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. 

The Firth Wheel at the California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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.  

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Joe Eskenazi

Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. “Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior...

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35 Comments

  1. I’m grateful that there is at least one publication in San Francisco that tries to address corruption in the City. The Chron lost any investigative journalism when Andy Ross retired. Now they have Willie Brown as a guest commentator in something of a fox guarding the henhouse situation.

    Keep fighting the good fight Joe.

  2. The graft doesn’t surprise me. Another thing I would love the supervisors to look into would be recreation and parks relationship with the producers of outside lands. The latter have gotten everything they wanted, and more. All while giving lip service to the real concerns of neighbors that have to endure and entire weekend of bass waves permeating their living rooms and bedrooms, as well as the cost of monitoring the festival. In addition, the water has ever been Done to see how much damage is done to the park, it’s flora and fauna.

    1. Sold out Ginsburg panderer Sandra Lee Fewer called Golden Gate Park a “venue” at a meeting about the OL noise.

      It is awful what Ginsburg has done to our parks! And PA!

  3. As the Controller’s report laid out, the “friends of” organizations and the manner they operate is no secret. Every SF official has long known of them and their ability, through money, to burnish or tarnish public opinion of City officials and departments. And that’s in addition to socially prominent(wealthy) individuals who head commissions(art commission: “Early Days”/Maya Angelou statue) and nonprofits/charities(Joy Bianchi, Dede Wilsey) that serve officials’ interests as well.

    To believe that Aaron Peskin was unaware(Gambling in Rick’s casino?) of the many petit and grande corruptions, you’ve also have to believe butter doesn’t melt in his mouth. He wasn’t concerned until the Feds cut the cheese, spoiling beloved conduits for political persuasion. So now he’s “out in front” of the issue, coat tailing on the Feds. It’s pure political theater, a sop until the heat dies down and wealthy people can be comfortable in their opaque political influence.

    As for the ferris wheel Joe, at least get the facts correct. The ticket cost for SF residents is $15.30 for adults and $10.20 for seniors/children. Pretty much in line with other ephemeral SF amusements. And according to City staff, the Parks Alliance’s share of the City’s $1 per ticket “fee” is limited to $200,000. The same as the original contract(pre-Fed) that Peskin had no concerns with(business as usual). All “fees” exceeding that go to the City’s general fund.

    Personally, my only question is why 4 years of extension? Looking at the on-line contract there is a date conflict. In the overview summary the extension is for two years while in the detailed provisions it’s four. Clearly there was a negotiation. I wonder what were the negotiation issues were and what was being “made whole”?

    1. Sir —

      Parsing the difference between $15.30 for residents or $18 for the tourists is splitting hairs. It’d cost $65 to put a family of five San Franciscans on a 15-minute ride. A ride held on public land subsidized by San Franciscans.

      As for the “cap,” that hasn’t been officially ratified by the Rec and Park Commission yet and that “cap” didn’t materialize until the supes began agitating.

      JE

        1. Rosh — 

          The Internet is a mixed blessing, but you can find both on there.

          Best,

          JE

          1. Great piece, Joe,

            You’re clearly too tall for this league but we’re glad you’re here.

            Reading where Taibbi had expanded his marketing to Sub Stack.

            You there?

            Gem favorite in this one …

            “plumbing about the catacombs of the City Charter to unearth semantic relics”

            Not many come close to your level.

            That line’s gotta work somehow as a stepchild to a Haiku and something Alliterative.

            Ahhh, if Golden Gate Park could talk, what would it say about you?

            Hell, that’s good theme for a column.

            I love being retired and telling others what to do.

            Go Giants!

            h.

      1. Thanks j.e astounding amount of corruption in S.F great article. Guess there is a lot more to peel back on this onion

      2. First Joe, your math is wrong on your family of five with three kids. But a single mother with three kids and their senior grandmother would pay $56. Each child’s ticket is about one day’s worth of their child tax credit. What would it cost them to see a movie or eat at a beloved locally owned Mission district eatery? If the mom believes the kids will have a better, more memorable experience the family can tour the botanical garden or DeYoung tower without admission. My money’s on her choosing the wheel, and then the free stuff.

        1. Hey, genius:

          I went on the SkyStar website and calculated it myself. There are fees and whatnot.

          I’ll wait until the observation deck is open. And the kids can play in the DeYoungsters room below. All free.

          You can go pay twice and make up for me.

          Best,

          JE

      3. See my links below. You miss the fundamental point that the park is not an amusement park!

  4. The main problem here is that of all the things these two supervisor could be doing, of all the corruption that the city has including the massive corruption at the building department, and of all the troubles on our streets including skyrocketing crime.. They decide to focus on a ferris wheel that is going to be taken down 100%. The only question is extending it for another 4 years… And that question in the midst of a pandemic where people have been suffering, and this one little hope of actually getting out on a ride to view the rubble of the city is the biggest problem that Chan and pest can have. That is 100% how we the people of San Francisco view this.

    They tried saying it was a danger to the birds, then they tried finding obscure city charters, and now they are trying to tie it into the corruption. The only thing they’re not doing is their real job!

  5. great article, Joe. When are you going to peel back the incredible fraud and corruption in SF with respect to the empty hotels and the millions given these corrupt businesses during the pandemic?

  6. If the Parks Alliance is corrupt, shouldn’t Chan be pushing Parks and Rec to reject the contribution to the Richmond Playground instead of characterizing the exchange as blackmail?

  7. This is more evidence that if you can’t replace the corruption the best way to stop it is to stop feeding the beast. No more tax increases until the this mess is sorted out. No one trust City Hall with the funds so cut them off at the ballot box.

    1. Starving the beast until the parasites fall off is different from starving the beast to reduce it in size so that it might be drowned in a bath tub.

      None of these supes are taking the corruption prosecutions clearly, probably because each knows that there is enough evidence out there to prove them hypocrites.

    2. Totally agree.
      We will (in theory) have a smaller budget 2021-2022 fiscal year.
      Only 12.6 Billion (poor us) resulting in a (theoretically) huge budget deficit.
      The sky is falling and new taxes will be on the next ballot – for the children and schools and parks and homeless and fire fighters and earthquake safety and water and Muni and all the other buzz categories of “we need the money now or else” issues that appear on those insufferable voter guides.
      But look at it from a common sense perspective – 12.6 Billion for a city with less than 900,000 residents.
      It seems throughout the years as the budget numbers get more and more astronomical – The City becomes less and less livable.
      Is there a correlation?
      More theory (fact?) – The City has too much money and no idea how to spend it wisely.

      Here is tax idea that will never see the light of day:
      For the month of July or August – San Francisco declares a suspension of our 2.5% sales tax and launches an aggressively marketed Buy San Francisco campaign.
      Think of the boost all our businesses will get in addition to a brief tax holiday for our citizens.
      Yeah – there’s still the 6% state sales tax but hey – it’s all in the marketing.
      Businesses may be incentivized to further discount goods and services to really kick out the jams and go for a big revenue/gross sales month to get everybody going.

      Imagine if one of our esteemed Supervisors proposed such a capitalist thing.
      It would be amusing to see all the reasons why we couldn’t do this.
      More fun than a ferris wheel.

  8. I wonder if the City of SF is getting back the cost of cleaning and maintaining the areas around the wheel that I am pretty sure get trampled by the people going to the ferris wheel. Something, Nothing?

    1. I stop by this area often on my weekend bike rides through GGP and have never seen litter or damage to the surrounding area from pedestrians. There are lots of trash cans around because of the food trucks and people are for the most part well behaved from what I’ve seen. Haven’t noticed anyone in high visibility jackets picking up after anyone so I wouldn’t really consider that an issue.

  9. It seems entirely fair to me to not fund things a politicians wants if that very same politician tries to screw you over. No problem with that at all.

  10. Another private entity sucking off a City Department is the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library. High salaries, private influence on Library programming, unaccountable income and expenses, with tax filings the only records available to the public… Even gifts meant for the Library are directed to the Friends, not to the City Department. It was the Friends of the Library that engineered the moving of the Main Library from its original building to this new structure across the street with limited open-shelf space for the public in which it now is housed.

  11. Thanks Joe for shinning a light on more corruption within the city..
    Not one mention by other media outlets, speaks volumes

  12. Joe – The Parks Alliance CEO’s letter statement that caught my eye was, “We have done nothing wrong and are therefore confident that we will come out with a clean bill of health following any city investigation.” Unusual for a CEO of a massive slush fund to be THAT swaggeringly confident of being absolved, no? Could that extreme level of confidence be due to the fact that San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s wife Anne was on the Parks Alliance Board of Directors during the Nuru corruption activities, making the City Attorney face a choice between absolving the Parks Alliance or accusing his wife of wrongdoing? https://anneherrera.com/about.php

  13. I assume this Wheel gets booked, years in advance. So if it’s staying here an extra 4 years, is that because Duluth or Hoboken or someplace cancelled?

  14. I bet Harlan Kelly is on the damn wheel right now. As this seems to be a new category of add-back. With impossibly less scrutiny. There’s a lot of revolving doors between non-profit people & city, civilian service jobs. To wit: Tipping Point and the new (if bizarre) homelessness office.

  15. Joe,
    Great piece!
    I wrote to the Mayor and told her I love fun! But not a four year ferris wheel in Golden Gate Park!
    Drew Becher’s threat sounds like a Mafia Boss. It might work in Philadelphia or Connecticut but not in California.

  16. Events held in Golden Gate Park should be free to the public. Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is free. Opera in the Park is free. Outside Lands should be free or not be held at all. The SkyStar Wheel doesn’t belong in Golden Gate Park. It is entirely out of character for the Music Concourse and it is a polluting, environmental hazard. This mechanical monster amusement park ride should never have been allowed in the Park. SkyStar gets a place in the historic Music Concourse, free of charge, for five years and keeps $17 of the $18 ticket price. What kind of deal is that?

  17. It would help if people listen to this:

    https://soundcloud.com/workweek-radio/ww-2-25-21-the-ferris-wheel-privatization-of-golden-gate-park-sf-community-college

    And read this:

    https://commonsprotector.medium.com/an-open-letter-to-san-francisco-city-government-about-the-skystar-observation-wheel-in-golden-gate-fe9df4f3753d

    We live a five-minute walk from that visual obscenity. It (and its horrific light show) are visible from many spots in the Inner Sunset and also across the park. Yet, we were not asked before this horror was put in (probably permanently, because after five years it will be an “icon”).

    Not a SINGLE meeting was held about the corporate-run 150-year “anniversary” either. This should not be surprising given that the same blue-blooded venture capitalist turned tennis tournament in GGP fan heads the Inner Sunset Park Neighbors, a pro-gentrification organization, as well as being a PA Trustee!

    The Commissions are a pathetic joke. Bench warmers are appointed who always vote yes. And then people cite their decisions as though they are authoritative!

  18. Great reporting, Joe. It seems that gas generators and money both make the wheel go round.

    Still, as a bewhiskered white man I see no reason for this phrase to be used gratuitously and pejoratively. Nasty stereotyping is nasty stereotyping no matter who is the target.

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