Saturday, December 5, 2020
Uncategorized The (quiet) privatization of San Francisco

The (quiet) privatization of San Francisco

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Former Sup. Aaron Peskin told that story Monday night at a Commonwealth Club program on privatization. I was on the panel, along with George Wooding and Dennis Antenore. The room was packed; I think we outdrew the secretary of the Navy, who was in the other meeting room.

The point that came out, over and over again, was that privatization – the slow, sometimes subtle takeover of public services and public places by private outfits – is very much alive in San Francisco. And sometimes, it’s kind of quiet and hidden.

Case Study Number One is the Department of Recreation and Parks. Parks are a classic example of a public good, of the “commons,” and Rec-Park is an agency that is supposed to take public money and spend it on services for the public. We all chip in a little in tax money, and we all get to use the parks. That goes back to at least the era of Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot.

But the SF Rec-Parks Department has started to operate as if it were the Port or the Airport – that is, as an “enterprise agency” that has as part of its mission raising enough money from user fees to pay its own way.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi set the standard back in the 1990s, when she and a group of developers and business leaders (including Republicans like Don Fisher, the head of the Gap), decided that the way to protect the Presidio, which should be national park land, was to turn it into a self-funding enterprise. So Congress created an entirely new entity – the Presidio Trust, a board made up of presidential appointees who had complete control over the park’s future, pushing aside the National Park Service, which actually knows how to run parks.

The Trust got a mandate: make the park self-sufficient by 2014. So guess what? We wound up with the real-estate developers on the trust deciding to let George Lucas build a commercial office building in a national park, and there’s talk of a big hotel, and a big museum, and Pelosi loves it all.

But it’s not what a park is supposed to be.

With that precedent, though, the SF Rec-Park Department (facing, of course, declining public funding) decided to create a large real-estate division and start looking for ways to turn the parks in to cash machines. That’s not a joke – Rec-Park officials have actually said, on repeated occasions, that their goal is to find ways to monetize the parks.

As a result we have the fee to enter the Arboretum, we have rec directors (who made modest salaries) fired and public rec centers leased out to private day-care and school operators who charge $17,000 a year tuition. We have the Fisher kids deciding that they like plastic soccer fields, and the city taking money from the City Fields Foundation to turn the Western edge of the park into a well-lit soccer complex.

So: I’m not against soccer fields. Golden Gate Park is not a wilderness, and should be used. Kids need places to play, and I don’t even know if I hate the lights at night. There’s some controversy about artificial fields, but that’s not the point.

The point is, nobody ever asked the voters, or the supervisors, if we should decide, as a matter of policy, that grass fields should be replaced with artificial turf. That decision was driven by private donors and a city agency desperate for private money.

The donors want their money to go for programs they like, and abstract things like paying for rec directors aren’t attractive. So decisions that are best made in the public sector are instead driven by private needs and desires.

It’s all part of the agenda, driven by the Right, that government should be portrayed as useless and corrupt, and that the public sector can’t do anything right.

Take a look at the Recreation and Open Space element of the city’s General Plan, which is now up for review.

It’s a document that the city has to revise every ten years, and it’s a lot of platitudes, but it’s supposed to guide the use of San Francisco parks until about 2025.

And it has “public-private partnerships” written all over it. For example, here’s Policy 6.3:

“Expand partnerships with … private sector and nonprofit institutions to acquire, develop, and/or manage existing open spaces.”

Got that? Let the private sector manage the parks.

Now: as Antenore pointed out, there are serious problems with giving private companies contracts to run public institutions. In New York, where former Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to privatize as much as he could, contracts that were supposed to run $60 million ballooned to ten times that amount. Companies that saw big money in city deals ripped off the public like no tomorrow.

That tends to happen here, too.

It’s part of a larger issue, one we need to think about. As I pointed out in my talk, privatization is about taking wealth out of a city for private gain. It’s an extractive industry, and assumption that cities exist to be exploited. The opposite approach – that cities exist first and foremost as communities, into which you put time and effort for the public good, has a much better record of success.

Marke B.
Marke Bieschke is the publisher and arts and culture editor of 48 Hills. He co-owns the Stud bar in SoMa. Reach him at marke (at) 48hills.org, follow @supermarke on Twitter.

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  35. No better symbol of the private takeover than shrinkwrapped MUNI buses. These ads even cover bus windows so MUNI riders can barely see out.

  36. Thanks Thea, thanks Njudah. A city that took out seating on it’s streets because too many people used them for rest, a city that took out the trash cans because too many people used them for garbage, a city that builds office buildings in its parks and covers the land with plastics, a city that took out newspaper racks and then took out access to the papers all for the good of the public.

  37. I’m concerned about the Main Library. When I found out that 50% of the attendees of the Public Library were homeless, I was shocked. This is my library, where I take my books out. It’s near my work, and not far from my home.

    But then I began to think about it. There are very few spaces in San Francisco where you can sit and not buy anything. Especially indoor spaces. During the last downturn, when many unemployed people wanted to get out of their homes and have a little company while they freelanced or applied for jobs, they used coffee houses. That works fine as long as you realize it’s a quid pro quo of space for money. You buy coffee/coffee cake, you get to sit and work.

    But homeless don’t have that ability to trade money for space. That’s why they are homeless. The Main Library is one of the few places where anyone can sit for long periods of time peacefully. And there’s a bathroom.

    That’s why I was perturbed when I read that the Mayor is making it a priority to “clean up” the Main Library. I suspect that clean up is more about getting the homeless out of one of the few public spaces they can peacefully read, use the internet, and go to the bathroom during the day, and less about recognizing that people, all people, need public spaces that don’t require anything but decent behavior out of them. Places where they can have a community.

    At one point, the library was recognizing that there will be homeless in a quiet public place in a city with so many homeless, and they were deliberately working on having more social services in the library. This latest move by the Mayor seems to be going another direction, one we’ve tried numerous times without success–shifting the homeless around and saying the problem is better. I see no reason to do that. It doesn’t make anything better, just moves the problem to a less visible spot.

    My two cents on public space, which I believe we need more of.

    Thea

  38. Good explanation of the danger of privatization. Whenever there is a for-profit element involved, the ethos by definition becomes making money rather than serving the public. Fine for those who can afford it, but brutal for those whose quality of life depend upon being part of a larger community of public services.

  39. This story is spot on. Tim puts his finger on a huge, slowly accumulating issue, a classic frog-in-boiling-water problem if there ever was one. And though we all hate to admit, all these super-cool parklets are actually not cook, but very much part of the problem. (Think about it: Where do you see parklets the most? In neighborhoods where parking is in high demand to begin with. So now people who might need something other than food are driving in circles even more than they used to, or avoiding these neighborhood altogether, all because a few restaurants want a few extra customers to order coffee and muffins. But don’t get me started. Just refuse to roll over for the next city effort to make money on your public space.

  40. Parklets, by law, have to be open to anyone who wants to sit there, regardless if they are a patron of a restaurant that happens to be nearby, or even one that “sponsored” it. Parklets allow people, particularly those in areas with fewer open space options, to take areas previously reserved for private car parking, and allow for people to gather. Equating this use of public space, which benefits everyone, with the mad dash to privatizations Parks and Rec is pursuing at an alarming rate, is unfair and just serves to feed the NIMBY/Tea Party types in town who scream and yell, often with little actual facts, but try to shout out rational people who are trying to help improve their neighborhod for everyone, not just the 1%.

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