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News + PoliticsOpinionMore parks privatization: The horses of Golden Gate Park

More parks privatization: The horses of Golden Gate Park

Private vendor takes over public space for high-priced concession -- and workers get to live in trailers in the park (while homeless people are kicked out).

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The Ferris Wheel is not the only example of the SF Recreation and Parks Department privatizing Golden Gate Park — and establishing structures without a two-thirds vote of the Board of Supervisors.

Nearly 18 months ago, a private vendor moved into the western end of the park next to Bercut Equitation Ring and built 20 or so stables to house as many horses. Chaparral Ranch Horse Program offers riding lessons and trail rides through the park for $80 an hour. It was supposed to a six-month pilot program.

Do these look like “temporary” facilities?

Also, in a public park that routinely rousts out the homeless from living in the park, the vendor installed two large RV trailers, where an unknown number of vendor staff are living full-time.

These sure look like “structures” to me. And they have not been authorized by the Board of Supervisors.

The area also has been invaded by heavy vehicles, like tractors and trucks, to support this private service, and an enormous steel container for storing who knows what. Scattered all over the now-blighted area are piles of horse manure and urine, lending it a strong odor of a putrid stockyard, not surprising when you have a couple dozen horses living in close quarters.

This area was once a pleasant nature walk, and has long been a major bicyclist, pedestrian and family thoroughfare for traveling north-south through the park, from the Richmond to the Outer Sunset districts, and to Ocean Beach from eastern parts of the park. But no more.

As structures go, these are not “temporary.” I was told by Rec and Park staff in December 2019 that this setup would be there for another 4.5 months (until end of March 2020), until the end of the six-month pilot program, at which point it would be evaluated for possible continuation.

Here it is March 2021 and this temporary pilot shows no signs of ending, or being evaluated. There has been no public process or input whatsoever.

I understand the call for “fun” in the park, especially during a pandemic. But this private service is not cheap. At $80 per hour, it is not affordable to most San Franciscans (at the Ferris Wheel is only $18 for a ride, still pretty high in my view but affordable for many families). Indeed, the types of cars that pull up and drop off their kids are BMWs, Mercedes, Teslas, Lexus, etc.

So this rather large section of the park has been taken over for use by a private concession to sell a service to a handful of upper income San Franciscans. Once when I was standing to the side, observing the operation, as parents pulled in to pick up their kids, I was approached by a contractor staff person and told that I had to leave the area, that they had rented this area for their exclusive use.

Homeless people can’t live in the park — but a private vendor’s employees can.

There are a number of public health issues associated with introducing nearly two dozen large stock animals into a public park. Horse manure mixing with rainwater can lead to E. Coli and other bacterial outbreaks. There are other hazards to humans and their dogs from large piles of manure. I filed a complaint with the public health department, which sent someone to inspect the site and found that the contractor had made no plan for disposing of the quickly accumulating manure. The inspector told RPD and the contractor to come up with a disposal plan. Nevertheless, there are still large amounts of manure at the site.

Animal health is also an issue. New York and New Orleans have regulations that protect working horses, including routine veterinary inspections, limits on the number of hours horses can work, and even mandated vacations, where the horses must be put out to pasture. Rec and Park staffers have not answered my questions about what plans they have to ensure the health of the animals.

I have seen near collisions between bicyclists and pedestrians and horses and heavy equipment. One time I witnessed a bicyclist nearly colliding with one of the horses, which then nearly collided with me as the bicyclist tried to evade the horse.

Large trucks and other heavy equipment now come in and out of the area, tearing up the public pathway, leaving large tire tracks, ruts and holes, exacerbated when it rains, which make bicycling and casual walks especially challenging thru this potted terrain. 

All of this was donewithout any public input.

This operation has completely changed the character of this section of Golden Gate Park, which has been privatized and despoiled. It was once a pleasant nature spot, and now it is a stockyard and a privatized enclave with chain link fences.

The Health Department told the vendor to get rid of these big mounds of horse manure, but some are still there.

Horses have not been stabled in Golden Gate Park for 18 years, and back then they were quartered in the existing stables next to the Polo Fields, which is further away from crowded neighborhoods and public throughways. That is also next to the police equestrian stables. When I asked RPD why not locate the operation in the existing structures there, they replied that those stables are being used for storage.

Then in 2017, the RPD hosted a temporary, two-month horse rental program that had fewer horses, no stables and no workers living in the park.

Like the Ferris Wheel, this operation raises a number of important questions about the extent to which RPD can unilaterally decide to privatize large chunks of the park, without any oversight or public input. I sent staff 14 questions that they have largely failed to answer, such as:  

What authority does RPD have to introduce very large animals into the park?The introduction of horses into Golden Gate Park was not included in the recent master plan. Could it introduce cows or zebras? Buffalo in the park (as part of the San Francisco Zoo) are behind a fenced barrier and do not have interactions with the public.

What’s in this storage unit, and how long will it be there?

What prevents RPD from extending the “pilot program” indefinitely?

Can Rec and Park give permission to anyone it wants – for those who work for a private vendor — to live in Golden Gate Park?

For how long can it award this sweetheart contract without a formal bidding process, especially considering another horse rental operation in Daly City offers rides for 25 percent less?

You can read all of my questions here.

Tamara Aparton, spokesperson for Rec-Park, told 48 Hills: “The horse vendor was brought in for a trial operation. It is the same vendor we use at Camp Mather. Our intent is to conduct a more formal RFP but that has been delayed by the pandemic. The concessionaire’s permit requires the concessionaire to have two staff in the park around the clock for security reasons and to tend to the horses. The structures the employee stay in must be temporary, so they stay in RVs for that reason. There are only two RVs currently.”

She noted that San Francisco Park Code, Sec. 3.13 forbids anyone sleeping in the park between the hours of 8:00 p.m. and 8:00 a.m. Yet it contains an important exemption:  “…except that special permission may be granted by the Recreation and Park Department to persons providing security services between said hours in any park or for other unusual events.”

The clear intention of this exemption for “unusual events” is for situations that are temporary in nature. How can a six-month pilot program now on its 18th month still be considered “temporary?”

And the contractor staff are clearly doing much more than security – they tend to the horses, as Aparton admits. But the allowed activity by the vague wording of Sec. 3.13 seems to be for security only. RPD is exploiting this loophole, one of several that the agency is abusing.

In my few interactions with staff, they seem to think its prerogative is unlimited – that RPD can do whatever it wants. Are SF parks our public facilities, or cash cows for private vendors? And isn’t this sweetheart contract another red flag, warning about possible political corruption?

Is it just a coincidence that the Parks Alliance, the off-the-books friend of Rec-Park that served as a slush fund for nearly $1 million in Mohammad Nuru’s Recology kickback money, just threatened to pull funds from a park in Supervisor Connie Chan’s district if she didn’t back off her criticism of the organization?

So many questions, and so few answers. Meanwhile, the privatization of San Francisco’s public park jewel proceeds apace.  

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

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