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article imageOp-Ed: San Francisco's 'Arb' in danger of privatization some people say Special

By Jonathan Farrell     May 29, 2012 in Environment
San Francisco - Fifty-five acres within Golden Gate Park just off of Lincoln Way and 9th Ave contain over 8,000 species of plants. This select area is known as the San Francisco Botanical Garden and Strybing Arboretum.
Yet some residents who treasure the natural oasis are speaking up saying that they fear the garden and arboretum is in danger of becoming privatized.
The botanical garden and arboretum will be having a new nursery built, along with a learning center and other amenities at an estimated cost of about $14 million. These plans were presented on January 30 of this year with the help of communication specialist and lobbyist, Sam Lauter, to the members of the Sunset Heights Association of Responsible People.
As a non-profit entity the SF Botanical Garden Society was founded in 1955 and has been actively supporting the garden and arboretum through fund-raising efforts. The society works in partnership with SF Recreation and Park Department. Through the City, Rec. and Park owns the land. This complicated partnership has some people in the local community very skeptical of the proposed $14 million upgrade plans.
One very outspoken resident is Harry Pariser who lives within walking distance of the garden and arboretum. He provided a tour of the place for this reporter, pointing out his concerns as he walked along the many paths and trails. "This has been a respite from the urban setting. Look around you, he said, it is as if we are not in the City anymore."
Pariser treasures spots like the Redwood grove where trees and plants transport visitors to a tranquil place. Squirrels and birds frolic freely as a rural atmosphere envelops visitors. Yet, he pointed to the redundant additions, like two signs posted to say the same thing. One is obviously much older the other a new, sleeker sign. "The old sign is just fine, probably put up in the 1970's or '80's," he said. "But look at that one next to it, he said, it looks more corporate, as if this place is going to be stylized and made more like a theme park," added Pariser.
This reporter spoke to Lauter days later as he said, "Harry's point of view is exaggerated." Lauter reassured that the new plans would not damage the gardens only enhance it. Lauter also said the plans would follow LEED certification ecological standards. Much of the garden needs more care and can use some clarity, helping visitors know and understand what plant or flower they are looking at.
Pariser does not think the upgrade is really focused on making the garden and its many plants more accessible, he insists it is all about limiting the public from enjoying the oasis. The admission fees are only one part of it, according to Pariser. He noted that gates are closed more often and as he sees it he thinks that some of the new construction will include a wall or much higher fence around the entire facility.
Lauter insisted that such a "wall" is not in the plan. But that something must be done to prevent theft and vandalism, which is an on-going struggle. Pariser also questions the widening of some the path ways with asphalt. Lauter insists it is all part of required ADA access upgrades to the garden. Still, Pariser sees this change as unnecessary.
David Eldred also, a long-time resident of the Inner-Sunset like Pariser has witnessed the changes. "There is a lack of vision," he said. Eldred and others established keeparboretumfree.org. "My frustration is that we worked hard for a solution to the charging of admission fees, and it failed." He like Pariser believes the gardens should be free to all just as it has always been.
Mary Sporer would agree. For like Pariser and Eldred, she too has seen the place change. "I have been a resident since 1969 and I have raised my children here," she said. "Now, families with children find it difficult and expensive to live here," said Sporer. She refers to the garden and arboretum simply as "The Arb."
Sporer explained, 'The Arb' it was and is our refuge from the stress of city-living. “Few people visit The Arb now that the admission fees are charged,” she said. Like Pariser she pointed out how the official name has been subtly changed to 'The San Francisco Botanical Gardens.' "The name of Strybing has been almost eliminated, in favor of a “more marketable title” said Pariser.
Helen Strybing was instrumental in establishing the garden and arboretum. The Strybing family provided the money and as Sporer emphasized, "she wanted the poor to benefit from this free garden," she said. "According to Sporer and Eldred, founder Helen Strybing made that clear in her will and is essential and was part of the conditions in the Strybing family releasing the funds to establish the garden," said Sporer. Eldred and Sporer both said those intentions are within the Master Plan document of 1995, prepared by Fernau and Hartman.
Sporer, Pariser, Eldred and others fear that selfish interests are trampling upon the original intention of the garden and arboretum. Since the establishing of an admission fee more than three years ago, debate and opposition have been on-going. Lauter would not comment on whether or not the garden was intended in Strybing's will as free to all. He referred that question to Sue Ann Schiff the current executive director.
Which raises another question, if the issue of admission fees has caused such contention, why not have the proofs from Strybing's will to verify the garden's original intentions, right away? Schiff did reach this reporter by phone to say that she made efforts to research exact documentation on the question of "was the botanical garden and arboretum always intended to be free by its Strybing family benefactors?"
"I have not been able to find anything in any document that claims that the botanical garden and arboretum were intended to be free forever," said Schiff. She went on to say that while Helen Strybing was very clear about the space being a place of relaxation, reflection and learning, "it clearly states that the City of San Francisco is to provide and maintain the garden." Schiff noted that the City through the Rec. and Park Dept is doing just that, maintaining and providing upkeep. And, if the City with its budget restraints needs to charge a fee in that upkeep then that is what the City must do for now.
Regardless of budget cut-backs, Sporer, and others believe that the current budget and the economic recession is only an excuse for private interests to take over. Rec. and Park officials insist that is not so. Yet revenue or funding of some sort must be secured as costs keep rising.
SF attorney Annemarie Mabbutt believes like Pariser there is a drive to "privatize" public park space. She has continually expressed through the local press, this drive to privatize can be traced far back as 1995. Some see privatization as negative and others believe it to be the wave of the future; sometimes referred to as "public-private partnerships."
SF Botanical Garden reps as well as Rec. and Park officials claim "revenue generating" is needed to cover rising costs. Yet, what is complicated about the admission fee revenue is that it is only to pay for gardeners.
Sporer and others question the details, especially when there are things that don't add up. "Wasn't Proposition N - supposed to help pay for The Arb?" Sporer noted that SF voters approved the progressive real estate transfer tax structure initiative on the ballot in 2010. The reluctance to find other ways to raise funds for the garden Eldred sees the situation as a "slippery slope." that will erode the natural integrity and historical significance of the garden as well as Golden Gate Park. He has been very disappointed with the outcome of grass-roots efforts to avoid charging admission fees. Both Eldred and Sporer noted that the money raised from the admission fees pays for gardeners supplied by Rec. & Park, so in a sense it is like paying twice as Sporer described, "our tax dollars go to Rec. & Park and then they also want us to pay a fee too, that's like paying twice," she said. Schiff said that the admission fees has been a very emotional issue for some people. She was upset by Pariser's letter to the editor of the Richmond Review, saying that Pariser had an extreme and erroneous point of view.
Pariser and others have fears that with admission fees there will be a need for more management and administration. This will only make a simple aspect of an organic garden for all to visit into a very complicated and expensive venture. Pariser continues to believe the garden as being taken over by greedy interests. He pointed to the many weathered wooden structures and other projects left seemingly abandoned. "I think these will be taken down in favor of something like this," he said. Pariser pointed to the concrete installation by designer Topher Delaney.
Lauter said the demolishing of observation decks and such were not in the plan. Pariser pointed to the whimsical design of painted concrete and large potted plants in bold-neon colors. "This was once a meadow, but now it is this," he said. "How does something like this made of concrete and bold neon promote a more natural setting for people?" Lauter pointed out that the garden is like a museum and each installation does not have to meet with everyone's approval. He did sympathize with Pariser about the Delaney installation. Yet he emphasized that the garden is more like a museum and not a nature preserve.
Maybe this is where the friction is? There are those that see the SF Botanical Gardens as an organic oasis and then there is the perspective that the garden is more like "a museum" subject to change at the discretion of the garden society. Pariser wonders when the $14 million plans get underway, "what will be left that is as natural as the garden and the arboretum has been?" For details on the new plans visit the SF Botanical Gardens and Strybing Arboretum web site. And for details about those opposed to the plans see the grassroots coalition group-effort website.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
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