The recent groundswell of grievances against Dolores Park food vendors appeared to die out Wednesday night, as deflated community members and local business owners came to terms with the idea that Oakland-based Blue Bottle coffee will soon be sold in their beloved public space.
About 25 community members, mostly opponents of the move, filled Dolores Park Cafe last night, nibbling Mission Mini cupcakes as they vented their frustrations over what they say was poor community outreach for an initiative that signifies the commercialization of the city’s parks.
Some were against allowing any commercial vendors in the park, while some specifically decried Blue Bottle’s permit, echoing previous arguments that it’s not quite local enough. The company’s aggressive expansion does not reflect the neighborhood, some argued. Others complained that the commission hadn’t taken into account nearby businesses that might face competition from vendors. And it wouldn’t have been a Dolores Park meeting without talk of trash.
By the end of the night, however, the fractured protesters failed to reach a consensus about their next steps, noting the daunting nature of the appeals and legislative processes that lay before them, and the permits granted to La Cocina and Blue Bottle seemed a foregone conclusion.
“I don’t want to commercialize the park, but I don’t know what to do now,” said writer Stephen Elliott. Elliott gained notoriety for his campaign to prevent the clothing retailer American Apparel from opening in the Mission in early 2009, and recently drew attention for launching a website protesting Blue Bottle’s trailer in the park.
On the site, he vowed to physically protest the trailer if it were allowed to open, but a much more conflicted Elliott said after the meeting Wednesday that he no longer intends to do so. “Blue Bottle isn’t American Apparel,” he said.
The parks department sparked a community uproar a month ago when residents discovered imminent plans to bring two vendors — La Cocina, a nonprofit incubator for local chefs, and Blue Bottle Coffee, an Oakland-based company with several San Francisco locations — into the park.
Though the process began last July, some neighbors said they didn’t hear about the plan to sell official food cart permits until after vendor contracts were nearly finalized a month ago.
The build-up over the past weeks has been intense in a Dolores Park kind of way, involving terse words, blog posts and open letters.
“The tone of the debate is deeply unpleasant to me,” said James Freeman, owner of Blue Bottle, who has borne the brunt of the controversy.
After getting an earful from disgruntled neighbors, the parks department revoked an additional third permit allotted to La Cocina, and put a temporary stay on all the permits to accommodate community meetings on the topic.
Neither Freeman nor a representative from the Recreation and Park Commission attended the meeting Wednesday, though Caleb Zigas, executive director of La Cocina, and representatives from Blue Bottle did come.
“In the last month and a half, our staff’s really put a concerted effort toward reaching out to the community regarding the whole process and reasoning behind park food vendors,” said Elton Pon, the department’s spokesman. “I would say all the concerns raised by the community are valid, and we’re a part of that community.”
Last Thursday, however, the Recreation and Park Commission moved on with business as usual, approving a final site for Blue Bottle’s 8-by-12-foot coffee trailer on 20th Street near the playground. Pon confirmed Wednesday that the department is ready to move forward as soon as the vendors are.
Not everyone is happy, and some politicians and candidates for office were at Wednesday’s meeting to find out why.
“Ginsburg has a pretty business-like approach to governance,” said District 6 Supervisor Chris Daly, referring to the parks department’s general manager.
Rafael Mandelman, a candidate for supervisor in District 8, and Kristine Enea, a candidate in District 10, agreed that park commercialization is an issue facing parks system-wide.
“This isn’t so much sour grapes at Rec & Parks,” noted Rachel Herbert, owner of Dolores Park Cafe, “but a city-wide precedent being set.” Herbert said she is concerned about commercialization without sufficient transparency.
Matthew Troy, co-owner of Faye’s Video, who has operated the cafe and video store on 18th Street for 13 years, said he was frustrated to hear the parks department say it had done outreach to neighboring businesses, because he had not heard anything about the vendors until weeks ago.
“There’s this idea that ‘We notified people,’” said Troy, “but it’s arbitrary what notification means.”
The vendors tapped to head up the revenue-generating program said they’re puzzled by the protests. “I heard about this through a public process. Nobody called me to tell me about this opportunity,” said Zigas. “Could they have done a better job? Yes. Could they have done a much worse job? Absolutely.”
Blue Bottle’s Freeman agreed. “I’ve been working on this for over a year, and it’s surprising to me that people wouldn’t know about it. I don’t know what the expectation of Rec & Parks is, like it’s supposed to go door to door.”
Both outfits have spent over $25,000 each on equipment to be used in the park — equipment that is now sitting in storage. Zigas was not certain as to whether La Cocina had the clearance to move forward, though he said they’re eager to move into the park as soon as possible.
Freeman said that with a few final tweaks, Blue Bottle could be ready to roll into the park in seven to ten days. But, he said, it will depend on the community. “If there’s a tidal wave of outrage and ugliness, it would be foolish of me not to take that into account. I don’t want my workers to face something unpleasant as part of their shift.”
Pon said that despite moving forward with La Cocina and Blue Bottle, the department is intent on evaluating the permits on a continuous basis. He reiterated that the permits are fully revocable with a 30-day notice. “This isn’t about commercializing the park. This isn’t about shoving anything down anyone’s throat. We’re not looking to put golden arches in every single neighborhood park.”
For now, Pon says, the department will just wait and see. “The public will determine whether or not this is successful. Blue Bottle will be there, and if they’re really dead set against it, they won’t purchase a cup of coffee.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was previously published without the mention of James Freeman or a representative from the Recreation and Parks Commission being absent from the meeting on Wednesday, and has since been updated to reflect that.