Written by The Business Journal Staff
(AP) — A proposal to let people reserve grassy plots of picnic lawn at a popular San Francisco park hit a collective nerve when it was unveiled last month: Within hours, thousands of people signed an online petition to kill the plan, a protest was scheduled and city leaders declared the grass wasn’t for sale or rent.
The parks department quickly yanked the permitting idea, even as it defended the prices as modest and the practice common throughout the country and in other city parks, including Golden Gate Park.
But Dolores Park happens to be in the Mission District, a historically working-class neighborhood at the center of San Francisco’s rapidly changing demographics — one that is becoming wealthier. Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, for example, owns a house nearby.
And for residents reeling from out-of-reach home prices, the prevalence of tech shuttles on city roads, and the rise of boutique shops catering to clientele with disposable cash, the idea of reserving park space was too much.
“I’d understand where somebody wanted to rent a space with a grill and a picnic area with tables,” said Joe Maniego, from nearby Daly City, “but reserving areas of specific grass is a little too far-fetched for what Dolores Park is known for.”
Thousands of people flock to Dolores Park every weekend to perch on a sloping expanse of gorgeous lawn that overlooks the city’s downtown. It’s an egalitarian space that attracts in equal parts stroller-bearing parents, elderly couples, neighborhood kids and beer-drinking hipsters.
San Francisco supervisors are considering legislation to curb the practice.
“We all have the right to enjoy the city’s precious open space and picnic without having every square foot and blade of grass privatized and micromanaged,” said Supervisor Aaron Peskin in a press release.
Supervisor Jane Kim, who is running for a California state Senate seat, said in a release that “our city shouldn’t be for sale — and it shouldn’t be for rent either.”
Dolores Park re-opened in January after a two-year $20 million renovation.
Parks spokesman Joey Kahn defended the rental program, saying that Dolores Park took reservations before the renovation. There would have been three picnic areas, each able to accommodate up to 50 people.
Rental prices start at $33 for families and nonprofits, with a $200 security deposit for cleanup. Cleanup is particularly an issue at Dolores Park, where the department spent $750,000 picking up waste last year.
For-profit businesses and corporations pay more, starting at $260. The city issued 7,700 permits in 2015, mostly for children’s parties.
Adrian Benepe, a senior vice president at The Trust for Public Land and former head of New York City parks, said parks in Chicago and New York City also assess rental fees and it’s a good way for time-strapped families without a lot of money to secure space for a birthday party.
“I think the main problem was the way it was presented as if the lawns of San Francisco are for sale to corporate buyers when all it is is a permitting system,” Benepe said.
“There’s nothing unusual about this.”
And yet, the idea struck park visitors on a recent Saturday as wrong.
Melissa Bostwick had spread out three blankets and a table decked with bouquets and balloons in honor of her 26th birthday. The San Francisco native frowned at the idea of an online reservation system.
“We knew we would have a big group, so we got here early to reserve space before it got crowded,” she said, “because that’s the right way to do it.”
This isn’t the first time the department was forced to cancel its reservation policy and in this neighborhood.
In 2014, local kids rumbled with technology workers over a soccer field where the kids had played pickup games for years. The tech workers had gone online to reserve the space and insisted they had the right.
Peskin, the supervisor, said that he does not oppose renting out open space for events — but parks officials should know better than to impose an online reservation system in this particular neighborhood.
“It’s just a level of insensitivity,” Peskin said, “in a historically low income community of color.”