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Monday, October 25, 2021

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News + PoliticsSupes call for investigation of Ferris Wheel money

Supes call for investigation of Ferris Wheel money

Revenue goes not to the city, but to a private entity that's part of an FBI corruption probe.


The Ferris Wheel in Golden Gate Park has (weirdly) become another front in the Yimby battles, with the likes of Sen. Scott Wiener, Randy Shaw, and Sam Moss (but not Laura Foote!) attacking the people who don’t want to see the giant attraction stay in the park for another four years.

But there’s another side of the story that isn’t being told.

The money from the Ferris Wheel goes to the Parks Alliance

The reason the Recreation and Parks Department wants to extend the run of the Ferris Wheel – according to Rec-Park documents – is that the St. Louis-based vendor that built it, SkyStar Partners, needs about 500,000 rides to make the roughly $9 million it was counting on.

And the private San Francisco Parks Alliance, which is a part of the FBI corruption investigation in SF, was counting on taking its share of about $500,000.

You can read the contract here. Not a penny of the revenue from this carnival ride will go to the city. It’s split between SkyStar and the Parks Alliance, which is supposed to use it to finance celebrations of the 150th anniversary of Golden Gate Park.

But we have seen the problems with what the Parks Alliance does with its money. From the SF Controller’s Office:

Mohammed Nuru and others would direct staff to procure goods and services for staff appreciation, volunteer programs, merchandise, community support, and events from specific vendors, circumventing city purchasing controls. These purchases would then be reimbursed through Public Works subaccounts held by the Parks Alliance, a non-city organization, again outside of city purchasing rules. Mr. Nuru solicited funds for these purchases from interested parties, including businesses that had contracts with the department or city building permits. The gifts, which were not accepted or disclosed by the City, create a perceived “pay-to-play” relationship.

Since COVID at first reduced the capacity of the Ferris Wheel and then shut it down, neither private entity is getting the money they expected. So the idea is to let the wheel keep running until the cash comes in. From the Rec-Park staff report:

With the future availability of operational days for the wheel and future capacity limits unknown, SFPRD proposes a permit modification that will allow the Operator to recoup extra costs incurred due to closures and operational compliance with COVID safety requirements; as well as to allow Golden Gate Park visitors to experience the wheel. To accomplish these goals, the Department is proposing to extend the Permit until March 1, 2023. This extension will accommodate the anticipated riders from the original permit and an increase in ridership to help offset the financial hardship suffered by the Operator. The Operator has had to incur significant costs (i) to secure and maintain the wheel while it was closed , (ii) to follow COVID safety requirements with extra staffing and protocols when it re-opened, and (iii) due to the significant cost of closing shortly after finally opening.

Lots of San Francisco small businesses (and SkyStar is not a San Francisco small business) have suffered deeply during the pandemic. Most of them aren’t getting this kind of deal to bail them out.

Sups. Aaron Peskin and Connie Chan are calling on the controller and the city’s budget analyst to investigate the Parks Alliance and its role in this deal:

“Instead of going directly to our city’s general fund, the revenue generated from Skystar is going to a nonprofit that is still under FBI and public corruption investigations,” said Chan, whose district includes Golden Gate Park. “It raises the question of whether this is a good government practice and whether such practices contribute to the ‘pay-to-play’ culture among city agencies.


Recent revelations have demonstrated that the opaque nature of several organizations, including the SF Parks Alliance, has aided and abetted corruption within San Francisco government.” 

Argue all you want about how much fun the Ferris Wheel can be. (It will operate in a fenced-off area where you need an $18 ticket to enter, and will be able to sell food and booze there—at, I suspect, rather high prices.) A lot of neighbors aren’t happy. That’s one part of the debate.

But the money from this operation is going to a group that is now going to be under multiple investigations. That’s another story entirely.

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.
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  1. Sparky, Yes, as I said earlier, this is a total non-issue.

    Gorn, so are the GG Park museums a “tollbooth” as well? Should everything be free for you? (i.e. paid for by someone else)?

  2. OKKK Norton,

    The accusations against the Parks Alliance are just that — accusations.
    The way to address this is not to shut down a Ferris wheel.
    The City could simply condition the extension of the Ferris wheel contract by requiring the contractual proceeds to the Alliance be held in escrow until the conclusion of the investigation.
    If it was found that the Alliance, in fact, did anything in violation of the law, then the contract could state that these funds would be directed to my bank account instead.

  3. Right, Sparky. Why should we be bothered by a little corruption? That’s just part of life in the KKKapitalist USA.

  4. tom: Most San Franciscans do not see inherent value in privatizing public space and setting up tollbooths for access like you do. The neoliberal experiment of outsourcing public function and commercializing the commons has failed and failed miserably.

    San Franciscans rarely follow boosters’ admonishments to patronize their newest shiniest Big Thing.

  5. gorn, the percentage of the land area of GG Park that is devoted to this wheel is a tiny fraction of one percent.

    It really is not a material impact on 99.9% of the park. In fact the museums take more real estate than the wheel, and you have to pay to enter those as well. This is all part of how the park is paid for.

  6. tom: actually, commercial activities in public parks enclose space behind toll booths and prevent citizens from enjoying that part of the park. Public parks should not have toll booths, at least not for residents. We already pay for the parks. They’re ours.

  7. Gorn, I am willing to accept that different people can enjoy the park in different ways. I do not seek to impose on others that they can only enjoy the park in the same way that I do.

  8. We were objecting to the fumes and noise from the generator that does not follow the logic for a city that is making ordinary citizens give up their gas generated heating systems and cooks give up their gas stoves. But, if there is also a question of funds and who gets them, it should be up to the Board of Supervisors to determine whether or not to sign the contract. That is, unless the Rec and Park Department have full authority to override City Hall on the matter.

  9. tom: Moving through Golden Gate Park’s varied verdant landscapes on foot or bicycle doesn’t give you fun and pleasure?

    Are you one of those men who only feels worthy when he’s spending money on something?

  10. Tom, I hope I don’t have to attend a party with you. The “feelings” one might have for the glorious Ferris wheel in Golden Gate Parak, to my way of thinking, should be distinct from how one views Rec and Park’s cavalier attitude to the any of the protocols and laws regarding the use of public land.

    I disagree with your implication that it is somehow wrong (or I suppose boring small talk at a party) to want Rec and Park to abide the foundational legal document of the City and County of San Francisco. I would also like to think that children’s safety at a playground is more important than how pretty a fence might be. The fence that privatizes a chunk of Civic Center Plaza does not meet the standard of prettiness that apparently was the exclusive concern when selecting the fence design for the playgrounds. And the fence was installed without permission.

    Last fall, Dana Ketcham of Rec and Park made it clear to a group of community members and city agency employees that, despite the COVID-19 emergency, fencing off part of Civic Center Plaza to create a play area for the 3,500 kids who live in the Tenderloin was not an acceptable proposal. She did indicate that “signage” could be installed to designate such a play area, but that signage has not been installed – almost six months after that discussion, and just shy of a year into the public health emergency. One of the reasons the fence could not go in was because of the historical beauty of the Civic Center Plaza. Not that that historical beauty stopped the month-long enclosure of the outdoor voting area by means of a bunch of ugly police barricades. And the fencing around the safe sleeping site is pretty ugly too. (Just so you know, I support the safe sleeping site and did not have a problem with the outdoor voting area. But that doesn’t mean the fencing is “beautiful.”) Nor has that obsession with beauty stopped City Hall from being secured by police barricades for nine or so months. I do not believe it is an inviting symbol of our city’s democracy to have a closed government building caged off from the people to whom it belongs. And it sure as fuck isn’t beautiful.

    If we do run into each other at a party, I will not be offended if you walk away. And if you don’t, I will.

  11. flight505, You must be a hoot at parties.

    Like Tim, you hate anything that gives people fun and pleasure unless of course it pays a tithe to the preferred vested interests.

  12. Sam Moss: YIMBY carnival barker pimping for the swells at the Parks Alliance for, yes, a carnival ride

    Laura Foote Clark: Who? nobody cares.

  13. SFPA just said in another forum, “We . . . believe that direct conversation is always more productive than attention-grabbing press releases.” Please let RPD know that. RPD started the Wheel proposal last year with press support from the Mayor BEFORE the Historic Preservation Commission had even held a hearing. RPD has mounted a major paid-city-staff-run PR campaign, sending letters entreating support to vendors and groups that need the parks. RPD never consulted with major environmental groups. At the Rec/Park Commission hearing, a caller commented on the fact that Rec and Park never mentioned ‘nature’ in the entire presentation. It is as if this Wheel has been installed in a vacant parking lot on the outskirts of town. Learn more at http://www.sfurbannature.org

  14. Perhaps Sam Moss could focus on opening up 490 South Van Ness, a new affordable housing building that The Mission has been waiting 20 years for, instead of showing his true YIMBY colors, playing tech expert when he cannot deliver housing to the needy.

    All of the “Friends of [X]” are corrupt influence peddling nonprofits that give swells and contributors special access to departments and, as is being investigated, contracts. All the “Friends of [X]” groups except for Friends of Ethics.

  15. About a year ago, I contacted Elizabeth Gordon-Jonckheer in the Planning Department about the mysterious installation of a fence near the southeast corner of Civic Center Plaza. The fence in question was required by the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control for the issuance of a permit to sell alcohol at the Bi-Rite kiosk directly adjacent to one of the two Helen Diller Playgrounds on the Plaza.

    When I contacted Ms. Gordon-Jonckheer I was concerned about two specific issues: the decision to sell alcohol next to a playground, and the installation of a fence that effectively privatized approximately 5,000 square feet of the Plaza. Given that a recurrent subtext (and often explicitly stated desire) in conversations around “revitalizing” the Civic Center was to drive out people who used substances on the plaza, there is some rather un-nuanced irony in the granting of the conditional use permit to sell alcohol in the plaza.

    At the time, I was unable to locate a permit on file with the Department of Building Inspection that showed the scope of the work of the proposed fence installation and the approval of the finished project by that department. What I did find, however, is the original permit for the construction of the (temporary) kiosk. That permit states that “no alteration or reconstruction of City Right-of-Way” is granted or permitted. The fence clearly alters the right-of-way.

    In addition to installing the fence in violation of the terms of the original permit for the kiosk, the parties responsible for that installation failed to bring the issue up with the Historic Preservation Commission. In other words, the commission did not approve that installation. Ms. Gordon-Jonckheer told me that because it was not approved (nor, based on design, would it have been), the fence must be removed. That was just a couple of weeks before the COVID-19 emergency, so it is understandable that the fence is still there.

    Regardless of what might have been the Historic Preservation Commission’s findings, it is curious that Rec and Park would themselves allow for such a mundane looking fence based on their ostensible commitment to maintaining beauty and historical integrity on the Plaza. Their allegiance to such ideals is precisely the reason the two playgrounds have fences that fail to comply with state law (California Health and Safety Code, Section 115725). A staff member at the Trust for Public Land told me the fences were meant to look appropriate for the area rather than actually keep children from escaping the playground. It was irrelevant to anyone involved in the project that such a design-driven decision subjugated children’s safety to a particular aesthetic vision. That point was reiterated by Rec and Park senior staff. Even the certified playground safety inspector who signed off on the finished playgrounds told me that there have been times that he has caved to pressure to allow for a change in fence design based on aesthetic rather than functional considerations

    The construction of the Bi-Rite kiosk itself has dubious legality. The City Charter, Section 4.113, requires approval by plebiscite before new structures can be built on park land: “2. No park land may be sold or leased for non-recreational purposes, nor shall any structure on park property be built, maintained or used for non-recreational purposes, unless approved by a vote of the electors.” The Civic Center Public Realm plan proposes the construction of additional kiosks from UN Plaza to Civic Center Plaza. In defense of Rec and Park, Nicholas Perry, a city planner, told me that they are not required to follow that provision of the Charter. Though he seemed not to, I still find it fascinating that a city department can decide which parts of the city’s foundational legal framework they can elect not to be bound by. (Nixon: “Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” … And then there’s Trump….)

    From their actions in just this one small piece of the vast city lands over which they have purview, it is obvious that the Recreation and Park Department regularly flouts convention, policy, and law when they decide to go ahead with a project. I would say they are due for significantly more oversight.

  16. I doubt that many voters care whether or not the city is collecting a pound of flesh for this venture, nor most others. People seem to like these wheels which, in recent years, have opened up in London, Nagoya, Singapore, Vienna, Melbourne, Shanghai and elsewhere. And of course the city benefits indirectly from anything that attracts tourists and visitors to spend money here rather than elsewhere.

    It’s a non-story.

  17. No big surprise. Phil Ginsburg has used Recreation and Parks as a source of income. He has a history of questionable deals. Funny how the projects and policies he shoves down people result in large payouts to private contractors, or are pushed by mayors, often target at opponents.

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