Photo by Michael Patrick.

The meeting at 6:30 pm on Monday in the wood-paneled rec room of Dolores Park Church, was meant to discuss the proposed design changes to the park for its upcoming renovations — the irrigation, the playground, the bathrooms, the tennis courts, the basketball court, the pedestrian bridge, the soccer field, the lighting.

The crowd of 60-odd attendees were exhorted to fill a survey about how they used the park. (Park uses that one can check off include: picnicking, mediation, tai chi.)

And yet, the question that Jake Gilchrist, the project manager,  keeps getting asked as attendees continue to trickle in is: are you going to close the park for two years? No, says Gilchrist. No no and no.

“I am going to make a t-shirt,” says Gilchrist. “It will say. ‘We are NOT closing Dolores Park for Two Years.’ And then I am going to wear it everywhere.”

Originally, Dolores Park was going to be closed down entirely for at least a year and a half. The resulting groundswell of public protest was a sign of what ordinary Mission residents can accomplish together  —  at least when someone threatens to take Dolores Park away. The plans were changed: the park will be closed off sequentially.

“You couldn’t close that park for two years,” says Gilchrist, wearily.  “There’s no fence high enough. You’d have to put a dome over it. We are not going to put a dome over it. Any questions?”

A woman raises her hand. “Why is there no recycling in Dolores Park? It would be nice if you could get a plan together for more trash collection. And extra port-a-potties.”

“This is about the park’s renovation,” says Gilchrist. “I can’t spend money on temporary things like port-a-potties.”

“We’re going to be going with the port-a-potties through November, when the rainy season starts,” adds Eric Anderson, the operations manager for Dolores Park. “And the trash is something we’ve been focused on. Right now, all the gardeners are doing is picking up trash.”

Nick Kinsey, associate director of concessions for the city park system, adds, “The vendors going into Dolores Park will be responsible not only for their own trash, but for any trash within a hundred feet of their cart. La Cocina will be appearing in the park. As will Blue Bottle Coffee. We’re really excited.”

A hand goes up. “Why,” says Rob Lord, of the Dolores Park Works steering committee. “Would you want to commercialize the park when it is already located in a gourmet ghetto?

“We need the money,” says Kinsey.

“We have a $12.1 million deficit,” interjects Gilchrist. “The carts will pay about 10 to 12% of their gross revenues to us in rent.”  He calculates that will mean $60,000-$70,000 per year. Permits will bring in another $12000.

“But the money isn’t going to go directly into Dolores Park,” says Lord, in the ominous tone of a courtroom lawyer moving in on a cross-examined suspect. “It’s going into the whole parks budget. If we’re going to exploit our park, it’s reasonable to expect that those funds be used to help our park.”

“Per square foot,” says Gilchrist, “Dolores Park is one of the most expensive parks in the city to maintain.”

At which point the floodgates open. The crowd begins shouting about how more people use Dolores Park than any park in the city — Golden Gate Park even — and how therefore Dolores Park is a bargain, per capita.

“It is very upsetting,” says a man in windbreaker and a baseball hat, “to have our neighborhood park lumped in with international pieces of real estate like Justin Herman Plaza. There are no coffee carts on Corona Heights.”

“I’m actually in favor of commercializing the park if it means I don’t have to walk across that crazy intersection at 19th street  to get a cup of coffee,” says Alex Chaffee, amid cries of “Oh come on,” “You look like a grownup to me,” and counter-shouts of “Let the man speak!”

It’s about an hour into the meeting before the they move to the agenda item — the plans for the park renovation. Peter Lewis of the Mission Dolores Neighborhood Association requests that City Rec and Park hire a licensed preservation architect to renovate the clubhouse.

“It’s okay if you add onto the building,” he says. “Just don’t take away its historic nature.” Andrew Galvin, the curator of the Mission Dolores, adds that he sends the 30,000 school children who visit the Mission Dolores every year over to the park, and asks for “more bathrooms, more archeology, and some signage that documents the Jewish cemetery that used to be in the park, and the Ohlone village that was there before that.

“Dolores Park was the largest village in San Francisco,” he says. “60 people. Nobody wanted to live here then. It was covered in fog and there weren’t any trees. Just little shrubs.”

And then, quickly enough, discussion shifts to the dog areas. “What is this dog area on the map?” says a voice from the crowd. “We don’t want dogs to go here. Dogs don’t want to go here.

“These are the areas the Commission approved for dog play in 2005,” says Gilchrist. “They’ve just never been implemented.”

“But no one wants to walk a dog on Dolores Beach,” the voice continues, plaintively.

“Two things are ringing alarm bells for me,” says Alex Chaffee. “On this plan, you have marked exercise stations and a perimeter path for joggers. Everybody agrees the park is awesome now. The improvements don’t necessarily mean it will be better. I’m worried there’s no special advocacy group for less stuff.”  He sits down to cheers and cries of “Leave the park the way it is!”

A blond woman near the front row stands up. She clears her throat dramatically. “I live very close to the park and when I walk my dog, I see them all the time. Four feet and a tail. At the edge of the tennis courts – those two bushes. If you see them moving, it’s not cause there’s a person in there. Rats! They will stand up and do their little deal atcha. They’re starting to get together these really intricate hunts. They come out! And take big hunks of bread…”

“I’ve seen the Secret of NIMH,” says Gilchrist.”I get the idea.” The crowd begins to erupt with rat stories, but Gilchrist cuts them off. “We don’t have much time left,” he says,”  It’s clear that you guys really know your park. You really love your park.You’re all so invested in this neighborhood. I’m not this invested in my neighborhood. And you only have a few hours before Ike’s closes. And so, we only have time for a few more questions.

A man in the back raises his hand. “Are you really,” he says, “going to be shutting down the park for two years?”

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Heather Smith covers a beat that spans health, food, and the environment, as well as shootings, stabbings, various small fires, and shouting matches at public meetings. She is a 2007 Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism and a contributor to the book Infinite City.

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  1. This is an awesome example of why you can’t open up planning decisions like these to a room full of people who love to hear their own voice.

  2. Umm, $600,000-$700,000 a year from a roll-up food cart? What crack is Gilchrist smoking. Those carts don’t even gross $30,000 a year at present and they’re already out there every single day of the week….

  3. thanks for the write up. helpful and interesting.

    and could we have just one comment string, about anything at all, that doesn’t include the standard “racism!” cry. blaming everything on racism demeans the seriousness of that charge.


  4. I’m an infrequent visitor to the bay area, but the Mission is my favorite spot to spend time when I’m in town. I totally understand those who do not want to see their park commercialized or ruined by too much progress. Note – just because someone rents, it doesn’t follow that they don’t pay taxes. Taxes are paid indirectly to the lessors.

  5. Boy! Folks get kinda personal in these comments. Glad to see you can take the heat. There is something thrilling about this kind of democracy in action. Good article.

  6. Nope, Randolph, I’m not the non-blond…I mean, I AM a non-blond, just not the one in question. Do I get the $5?

    Also, Annie? We all pay taxes in San Francisco. The residents near the park (of which I am one) do not pay taxes “in this area so everyone can enjoy the park.” Tax money for park maintenance is not distributed by zip code.

  7. I think I was at a completely different meeting as well. It was definitely heated but not so dramatic as described. This must have been the tall skinny reporter sitting in the back of the room more concerned if her hipster hair looked good rather that gathering specific information. I think you obviously left out almost every single resident was upset about their being no community outreach regarding vendors, specifically blue bottle which dominated the meeting. These are residents that pay taxes in this area so everyone can enjoy the park. I applaud them for speaking their mind. Rats and all!

    1. Hello, all. The meeting covered so many topics that it felt impossible to fit them all into a clear, concise article (people also had a lot to say about trash, and acoustics, and getting rid of those green shipping containers, and a number of other topics). The issue of community outreach RE the food vendors was indeed mentioned at the meeting, and I felt that it needed to be followed up and reported on in its own story, since to do it properly a reporter would need to contact the owner of Dolores Park Cafe, and other coffee-sellers near the park. My apologies for accidentally emblonding the teller of rat anecdotes – she was a fantastic speaker, and told a great story.

  8. Man, was that meeting WHITE.

    Things changing the Dolores Park experience? Demographics. Now that the pesky Latinos have been priced/forced out of the ‘hood, we should get rid of the soccer field, no?

    If you can’t afford to own your own home in the neighborhood, we’d rather you didn’t invade OUR park. Renters are such declasse nuisances, aren’t they?

    Oh, and the woman who spoke about the rats was neither blond, nor did she stand, or clear her throat dramatically. But thanks for the touch of melodrama.

  9. Thanks for the timely and detailed local reporting.
    Jake Gilchrist had some good answers, and has my support. Love the park now, but both the playground area and the irrigation could definitely use a redesign.