Opponents say that Blue Bottle's coffee trailer will add even more traffic to an already crowded Dolores Park. Photo by Gregory Thomas.

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.

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  1. People, food carts are temporary. Get over it.

    Pluse the revenue that the RPD would generate could possibly help pay for upkeep of our parks as there is minimal money now for it. Or you eff’ing hipsters could start picking up your own cigarette butts and trash?

  2. If we continue to let public space get privatized, San Francisco is going to end up looking like one giant Fisherman’s Wharf. Or a citywide open-air shopping mall. The suburbanization of what once was a proud working class town (long live the ’34 General Strike!).

    Ginsburg’s a businessman and wants his cut. That’s why the commercialization gets the fast-track, without transparency or public comments and against the public will.

    Yeah, the Arboretum is now the private Blue Blood Country Club for Michael McKechnie’s rich friends from Hillsborough and Marin.


  3. Ginsburg and RPD suppressed public comment on the Arboretum privatization. Now, the place is practically empty; even residents don’t come!

  4. Kristine, Dolores Park is not “losing a few hundred square feet of public space”. There will be 2 carts during the day on ground that’s already paved. I suppose technically if you multiply 8’x12′ by 2, you get about 200 square feet (192 to be exact, which is *almost* hundreds) but saying hundreds of anything makes it sound extra scary.

    I agree with the rest of your comment, about the importance of outreach and communication and community involvement and all that. I was one of the first to say “Whoa” when I heard about the impending fait accompli in September. RPD has a brand new web site — which they announced and demoed with much self-congratulation at the 9/16 Rec and Park commission meeting, the same one where a dozen people got up and told them they sucked at outreach — which has lots of pretty pictures but no blog or twitter feed. Irony, thy name is Bureaucrat. (BTW i grabbed the SFGTV video from that meeting at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_eHrWm1Op0U and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k06YNsqFlaQ if you want to cringe a little.)

    But we have now had 6+ weeks of information, misinformation, recrimination, name-calling, and (groan!) public meetings to wrap our communal head around this issue, and I think that’s all we’re going to get. Maybe next time we can have that sane, reasonable, healthy conversation you were talking about, but this time, chalk up another round for the outraged utopians vs. the clueless bureaucrats.

  5. Kristine, Dolores Park is not “losing a few hundred square feet of public space”. There’s going to be 2 carts during the day on ground that was already paved. Where did you get that number? By multiplying 8’x12′ by 2? I guess technically that does add up to more than 100 square feet (192 to be exact) but it sounds kind of scary when you say hundreds of anything.

    And what do you mean by “letting private clubs operate our public park clubhouses”? That’s not happening in Dolores Park, is it? (The clubhouse there, btw, hasn’t been available for public use for a long time now anyway.) Is that some different RPD plan we should know about?

    I agree with the rest of your comment, about how transparency and outreach are important, and how there are tradeoffs between public space and revenue and all that. I was one of the first to call “whoa” when I first heard about these carts, and I’m astounded at how bad RPD is at communicating. Their brand new web site, unveiled with much self-congratulation at the same meeting where a dozen people told them how they failed at outreach about these licenses, has pretty pictures but no blog or twitter feed.

    But at this point we as a community have had 6+ weeks full of information, misinformation, recrimination, name-calling, and (groan!) public meetings around these 2 vendor licenses — in addition to the year-and-a-half of poor but hardly secret communication during the application process. Maybe next time we can have that sane, reasonable conversation you’re talking about, but this time around, chalk another one up to the outraged utopians vs. the clueless bureaucrats.

  6. Vendors help keep Dolores Park awesome. Personally, I’m glad it looks like we’re going to get some responsible vendors in spite of the recent huffing and puffing by the cranky artist crowd.

    Here’s a Facebook Page I made in celebration of the fun vendor culture in the park:


    and here’s a corresponding Facebook Group because FB is totally confusing:


  7. I agree with Kristine; mostly this reflects the general fiscal crisis of the public sphere, the point being that there will be “no good solutions” to dilemmas such as these until the root problem is dealt with. This isn’t a long range problem that we have to deal with incrementally, this is a problem that has to be solved immediately — because the default solution is commercializing the parks, cutting back or closing schools, MUNI and other public services. It is now clear that Proposition 13 has become a noose around California. If that isn’t repealed, or even significantly modified, in the next couple years, you might as well order a taco and a cappuccino, kick back and enjoy the sunset.

  8. It’s no accident that RecPark chose Blue Bottle – great coffee, great vibe, they treat their employees well. Of course they’re nothing like McDonald’s. But that’s not the point. The point is that public assets should be used for public purposes, not as profit centers. A non-profit that incubates local chefs serves a public purpose. A for-profit company doesn’t, no matter how socially responsible they are. If we allow a for-profit company to encroach on our park space for the sole purpose of raising revenue for RecPark, when do we stop? How much space is enough? How much revenue is enough? Where do we draw the line between companies we like and companies we don’t?

    The profitization of public assets all over this city and country is a serious issue that deserves serious discussion. While Dolores Park is losing a few hundred square feet of public space, Candlestick State Park in Bayview lost 23 acres to condo development. Eminent domain court rulings across the country are allowing governments to force the sale of one persons’s private property to another for the “public purpose” of raising tax revenue – and in New York State, the courts can no longer say anything about it. Back on a local level, we’re talking about letting private clubs operate our public park clubhouses, which means they’ll no longer be available for free public use. This is a big decision, worthy of lengthy discussion and careful thought.

    I personally think something is broken here, that the word “public” needs to mean something, and that borrowing money to provide basic services like fixing potholes and operating parks means our budget system is broken. But maybe I’m wrong. So let’s talk it through. And let’s do so before the next decision like this gets made. Let’s require City agencies to follow the same kind of notice provisions as someone who wants to change the shape of their windows or add a garage under their house.

    Most of the discussion at Dolores Park Cafe should have happened before the Blue Bottle and La Cocina permits were granted, and it’s the City’s fault that it didn’t. We’re at the heart of all kinds of technical innovation – there are all kinds of ways to make sure everyone affected gets notified and that everyone gets their say before we make important decisions.

    Public meetings are unwieldy and often unpleasant, but some of the best ideas come from the community. We’re the people who have to live with these decisions, after all. So let’s commit to true public process, and put this father-knows-best style of governance to rest.

    Your friend from D10,

  9. Hi Mary, I was at the meeting. Can you tell me what seems inaccurate and ill-informed? Did you feel like there was a consensus reached at the end of it?

  10. Were we at the same meeting? This article seems incredibly inaccurate and ill informed. As the media goes…..

  11. Claricication: Caleb from La Cocina was invited via email from the city to be a vendor as he stated at the meeting. As well, James Freeman does not know the concerns because he has never shown up for a meeting selecting to communicate via publicists and media. Reading blogs and comments does not speak for everyone’s concerns and if he actually took the time out people may be more inviting. Who knows. Parks should be kept green and there is room for everyone through retail stores all over the mission and Dolores Park. We have too few green spaces as it is. Go ahead and trash me, I know its coming!