So, the ferris wheel. The Golden Gate Park ferris wheel. The goddamn Golden Gate Park ferris wheel.
A town where, in the midst of a human and fiscal calamity, so much time and energy is expended and scenery is chewed regarding a ride in a park appears to have transcended the bounds of self-parody.
So, that sounds normal enough for San Francisco.
But then Drew Becher, CEO of the San Francisco Parks Alliance, penned a letter to Supervisor Connie Chan. And, just like that, we transcended the bounds of transcending the bounds.
Punishing constituents to exact political vengeance or demand fealty from a political leader is nothing new. But you’re not supposed to do it in writing. Or, when called on it, confirm it to the newspaper of record.
But that’s what happened.
“We have always enjoyed and, more importantly, relied upon the partnership of the District Supervisor as we invest in playgrounds and open spaces in our city. Without that leadership and support, our efforts would be far more challenging,” wrote Becher, whose nonprofit, among other activities, raises funds for Recreation and Parks Department projects.
Chan represents the Richmond District, and once worked for the Parks Department. She has called for scrutiny and investigation of the Parks Alliance in the wake of the (sigh) l’affaire de ferris wheel, a 150-foot-tall, diesel-powered concession planted in the midst of Golden Gate Park — which was, controversially, given a four-year extension earlier this month in the wake of covid inactivity.
Regardless of what you might think about the $18-a-pop price tag for a private business operating on public land, or its gas-burning generator, or the aesthetic desires of bewhiskered white men who’ve been dead for the better part of a century, there are good reasons to view this ferris wheel as something more than a bit of whimsy in a whimsy-starved city.
And that’s because The Parks Alliance — and, intriguingly, not the city — derives money from the “SkyStar” deal. Yes, the very same Parks Alliance that served as a repository for nearly $1 million in Mohammed Nuru Recology slush fund money.
So there are pertinent questions to ask about this setup, which is now slated to run through mid-decade.
But not if you want a kiddie playground in your district to be renovated.
“Please confirm in writing whether or not you would like us to continue supporting the Richmond Playground,” wrote Becher to Chan. “If we do not hear from you, we will assume that we no longer have your support and will suspend our work until your concerns have been fully addressed.”
Nice playground you got here. Be a shame if something happened to it.
San Francisco is, again, an unsubtle and oft-parodic place. But Becher appears to be setting new standards here: In paragraph two of his letter to Chan, he bemoans accusations of “pay-to-play politics;” in paragraph four, he informs the elected supervisor that, absent her written supplication, the Richmond District’s children will get no playground.
That’s a SkyStar-sized level of chutzpah.
Let us assume that riding ferris wheels is fun.
The popular framing of arguments regarding the ferris wheel in the park was a simple pitched battle between “fun” and “not fun” — a reductive setup akin to claiming Animal Farm is a treatise about animals and farming.
There are, to be certain, people who have visceral reactions to “fun” installations within the faux-pastoral settings of Golden Gate Park. While the Golden Gate Park Master Plan still ostensibly adheres to the vision of William Hammond Hall, the park’s first superintendent, strict observance of his wishes would preclude the activities that draw around 19 of every 20 visitors to the park.
Hall wouldn’t have been thrilled with a ferris wheel. But he wouldn’t have been thrilled with ballfields or music festivals either. Erstwhile Park Board President William Stow once argued that a museum “doesn’t belong in a park.” Millions of subsequent park-goers would tell him he’s wrong, as would the man he was arguing with at the time — M.H. de Young.
Golden Gate Park is a wholly artificial creation; it’s an ersatz East Coast landscape painstakingly grafted atop a series of West Coast sand dunes. And there have been plenty of bawdy attractions here in the past: A race track, a hall of taxidermied former park creatures and even a casino.
So, it’s easily possible to not give a good Goddamn about what Hall or Stow or John McLaren or anyone else would’ve wanted for Golden Gate Park, yet still have misgivings about this ferris wheel.
And that’s due to the aforementioned deal underpinning this arrangement.
Wealthy people have been donating money to parks for as long as there have been wealthy people and parks.
Doug Goldman’s family has operated the Stern Grove Festival for generations, and he was the major benefactor behind the recently completed tennis center bearing his family name in Golden Gate Park. But this is a very traditional form of philanthropy; Goldman isn’t making a buck for every concert-goer shaded under a tree or tennis match played.
But that’s the setup with the Parks Alliance and the ferris wheel. And the overriding issue here is: Money that could have flowed to the city is now flowing into this private entity.
It is unusual for a city department to establish a deal in which a for-profit corporation erects a for-profit business on city land, and money passes not to the city department issuing the permits but to a third party. And this raises interesting questions about control and flow of funds: As the controller’s office put it in a September audit of the Parks Alliance in the wake of the Nuru scandal, funds in nonprofit “friends-of” organizations “operate like a city account without city oversight.”
As such, by establishing a deal with a nonprofit instead of the city itself, a city department can sidestep all manners of oversight and restrictions the city imposes on itself — such as paying prevailing wage or not doing business with restricted entities.
But a private outfit also can spend money in ways a public one cannot. If, say, the Parks Alliance wanted to host a party for large-scale private donors to Rec and Park — that wouldn’t be a problem. The Alliance’s 2018 tax forms, in fact, reveal it spent some $263,000 on “food and beverages.” Well, that’s a party to rival Nuru’s finest!
And if, say, the Parks Alliance earlier put down non-refundable deposits or incurred other costs due to the nixed celebrations for Golden Gate Park’s big 1-5-0: Well, now it has a years-long revenue stream.
Finally, the notion that the Parks Alliance can do business and spend money in ways the city can’t is especially problematic considering that, as aspirational Rec and Park Department business partners told us, they were unsubtly encouraged to donate to the Parks Alliance by Rec and Park personnel, up to and including director Phil Ginsburg.
Our direct question about this to the department was answered indirectly: “We encourage fundraising for our projects, like the playgrounds campaign.”
No doubt. But that’s not the nature of what was described to us: The would-be business partners said that they were leaned on to make big donations to the Parks Alliance — donations not included in any contracts.
Asking entities with business before you to donate to your adjunct nonprofit sounds a bit like what Nuru was accused of.
It also sounds a bit like an offer that can’t be refused.
“What am I supposed to do?” asked one aggrieved would-be partner. “My sphincter was tight.”
The offer was not refused.
Supervisor Connie Chan and Aaron Peskin’s attempt to break the wheel at the Board of Supervisors level involved a rather talmudic parsing of just what constitutes “temporary,” a “structure” and a “temporary structure.”
This attempt was unsuccessful. And, you know, not every solution to every problem should involve having the Board vote on more stuff — nor require plumbing about the catacombs of the City Charter to unearth semantic relics.
But it’s also hardly a solution to reductively break every city dispute down into Manichean extremes (“Fun!” “Not fun!”). It’s hardly a solution, after a years-long, mushrooming corruption scandal, to shrug off so many red flags and simply note that ferris wheels are fun.
Five San Francisco department-head-level bosses have been driven from office in the year and change since Nuru was arrested. The revelations have laid bare this city’s clubby culture of casual corruption — and it has been lost on no one that it was the feds who got this ball rolling.
Are San Franciscans inured to corruption? Perhaps. But perhaps we were just distracted by yet another shiny object.
And, perhaps those who opted to view the ferris wheel merely as a culture war object have not experienced the consequences of city corruption.
Certainly not the bad consequences.