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article imageBotanical Garden plans get passed amid questions of finances Special

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By Jonathan Farrell     Nov 23, 2013 in Environment
San Francisco - Ever-since the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society initiated admission fees to the Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, residents near the treasured oasis have been skeptical of plans to upgrade.
While there is no doubt that nursery facilities and basic accommodations for the public need to be renovated, many in local community question the feasibility of the plans and the impact the new buildings will have upon gardens. Walking through the arboretum and garden spaces is like visiting another place, that seems more rural than urban. Critics of the society's plans fear once all the plans are carried out, the once lush and peaceful little patch of paradise will not be the same again.
On Nov. 18 the San Francisco Arts Commission's Civic Design Review Committee approved Phase 3 of the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society's plans to construct a new nursery and a Center for Sustainable Gardening in the arboretum and botanical garden compound within Golden Gate Park.
The Civic Design Review Committee is made up of architects and designers who conduct a three-phase review of new and renovated civic construction projects to ensure design quality of City structures. As part of the San Francisco Arts Commission, this review committee allows the public to make comment.
Among those gave testimony at the Monday Nov. 18 meeting that afternoon were Sunset District resident Harry Pariser, and Oakland resident Howard Shryock. Pariser later told the Sunset Beacon "it was basically another 'rubber-stamp' style of meeting." The committee basically approved plans for three new structures that combined will take up more than 8,000 square feet. As a local activist of sorts, Pariser has been very vocal; even to the point of being annoying on the subject of what he believes is a privatization of a gift to the City and people of San Francisco by the Strybing Family decades ago.
John Rizzo who serves as political chair for the Sierra Club agrees. He spoke to this reporter by phone. "Its already been privatized, he said, can't do much about it." The Sierra Club has been one of the forces opposing the 14 million dollar project, which also includes a 2,000 plus square foot learning court for schools and visitors.
Rizzo noted that ever since admission fees were instituted the public has pretty much stayed away. "No more picnics, jogs, or little gatherings in the meadows and open spaces that used to be so conducive to being with nature," he said. "The approved plans are so disruptive to what is supposed to be a nature setting, more asphalt, more pavement, it makes no sense." And, as Rizzo pointed out, this really goes against the Golden Gate Master Plan that was established to help preserve the natural integrity of the park," said Rizzo. The Sierra Club believes that the botanical gardens like the entire Golden Gate Park has been suffering from neglect amid a push by SF Recreation and Parks Dept to turn nature spaces and parks into revenue builders.
Rizzo sounded discouraged, when asked if the Sierra Club would seek appeal, as he said, "what appeal?" He doubts very much if any formidable appeal will be heard on behalf of the people and their beloved nature sanctuary.
Jill Manton who serves as Director of Public Art Trust and Special Initiatives for the Arts Commission said, "phase 3 is the final phase." Speaking on behalf of the committee after the meeting to this reporter while on assignment for The Sunset Beacon and The Westside Observer, she said, "the arts commission had no comment while they voted in favor of the plans." Manton noted that 'Phase 3' was part of a step-by-step process that has been ongoing for the past four years or so.
"Public comment is welcomed at the consent calendar meeting on Dec. 2," she said. This was of little comfort to Howard Shryock who even though he is an Oakland resident has an affinity for the arboretum and botanical gardens. "There were only three people who gave testimony that afternoon," he said. Like Pariser he was upset that very little posting about the meeting was made available to the public.
While Manton confirmed the testimony of what she recalled, she noted that the Arts Commission in its Review Committee role has nothing to do with the policies or practices of the SF Botanical Garden Society. Manton did say that the Arts Commission did post notice of the meeting in their circles. Yet, "it is the responsibility of the Botanical Garden Society and others to notify all constituents concerned." The committee's purpose, she noted is strictly to oversee the integrity and compliance of the structural design of the proposed plans and nothing more.
Shryock said that in his testimony he told the committee that "how can you approve a plan that will cost $14 million, when at present the SF Botanical Society only has just over $8 million in assets?" This question was also asked by some of the members of SHARP - Sunset Heights Association of Responsible People, a neighborhood organization that was among the first to get a full presentation of the plans back in January of last year.
"I was shocked that the committee and commissioners said nothing and approved it anyway," said Shryock. "This is a financial 'Trojan Horse' of sorts," he said. Once they accept this project, what's inside is not enough money to cover it and it will be more debt. "The City will ultimately get stuck with the bill and that means the taxpayers will have to pay for It.,” he said.
He sighed deeply as he said, "the issue being ignored here is, do they really have the money?" "If you think I am just making this up, check with Charity Navigator, talk to them, that is where I got the figures," said Shryock.
"Based on its FYE 2012 finances, yes, we see that the SF Botanical Society has about $8.2 million in available net assets," said Sandra Miniutti Vice President of Marketing & CFO for Charity Navigator. As the nation's largest independent charity evaluator, they give the SF Botanical Garden Society a two-star rating out of four stars.
Shryock said that he considered the two star rating an indication that the SF Botanical Garden's financial transparency and accountability to the public in which they serve is in question.
Shryock said he will attend the committee's consent calendar meeting on Dec. 2 and will speak. Yet, like Rizzo and Pariser he doubts if they will listen or even care.
Some details about the botanical gardens renovation plans are posted on the San Francisco Botanical Gardens web site.
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