is Rec-Park really broke?

Nobody seems to be checking the figures on the department's sad-sweet story


By David Looman

OPINION The senior staffers at the Recreation and Park Department routinely cry that the department is poor and going broke. Is it possible they are lying?

Conspicuously lacking in discussions of Rec-Park funding is any kind of hard data about how well or poorly San Francisco Rec-Park is really funded. Whether it's the mainstream media, the alternative press, or our elected representatives on the Board of Supervisors, nobody seems to know how our park system compares with other park systems in California or the U.S.

And nobody seems to want to check up on Rec-Park's sad-sweet story.

This lack of real information is particularly surprising, since the data is readily available. Every year, the Trust for Public Land, a well-respected, San Francisco-based park advocacy organization, conducts a meticulous and comprehensive survey of how well recreation and park systems across the country are being funded. The survey is always available on the Web, at


In the TPL's 2000 book, Inside City Parks, by Peter Harnik, San Francisco was among the three best-funded systems, measured either per acre or per resident. In every annual survey after that, San Francisco continued to rank in the top three, until 2006. In 2006, the TPL found San Francisco to be the best-funded park system in America.

That's right, the best-funded department in the entire U.S.!

This year's survey, based on the 2008 figures, has changed its methodology a bit, and expenditures are no longer calculated per acre. With the new methodology, San Francisco has slipped a bit. The city is now only the fourth-best funded park system in the country for cities with populations larger than 500,000, and the sixth best for cities over 250,000.

For operating expenditures (total budget minus capital spending) San Francisco is the fourth best funded among all cities. We don't have as many capital expenditures as, say, Seattle, whose newer park system is still growing.

The question of where that money goes is another matter. I think I can offer a few suggestions about what happens.

Problem number one is the long and glorious history of absolutely incompetent management, particularly in the last 15 years, under the administrations of mayors Willie Brown and Gavin Newsom. Second is that longstanding Rec-Park Department practice of ignoring and rejecting any public input, including factual input, from people who actually use and know the parks. This has led to a number of costly mistakes.

The department has more ethically dubious faults too—the wages spent organizing so-called "public support" for some of its unpopular projects; more wages spent having employees testify about what a great job the department is doing, etc.

The department presently is trying to privatize everything within reach. Its poor-mouth rational for doing so is false. It's time we all faced the fact that Rec-Park isn't giving us the whole truth.

David Looman is a longtime San Francisco political consultant and parks user.


Wow. Thank you

Posted by M.C on Aug. 03, 2011 @ 3:53 pm

great piece! finally the SFBG is covering this important issue. It's all smoke and mirrors with Rec Park Director Phil Ginsburg!

Posted by Guest on Aug. 03, 2011 @ 4:53 pm

How refreshing. Thanks for a well written article.

Posted by rachel herbert on Aug. 03, 2011 @ 7:15 pm

Thanks for your honest reporting. No one wants to talk about how RPD plans to privatize our parks but everybody knows it. Double appreciation for your article.

Posted by idaT on Aug. 03, 2011 @ 7:49 pm

Actions speak louder than words. They must have all the money they need >>>in fact too much! The Park Department pushed for a new vendor at Stow Lake who only offered a minimum rent of $160,000/year and 10% of gross food sales where as the long term operator offered a minimum rent of $215,000/year and 27% of gross food sales.

Both bidders agreed to refurbush the exterior of the boathouse so exterior dollar capital improvements would have been the same. As the Stow Lake Corporation offered a 70% larger fleet of new boats, the final total capital investment by both parties would have been quite similar. So, with Ortega the City gets a Cafe, a scaled down boat rental venue and significantly less rent.

Summary...San Francisco taxpayers are getting screwed and a long time local owned business bites the dust in favor of a New Mexico company that specilizes in food service. San Francisco has thousands of cafes but only one recreational boat rental venue for families. It just does not compute. 20 years is a long time to live with this sweet-heart lease.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 03, 2011 @ 8:06 pm

Further evidence the Recreation and Park department does not have any focus on or need for funds is that in the selection process for the Stow Lake Concession, NO consideration was given during the bid evaluation process to the rent offered by the interested bidders. The evaluaters were instructed to give zero points for offered rent revenue! It would be interesting to know how many decision makers (Mgmt staff and Park Commissioners) at McLaren Lodge live in San Francisco and pay taxes in S.F.?

Posted by Mole in McLaren Lodge on Aug. 04, 2011 @ 8:03 am

The whole concession award process by the Recreation and Park Department is ripe for a full investigation by the Civil Gand Jury

Posted by GUEST on Aug. 06, 2011 @ 8:53 pm

Great piece Mr. Looman. There's a LOT at R&P that doesn't make any sense. For example, in 2008, SF voters passed an "improve the parks" bond that raised $130 million for R&P.

When the voters went to vote on that, they didn't read anything about replacing the grass in SF parks with artificial turf because the bond measure never said anything about that.

A year or two before, (the late) rightwing Republican billionaire (and founder of The Gap) Donald Fisher and his three sons had set up the City Fields Foundation (CFF).

What was really strange was that as soon as the 2008 "improve the parks" bond passed, Fisher's CFF was working closely with R&P to replace the grass in all the playgrounds in SF with artificial turf even though, like I said, the bond didn't call for this. It's not right to deceive voters like R&P did in that 2008 vote.

And why did all of sudden a notorious rightwing Republican billionaire get all this influence with an important SF govt agency???

And why did R&P start replacing the grass with artificial turf - at Fisher's request apparently and who paid for the artificial turf (but not the installation) - when the bond said nothing about this???

Ginsburg's R&P has been handing out some multi-million dollar contracts to construction companies to replace the grass with artificial turf. For example, for the Kimbell playground at the southwest corner of Steiner & Geary, a firm got a $2 million contract to replace the grass with artificial turf. The one who got the contract to do Crocker Amazon must have received a significantly higher paying contract.

Ginsburg's R&P wants to replace 7 acres of grass in the west end of Golden Gate Park (the large grassy area where the Beach Chalet soccer fields are) with artificial turf. He also wants to place around the perimeter of this 7 acre area, 60 foot poles with each one containing lights that will put extremely bright lights more app for the Giants' AT&T Park than GG Park.

R&P wants to give $12 million to the construction company that wants that job (this from an agency constantly saying they have no money).

These lights would be on until 10 or 11 pm every night and thus would completely change the nature of Golden Gate Park. This idiocy by Ginsburg completely violates the Golden Gate Park Master Plan that took was completed in 1998 after 10 years of work.

The GGP Master Plan is here:

Here's a small sample of many blatant examples of how the Phil Ginsburg - Fisher scheme to replace 7 acres of grass in GG Park with artificial turf surrounded by bright lights on 60 foot poles that light up the park every night until 10 or 11 pm is a complete violation of the GGP Master Plan:

On pg 3-9 of the link below (in the first column) it says:
POLICY A - PRESERVE THE DESIGN INTEGRITY OF GOLDEN GATE PARK. The original design intent shall be preserved.
1. All activities, features and facilities in Golden Gate Park should respect the unique design and character of the park.
2. The major design feature of Golden Gate Park and the framework within which all park activities occur is its pastoral and sylvan landscape. The integrity of the pastoral and sylvan landscape must be maintained and remain unaltered.
6. No changes or alterations to any park feature should occur without consideration of the parkwide effects.

On pg 3-11 (third column) of the link below, it says:
The principles of “sustainable landscape” should be applied to management practices, landscape design, plant selection, and irrigation methods.

On pg 3-20 (bottom of 2nd column) of the link below, it says:
Ensure that gifts accepted for placement in Golden Gate Park will contribute to the historic character of the park and are compatible with the park environment.

On pg 3-21 (item 2 in first column) of the link below, it says:
Park lighting should not detract visually or physically from the character of the park.

A fair judge would laugh out loud at this Ginsburg-Fisher scheme to put 7 acres of artificial turf in GG Park with bright lights on 60 foot poles that would be lit until 10 or 11 pm every night ever went to court and tell them they ought to actually read the GGP Master Plan.

This corrupt scheme to ruin GG Park by the late Donald Fisher's family and Phil Ginsburg can still be stopped. Here's the status: R&P was forced to do an EIR. The EIR will be completed very soon (either this month or September).

There's then a 45 day commment period. It then goes to the Planning Commission who will approve it. (Here's the crucial part) It then goes to the SF Board of Supes who can reject it if 6 of the 11 agree to do so. If the Fisher-Ginsburg scheme violates the GGP Master Plan, then the EIR must show it does. As I showed above, it violates the GGP Master Plan repeatedly (and I only gave a small sample, I could have listed many more items).

If the EIR says the Fisher-Ginsburg scheme DOES NOT violate the GGPMP (and that's what it will say), then the EIR should be rejected which is why at least 6 of the 11 supes should reject the EIR. If they reject it, it will probably kill this whole idiotic idea to replace 7 acres of grass in GG Park with artificial turf.

Contact your supervisor (and all the supervisors) and tell them you're against the Fisher-Ginsburg scheme to ruin GG Park. Here's their email addresses and phone numbers:

Sup. Eric Mar 554-7410
Sup. Mark Farrell 554-7752
Sup. David Chiu 554-7450
Sup. Carmen Chu 554-7460
Sup. Ross Mirkarimi 554-7630
Sup. Jane Kim 554-7970
Sup. Sean Elsbernd 554-6516
Sup. Scott Weiner 554-6968
Sup. David Campos 554-5144
Sup. Malia Cohen 554-7670
Sup. John Avalos 554-6975

Go to if you want to see more on it.

Finally here's a report on the toxicity of the ground-up tires that the artificial turf is planted in. It's from 2007 and is a chemical analysis of it that was done by the Department of Analytical Chemistry of The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station (a Connecticut state govt agency):

Just what we need: 7 acres of toxic ground-up tires to pollute a good chunk of Golden Gate Park!

Posted by Bill on Aug. 03, 2011 @ 9:36 pm

Ginsburg should be fired and Buell should be forced to resign before they can privatize more of our parks and close the people of San Francisco out of their own public spaces.

Posted by Harry on Aug. 04, 2011 @ 10:14 am

Hey Harry, you are partially correct on this one ^_^. The neighborhood of "Russian Hill" in the city are being closed out of our own public spaces in the particular playground called: "Helen Wills" on Broadway & Larkin of 94109. The supervisor for that area (Philip, no Philip Ginsburg), just locked the front gate this evening (Sat. 8/13/11) at 8:45 pm. I just called the park patrol, and the dispatcher told me that all parks in the city are to be closed at 10 pm, NOT 8:15 pm!! To make matters worse, the person who locked the gate, went right back into the clubhouse office to work (or perhaps take it easy) AFTER telling everyone to leave the playground. I think there is a bias on certain age groups using the park (particularly young adults and teenagers). Someone should really do something about the employee in charged of locking the gate.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 13, 2011 @ 9:37 pm

Mark Buell, married to Esprit founder, Susie Tomkins Buell, is a mega developer who thinks our parks must give way for urban sprawl. Gavin Newsom "gifted" him with the presidency of the Rec & Park Commission in exchange for huge campaign donations to Newsom campaigns. Buell is responsible for the rape of sacred Indian burial grounds in Emeryville to build the Baystreet Mall. Why is he running our Rec & Parks????
Selling our parks to developers for political gain... a crime! Buell, step down now! Baking bread in your Bolinas estate, can't absolve you, or cover your mega developer deeds. The people are watching.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 04, 2011 @ 11:42 am

Of course, The San Francisco recreation and park department is rolling in dough. This is all a big con, Phil and his cronies are selling the land so his people can take care of only the rich….That is what some people would like to believe but check the facts using the info provided from the exact source quoted.-The Trust for Public Land. In 2004 SF spent $276 per resident. In 2010 SF spent $192 per resident I am not a math major, but even I can see that is a decrease in funding by almost 40%. After a 40% cut, can anyone operate the same way they had been? Nope. So RPD is trying to do things a little different, and figure different ways to make up for the loss so services aren’t cut again and again.
By the way, many of the other cities listed in the top 15 of spending per resident, already do all of the things that RPD is currently accused of – privatization. Seattle contracts out many of its recreation functions: from their website “One key goal in Parks’ Strategic Action Plan is to identify opportunities to partner with organizations that can more effectively provide services by leveraging skills and resources." San Jose has just recently reorganized its recreation department to have revenue goals and increased fees pursuant to those goals. New York has “privatized” Central Park. In most cities, Recreation is contracted out, or has to generate revenue to cover its expenditures. In contrast, RPD in SF has the lowest costing children swim lessons in the bay area, a scholarship program that has given out over ½ million in scholarships, and just co-hosted a free children event – Playday on the Green – at the marina green.
San Franciscans has always been generous and understood the value of parks and recreation, but I am not going to throw people under the bus who are trying to keep parks and recreation centers open and viable during these difficult times. A dedicated funding source needs to be found for our parks and recreation centers and get it off the general fund roller coaster, but until then, I value what RPD is doing to try to keep parks and recreation centers open during these tough times

Posted by ynsurf on Aug. 04, 2011 @ 6:13 pm

Would be interesting to know the total salary of the top 10 employees at San Francisco Recreation and Park Department compared to Seattle. Also, how many 20 year concession leases are awarded in Seattle without any evaluation or consideration of the rent offered as in the Stow Lake Boat Concession case?

Posted by GUEST on Aug. 06, 2011 @ 8:13 am

Park & Rec has mismanaged the City's Swimming Pools for years as well. Spending 2 million dollars on water slides at Hamilton Pool, while pool's like Garfield and Balboa desperately need repair is ridiculous.
Another joke is how they fired the cashiers and locker room attendants; now making the life guards clean and take exact change entrance fees only, so as not to violate their job description. I never understood how it's okay for the lifeguard to be a janitor but not okay for them to break a ten or twenty dollar bill!
Loss of the locker room attendants has actually created excess costs; with no one to monitor the children they repeatedly waste water by taking 30 - 60 minute showers (ignoring the 3 minute limit signs); trash the locker rooms by leaving food and garbage everywhere as well as filling their swim caps with water to throw at each other leaving water all over the place! King pool is the worse -- I have seen water damage to the sheet rock on the ceiling. The noise level alone is enough to discourage any adult from ever returning.
Thank you David Looman for writing this article - it is so very true that P&R does not listen to the public; now they are finally being exposed in the press!

Posted by Guest SFSwimmer on Aug. 11, 2011 @ 8:14 am

Stealing public assets for private gain: that's what is going on. Arguably some of the most beautiful and valuable real estate in the country is going into private hands under megadeveloper, phoney environmentalist Mark Buell (husband of Susie Tompkins, Esprit founder) and Newsom's boy: Phil Ginsburg, the Director of Rec and Parks. Ginsburg is an ambitious atty. who knows more about the Newsom sex scandal than almost anyone else. Newsom anointed him to Rec and Parks directorship even though he had NO park experience or any other recreation credentials. Now Brown and Newsom control the huge budget at Rec & Park to please their 1% friends. Theft, corruption, greed, deception.. that's the legacy of Buell and Ginsburg.

How have they gotten away with firing all our kids' recreation directors and replacing those jobs with 6 figure public relations drones? They've got the mainstream media scared to print their names for fear of retribution. They've threatened staff with firing if anyone speaks out of line. This will go down in the history books as one of the worst legacies of the Brown/Newsom mob who use media control instead of guns to get their way.

Posted by Guest on May. 02, 2012 @ 10:20 am

ginsburg is a turd

Posted by Guest on May. 24, 2012 @ 10:47 pm

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