ‘food carts’ as there commonly called. Some of the most novel and unique food I’ve enjoyed recently have come from the cart revolution that has slowly been building the past few years.
    It’s unfortunate that the Park and Rec budget was cut at all. That being said this sounds like a novel approach to recouping the lost funds.
    Most major cities such as New York, or Chicago have food carts all over, especially in their parks.

  4. me too

    I’m still unclear what the neighbors objections are to the park renovation….

  5. anon

    No one is building a McDonalds or a Casino in the park. Imagine a day like today. It’s hot and sunny and the and there is vendor selling iced tea, iced coffee or frozen lemonade. I see nothing wrong with that.

  6. NT

    No, the neighbors want this park to themselves even though we all pay for it. They own the park and thus can dictate to everyone else what gets done with the park and in the park – kind of like their own little kingdom where the minions do their bidding. And minions don’t deserve locally-owned, organic coffee.

  7. andy c

    the real head scratcher is that it costs $350,000 to mow a lawn in the first place

  8. WreckMyPark

    I’m sorry..but there’s an arrogance to Phil Ginsburg and crew that smacks of a holier than thou attitude. Perhaps the inclusion of a coffee cart in the park is the way to go, but not with the half assed presentation that was given. Maybe, if Ginsburg is so concerned about the maintenance costs associated with this and other parks and is seeking new sources of revenue, perhaps then he should looks at his present overbloated mangement structure, before he tells you how it is moneywise.

  9. marco

    Too many cooks…

  10. Anono

    To help straighten, most of us are tired of scare tactics, i.e. we don’t like being told we must give up the public space to a commercial establishment, or we can’t have a restrooms

    We also don’t think that privatization of parks will save them for us.

    Also, we don’t think that a box trailer is going to look good in the park.

  11. Mak

    Anon, actually no. Had you taken the the time out to be a part of an open meeting yesterday you would have gotten the concerns. That would have been too easy. This topic and its biased haters is spent

  12. Commonsense

    WOW! People can be such idiots. You grow up/move in front of a park and treat it like your front yard. Those are the kind of folks that make normal people sick.

  13. dj

    So Parks and Recs thinks these carts are going to sell in excess of $600,000 worth of food and coffee? If they get 12.5% thats what it works out to. Thinking that is a lot of sales for a place that only has people in it during the summer and fall months.

  14. Against

    I’m against a trailer in the park.

    Push carts sound okay.

    The vote went against the trailers.

  15. GodBuilt

    They want to put TWO carts in Delores park, and most people are upset about it? Jesus H, what a bunch of morons.

  16. double d

    dj: that’s just under an average $800 in sales per day for each vendor. An ambitious but not impossible number. And it has people in it year-round, though certainly less on rainy days. But my dog still needs to visit. :)

  17. ooeygooey

    I would guess that it’s NOT neighbors of the park that are against the carts, but park users or “park lovers.” The neighbors are the ones who worry more about bathrooms than vendors. The neighbors just want the trash and barf and pee taken care of.

  18. David

    I have a home on the park. So why am I just hearing about this? This is what bothers me the most: I have NEVER been contacted to be a part of the decisions happening in my front yard. But I am the one who has to pick up excess trash after an event or call to have an injured homeless guy taken to the hospital or step in your dog’s poop or listen to crappy, miked music for hours. I am not asked to input on the impact of construction in the park or whether we might privatize the work done there (where the HELL are they spending that $350K? Who’s keeping track of the tradeoffs?) I love the park and I am happy to see it used; but whether it’s a construction time table, new tennis courts, bathrooms planning or vendors (trailers? seriously?) I want to have some say. It’s definitely a city property and the city has been doing better in recent years-but I want to review the plans and I want money going directly to Dolores park from vendors, not the general fund. I want to see concerns like security, bathrooms, excess trash and the like discussed and resolved. Some of you get to go back to wherever you live or stay. I have to deal with the aftermath—In My Front Yard!

  19. pgaudet

    Just more proof of the continuation of the Disneyland effect of San Francisco. This park used to be a veritable garden at one time; it has been totally destroyed by the use and abuse of the park by wannabes from the entire Bay Area. Welcome to San Francisco-Land!! For the people that complain that locals are “morons” because we don’t want TWO FOOD TRUCKS in DOLORES PARK…it is DOLORES, not Delores!!

  20. vides

    I think the point is HOW the contracting was done, or better still, that it was done at all. Suddenly there was going to be concessions in the park when after years of discussion with no mention of such a thing at all, and, excluding local merchants of at least the opportunity, and, deliberately, that’s right, deliberately, excluding community input while hand-picking the chosen vendors. Smacks of graft/corruption/cronyism whether true or not.

  21. Jones

    David – the city doesn’t “contact” people to let them know a food cart will be opening near them. Would you like to be notified of every other city project that happened near you and be flooded with notices for traffic sign replacement, electrical repairs, and road renovation?

    Do what the proactive citizens in the article did and go to the meetings held by the city. I disagree with some of their views but admire their action – be proactive and educate yourself! You can’t teleconference in, either. Sorry.

  22. Jones

    Also, it’s not your front yard – it’s everyone’s park. And you CAN have a say – go to the meeting! I bet even the truffle man goes.

  23. randolph mortimer

    welcome to San Francisco.

    good luck getting anywhere with anything ever.

  24. GHolman

    I’m wondering why you would sell food and drinks without providing restrooms.

  25. The commercial trucks in park lost the vote.

    They are not carts, they are trailer trucks.
    They lost in the vote.
    What happens if after losing the vote, they food trucks show up anyway. Probably people will get used to them,

  26. M88

    Hey Jones, if you knew history and law than you would know that yes, historically people and businesses in a neighborhood are notified to public changes in public areas. It does not only affect specific locations but also can change the landscape of a neighborhood. Two Carts? They are enormous trailers with generators. Basically tiny cafes generating 10k + a month practically for free. Another neighborhood touted to become downgraded by greed

  27. park lover

    All you folks who say that the neighbors just want Dolores Park to themselves don’t know what you’re talking about. We just want the park to be respected and the morons who behave as if they can just come, have fun, trash the place, and leave, to get with the program: it’s called LEAVE NO TRACE.

    Also, my issue with vendors is two fold: commercialization of the park, and TRASH. Even tho the vendors are “required” to keep a 100 foot radius around them free of litter, Rec&Park has such an abysmal record of enforcing park codes and event permits, that I have absolutely no confidence that they will hold the vendor to their contractual obligation, and I certainly have no confidence in all those supposed “parklovers” who leave all their shit behind.

  28. Tragedy of the Commons

    Why do people always act like there is some big conspiracy everytime city/state/federal government does anything. Its two trial permits for food vendors to help cover a budget shortfall…for crying out loud! If ya’ll “love the park” so much, why not organize a “friends of dolores park” volunteer group and work with the city to keep the park beautiful…do some fundraising, planting, painting, etc…

    Thank you Park & Rec for trying to patch budget shortfalls during this slump. Please keep trying!

  29. nhr

    Why is no one talking about the fact that there is not a snowball’s chance in hell that they will clear $70,000 in revenue share from a La Cocina or Blue Bottle food cart. This is based on 10% of revenues. So Blue Bottle will make $350,000 a year in sales at Dolores Park next year? That means selling an average of 500 cups of coffee every single day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year….Its absurd…

    FYI – Last meeting they said $60,000 PER CART (ie implying each cart would be clearing $600,000 a year)…Clearly no one is running the numbers.

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