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Archive for the ‘Parks’ Category

Rec centers ‘stretched very thin’

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Examiner Staff Writer
December 31, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO — City-run recreation facilities are understaffed and keep unpredictable hours, vexing locals and prompting an edict from the Controller’s Office that the Recreation and Park Department begin keeping better track of its offerings.

The department staffs 63 facilities, including recreation centers, clubhouses and playgrounds. Staffing at the facilities has dropped steadily since 2004, according to a report from Controller Ben Rosenfield.

As a result, newly renovated recreation centers — such as Upper Noe Valley and Minnie and Lovie Ward — have reopened this year with fewer hours, and don’t have predictable or posted hours, according to Isabel Wade, director of the Neighborhood Parks Council.

“Voters have approved public funds for these facilities, but if people can’t get inside it’s not a big improvement,” said Supervisor Bevan Dufty, who prompted the controller to investigate.

Minnie and Lovie Ward Recreation Center, in the Oceanview neighborhood, opened this fall after a $16.8 million renovation with six staffers. Since then, injuries, transfers and layoffs have reduced its staff to two, according to neighbor Mary Harris.

Neighbors were recently told that a staffer from the Merced Heights Recreation Center would be transferred to Oceanview, but that might mean closing Merced Heights more often, Harris said.

“Right now, we’re stretched very thin,” said Katie Petrucione, finance director for the parks department. “If a given recreation director calls in sick or is on vacation, we have less ability to backfill those posts.”

Three additional recreation directors are being laid off in The City’s midyear budget cuts, Petrucione said.

Before Upper Noe closed for $11.1 million in renovations more than two years ago, it was open during daytime hours seven days a week, according to advocate Alexandra Torre. Now, it’s open fewer hours during the week and is closed Sundays — despite locals’ offers to volunteer time or pay out of pocket for a staffer.

Dufty said he plans to meet with the department’s union to brainstorm ideas for boosting recreation facility hours.

Although interim parks director Jared Blumenfeld said he hadn’t seen the report, the department is aware of problems involving facility hours and is working to remedy them.

“I’m looking at every solution,” Blumenfeld said. “One that would help is to have an electronic key-card system so you can track every facility — so if it’s supposed to open at 8:30 a.m. and isn’t open at 9 a.m., you can send someone to open it.”

Only one facility still faces renovation
After a wave of renovations and reopenings, just one city-run recreation center remains closed for upgrades: Harvey Milk, located at Duboce Park.

Milk has been shuttered since July 2007 for $10.8 million in overhauls to everything from its roof to its elevators.

When the three-story center reopens next April, it will feature a new photo center and darkroom, rehearsal and meeting rooms, a recording studio and office space for staff and the public, according to Lisa Seitz Gruwell, communications director for the Recreation and Park Department.

Programs for the new center are still being finalized, but will include photo classes and youth music programs, Seitz Gruwell said.

Rec and Park celebrated a bevy of recreation facilities in 2008, including, most recently, Sava Pool in the Sunset district. The department is now putting the finishing touches on a few sites slated to reopen in early 2009.

Renovations to Ingleside’s Aptos Playground, including work on its restrooms, will be fully complete in February. That same month, North Beach Pool is slated to reopen, along with the newly built rhino and hippo enclosure at the San Francisco Zoo.

St. Mary’s Playground, in Bernal Heights, is scheduled to reopen in April with new playground equipment, drinking fountains, landscaping, irrigation and a restroom.

— Beth Winegarner

City’s suggestions
Among the findings of a city report on Recreation and Park facilities:

– The number of recreation centers closed for renovation has dropped from nine to one in the past two years
– Recreation staff has declined from 200 in July 2004 to nearly 175 in September 2008
– The department does not maintain official public hours of operation for its recreation facilities
– The department has no systematic means of monitoring facility closures, due to lack of staff


– Rec and Park should develop a method for tracking and monitoring staff attendance, staffing shortfalls and unscheduled facility closures — possibly using 311
– The department should look at extending hours at recreation centers while compressing hours at smaller clubhouses

Source: Controller’s Office

Written by Beth Winegarner

December 31, 2008 at 4:50 AM

Wounds from tiger attack linger

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
December 18, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO — It’s been almost one year since the Christmas Day tiger mauling that killed a San Jose teenager, and while the event inspired safety improvements in zoos nationwide, the San Francisco Zoo has yet to recover from the attack.

The event, and the riveting details later revealed, drew worldwide attention. A 250-pound Siberian tiger named Tatiana escaped her enclosure Christmas Day 2008, prowled zoo grounds, and ultimately killed 17-year-old Carlos Sousa Jr. and injured two friends.

For months afterward, the story played out in the media as rumors circulated that the young men had provoked the tiger, and investigations showed flaws both in Tatiana’s enclosure and zoo employees’ response.

One year later, the scars remain: The zoo will be closed this Christmas to commemorate the attack.

In response to the incident, the zoo spent $1.6 million in bond money to raise walls surrounding the tiger enclosure from 12½ feet to the 16 feet 4 inches recommended by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The financial hit was followed by declining ticket sales, leaving the zoo with a nearly $2 million budget shortfall.

“We have a lot of work to do — it’s a serious financial challenge,” Mayor Gavin Newsom told The Examiner. “This incident happened at a time when we saw visitorship on the rise and there was momentum for another bond.”

The incident also served as a cautionary tale for other zoos.

It prompted Oakland to spend $30,000 to boost fence heights — formerly 13 feet in some spots — around its own big-cat enclosures, according to Oakland Zoo Executive Director Joel Parrot, who called the incident a “shockwave” that went through the profession.

Zoos across the country made similar upgrades, according to Zoos and Aquariums Association spokesman Steve Feldman.

At Pennsylvania’s Erie Zoo, improvements to the tiger enclosure were already under way, but the San Francisco incident prompted it to add a few extra inches to new fences, according to President Scott Mitchell.

San Diego Zoo’s big-cat fences already met the Zoos and Aquariums Association standard, but the park added up to 1 foot in some places just to be on the safe side, said spokeswoman Christine Simmons.

Inspiring those changes “feels like a double-edged sword,” said Bob Jenkins, the San Francisco Zoo’s vice president of government and external affairs.

The zoo is expected to deliver a follow-up response by the end of 2008 to the Zoos and Aquariums Association’s investigation into the tiger attack, he said, adding that there will also likely be another inspection in early 2009.

“We hope it makes the industry much stronger, but we wish it could have been done in a different way,” Jenkins said.

The zoo’s fiscal quagmire has also resulted in a hiring freeze that left several top positions — including directors of operations, development, animal care and human resources — vacant, according to Carl Friedman, The City’s director of Animal Care and Control.

Friedman was asked by the mayor last summer to work with the zoo, after the institution’s executive director resigned. Friedman is scheduled to retire at the end of January, however. Additionally, Interim Director Tanya Peterson recently announced she plans to stay in the interim role “indefinitely,” and doesn’t intend to take the job permanently.

Zoo officials say they’ve been working closely with Newsom on new initiatives to attract more visitors, though details were not divulged.

For now, the zoo remains cautious about acquiring new animals, said Peterson. However, it’s banking on the idea that several new births last spring could draw patrons back, spokeswoman Lora LaMarca said.

The zoo will also unveil a new rhinoceros enclosure in early 2009 — directly across from the refurbished big-cat exhibit.

Patron cited for scaling wall into rhino enclosure
Even a bevy of improvements embarked upon at the zoo following last December’s tiger attack couldn’t stop a patron from scaling the outer wall of the rhino enclosure earlier this month, officials said.

A male patron climbed the outer fence of the rhino exhibit Dec. 8.

Zoo patrons reported the break-in to zoo authorities before the man managed to breach the inner enclosure, according to Bob Jenkins, vice president of government and external affairs at the zoo.

“He was either trying to pet the rhino or have his picture taken with the rhino,” Jenkins said.

Although the patron and two female friends vanished before zoo security arrived, staff members detained them elsewhere in the park, and the man was cited for disturbing animals, a misdemeanor, according to officers at San Francisco’s Taraval police station, which serves the zoo.

After Carlos Sousa Jr. was killed by an escaped tiger last winter, the zoo posted signs throughout the park asking patrons to report anything they see that looks suspicious or dangerous, and that’s exactly what happened Dec. 8, according to Carl Friedman, director of The City’s Animal Care and Control.

It’s unlikely the zoo will make any safety-related changes to the rhino exhibit following the incident, according to Jenkins.

“If somebody wants to get over the fence, they will,” he said. “The only way to avoid it is to have no visitors at the zoo.”

Legal fight for zoo, city just beginning
As the first anniversary of a deadly Christmas Day tiger mauling at the San Francisco Zoo draws near, the legal fight is just beginning.

Carlos and Marilza Sousa, parents of victim Carlos Sousa Jr., expect to file their formal lawsuit against the zoo and The City by Dec. 27, attorney Michael Cardoza confirmed this month. The Sousas filed a wrongful-death claim in May that the City Attorney’s Office rejected in June.

The family will file for unspecified damages in the death of their son. They are weighing whether to request a memorial be erected in honor of their son, similar to the memorial to Tatiana, the massive Siberian tiger who killed him, Cardoza said.

The zoo would seriously consider installing a memorial to Sousa if asked, according to Interim Director Tanya Peterson.

Meanwhile, brothers Paul and Kulbir Dhaliwal filed a formal lawsuit in federal court in November against the zoo and The City.

The suit, filed by attorney Mark Geragos, claims the Dhaliwals “suffered and will continue to suffer from the attack, sustaining physical and emotional injuries.” They “are permanently scarred by this attack” and they will “continue to incur medical expenses and loss of earnings.” The lawsuit demands liability for their injuries.

Initial hearings in the case are scheduled for February.

As the anniversary of their son’s death approaches, the Sousa family’s pain remains fresh, according to Cardoza.

“With the season upon us, they’re reliving it now,” Cardoza said. “I had one of them on the phone crying, saying, ‘This is what Christmas is going to be like for the rest of my life.’”

Lawsuit filed by handler still in mediation
A lawsuit against the San Francisco Zoo from the handler who was attacked in 2006 while feeding the Siberian tiger that later killed a teenager last Christmas Day could head to trial Jan. 20.

Mediations between handler Lori Komejan, her attorneys and representatives of the zoo have been ongoing this fall, according to John Smith, one of Komejan’s attorneys. Smith would not disclose the nature of those discussions, but said a trial date is scheduled next month in San Francisco Superior Court.

Komejan was attacked during a public feeding of the zoo’s tigers Dec. 22, 2006. She had just finished giving tiger Tatiana her meal when a piece of meat fell into a drain trough outside the enclosure, according to court documents filed in October 2007.

As Komejan reached to fetch the meat, Tatiana reached under the bars of her cage and grabbed Komejan’s right arm, then her left arm, pulling both through the bars, according to court documents.

Komejan remains an employee of the zoo, although she has been off duty on workers’ compensation since the incident, according to spokeswoman Lora LaMarca.

An investigation by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health found that the lion house, where lions and tigers are fed, contained a defective cage in which big cats could reach under and through the bars, according to court documents. The attack and investigation prompted changes in the lion house.

Public feedings of the big cats were canceled for several months after Komejan’s attack, but resumed in summer 2007, according to LaMarca. They were abandoned once more after Tatiana fatally mauled Carlos Sousa Jr. last Christmas Day.

Officials are still weighing whether to bring them back, LaMarca said.

Timeline of a tragedy
Events leading up to and following last Christmas Day’s fatal tiger mauling at the San Francisco Zoo.

Dec. 22, 2006: Zoo’s Siberian tiger, Tatiana, mauls handler Lori Komejan, severely injuring both her forearms.
Dec. 25, 2007: Tatiana escapes enclosure and attacks Carlos Sousa Jr., 17, and brothers Paul and Kulbir Dhaliwal, then 19 and 23, killing Sousa and injuring the others. Police shoot and kill the tiger.
Dec. 28, 2007: Zoo officials admit tiger enclosure’s walls are shorter than the national standard.
Jan. 3: Zoo reopens to public and unveils memorial to Tatiana. Big-cat enclosure remains closed. Female polar bear nearly escapes her enclosure.
Jan. 8: Dhaliwal brothers file a legal claim against the zoo and The City. The same day, San Leandro police arrest Paul Dhaliwal for allegedly shoplifting at a Target store in San Leandro.
March 18: The Association of Zoos and Aquariums releases a report finding that the zoo was understaffed and unprepared for the Christmas Day attack.
May 14: Carlos Sousa Jr.’s parents, Carlos and Marilza, file a wrongful-death claim against the zoo and The City.
July 17: Hearing on legislation introduced by Supervisor Chris Daly to turn the zoo into an animal rescue center.
Sept. 16: Board of Supervisors vetoes Daly’s legislation.
Nov. 12: Dhaliwals file a lawsuit in federal court against the zoo and The City, accusing city officials of negligence in the attack and of violating their civil rights during the investigation.
Dec. 25: Zoo will close to commemorate tiger attack.
Dec. 27: Deadline for Sousa family to file lawsuit.

Written by Beth Winegarner

December 18, 2008 at 4:44 AM

The City may be running the risk of wildfires

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
December 10, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO — Neglect has left nearly a dozen wooded areas in The City thick with underbrush and aging trees, and that has some worried that the region is ripe for a devastating wildfire.

San Francisco is home to several large, wooded areas — from the Presidio to the north to McLaren Park to the south. Many are dangerously overgrown. Those conditions, coupled with decreasing rainfall, unseasonably hot days and a lack of controlled burns in the area — an effective fire-prevention technique — could add up to disaster.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has deemed 11 of The City’s park areas “moderate fire hazard severity zones,” ranked only below “very high” and “high” on the state’s severity scale.

“We have fires every year,” said Franco Mancini, who lives near the 318-acre McLaren Park, which is sandwiched between the Excelsior and Visitacion Valley neighborhoods. “They’re kind of big fires. Every year, the grasslands are ignited in some way or another.”

San Francisco firefighters have extinguished 34 grass or brush fires since Jan. 1, according to Fire Department spokeswoman Lt. Mindy Talmadge. The tally does not count the October fire on Angel Island that consumed 380 acres of grassland — nearly half its vegetation.

Although such larger fires are rare in The City, they can happen “if all the forces of nature are lined up,” said Assistant Deputy Chief Tom Saragusa of the Fire Department.

Those forces include a string of three or four hot days, coupled with San Francisco’s notorious winds and hilly topography, he said.

Ironically, those are the same winds and topography that lead firefighters to say it’s too dangerous to perform controlled burns within city limits, Talmadge said. Experts say controlled burns are an effective fire-prevention tool, since they clear out accumulated growth that could allow wildfires to quickly escalate out of control.

The majority of fire-danger zones identified by state officials are large park properties owned and managed by the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department. Without controlled burns to manage dry grasses and undergrowth, it’s up to Rec and Park staff to trim potential fire fuel on those properties.

For example, the 70-acre Glen Canyon Park has been identified by the state as a moderate fire hazard. The wooded area, like many other city parks, contains homeless encampments and is bordered by homes.

“If required, we cut the grass, but it’s really labor intensive and not usually done,” Rec and Park spokesman Elton Pon said, referring to Glen Canyon’s vegetation management.

Trees — including the notoriously flammable eucalyptus — are only trimmed in cases of imminent threat and hazard, due to staff and funding shortfalls, according to Pon.

Rec and Park does spend $10,000 per year to hire a herd of goats to munch dry foliage in Glen Canyon and Twin Peaks, Pon said.
However, Rec and Park officials could not quantify how much they spend managing vegetation in The City’s other wildland parks, or how often that work is done.

A $185 million neighborhood park bond approved by voters in February includes $5 million for trail restoration and $4 million for tree management in city-owned parks. Some of those funds could help reduce the fire-fuel load in parks tagged as hazards, said Jim Lazarus, vice chair of the Recreation and Park Commission.

“My opinion is that money should target areas that border developed properties,” Lazarus said.

The fire risk is also heightened when temperatures spike.

San Francisco had three three-day stretches of hot temperatures this year, according to Bob Benjamin, forecaster with the National Weather Service. Thermometers spiked above 85 degrees for three days in June, another three in September and three more in November.

Such heat waves are not unusual in The City, Benjamin said.

At the same time, annual rainfall has declined.

Between 2004 and 2006, The City saw annual rainfall totals of more than 30 inches. But since 2006, it has dropped to less than 18 inches per year — similar to statewide conditions that prompted Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to declare a drought in June.

Meanwhile, some locals have taken it into their own hands to clear brush and trails, both for access and for fire safety.

A group calling itself the Mount Sutro Stewards has spent the past two years doing just that on the slopes of the dense, 61-acre eucalyptus forest immediately behind UC San Francisco’s Parnassus campus.

“Mount Sutro has a history of fire documented back to the 1800s,” said group member Craig Dawson. “There have been some recently, but when you consider the proximity of homes, the hospital and student housing, we’ve been fortunate there hasn’t been anything major.”

City not fighting fire with fire
Fire experts know you should fight fire with fire, but San Francisco hasn’t used controlled burns to quell dangerous areas in many years.

Despite dozens of small grass fires each year — and one big blaze this year that torched half of Angel Island — local fire officials say it’s just too dangerous to attempt controlled burns in The City’s open-space parks.

“We have done it in the past, but with our topography, the hills and the wind, the Fire Department has decided it’s just too risky,” Lt. Mindy Talmadge, spokeswoman for the Fire Department said.

Controlled, or prescribed, burns are intentionally set by a fire agency to pre-empt a wildfire by reducing flammable brush to cinders.

Such burns are common among other fire agencies in the Bay Area, including San Mateo and Marin counties.

“Fire is natural to the environment and it’s good for thinning out the vegetation in a natural way,” said Ernylee Chamlee, chief of wildland fire prevention engineering for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “I think more agencies would like to do them more, but they’re not easy to do.”

Controlled burns are more challenging when there are homes nearby, according to Chamlee, and that’s the case with every open space in The City.

After years of annual fires in McLaren Park, nearby resident Franco Mancini approached the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to discuss the possibility of controlled burns in The City.

“They said it was fine, just get concurrence from your local fire department,” he said.

The Fire Department, however, has persisted in saying no.

That leaves the process of using fire to reduce fuel loads in local parks to the whims of Mother Nature and accidental blazes, according to Stan Kaufman, who lives on Mount Davidson.

“Fire management has devolved to the drunk teenage high schoolers who are out there shooting off fireworks,” he said. “Nobody does it responsibly, so it winds up happening irresponsibly.” — Beth Winegarner

Major blazes waiting to happen?
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has deemed 11 of San Francisco’s park areas “moderate fire hazard severity zones.”

– Glen Canyon
– The Presidio
– Maritime National Historic Park
– Interior Park Belt
– Lincoln Golf Course and Lands End
– Mount Davidson
– Stern Grove
– McLaren Park
– Candlestick Point
– Park lands east and south of Lake Merced
– Mount Sutro

Source: Cal Fire

Preventive measures
Tips to make your home safer from wildfires:

– Use ignition-resistant construction for roof, assemblies, gutters, vents, desks, exterior walls, exterior windows
– Install residential sprinklers
– Make sure that electric service lines, fuse boxes and circuit breaker panels are installed and maintained per code

– Remove dead leaves and needles
– Remove hanging dead branches and keep them 10 feet from chimney

– Create a defensible space around home of 100 feet, which is required by law
– Remove all flammable vegetation within 30 feet immediately surrounding home, including woodpiles
– Create a reduced-fuel zone in the remaining 70 feet or to property line
– Use care operating equipment such as lawnmowers when clearing vegetation; one small spark may start a fire

Source: Cal Fire

Written by Beth Winegarner

December 10, 2008 at 4:32 AM

Posted in Parks, San Francisco

New swan soon to rule the roost at Palace of Fine Arts

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
November 9, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO — A new male swan at the Palace of Fine Arts may be getting picked on right now by the three female swans he lives with, but caretakers expect him to be ruling the roost within a short amount of time.

The Palace of Fine Arts’ male swan, named Wednesday, mysteriously vanished on Christmas Day last year, and police have not yet solved the swan-napping — they never developed any solid leads, nor did they determine whether the thief was human or animal, according to San Francisco Police spokeswoman Sgt. Lyn Tomioka.

Hagerty called the SFPD on Dec. 25 when she went to the lake for the swans’ afternoon feeding and found Wednesday gone, the female swans agitated and a pile of downy white feathers left behind.

“Their wings were clipped, so flying away was not a possibility,” said Tomioka. “Police inspected the scene, but we were unable to determine if the swan was stolen.” No suspects were found.

There are an unknown number of coyotes living in the Presidio that have occasionally been spotted in and around the Palace of Fine Arts, according to Deb Campbell, a spokeswoman for Animal Care and Control.

Hagerty maintains that a human took the swan, because an attack by a coyote or dog would have left plenty of evidence behind.
“I’ve been on the wrong end of a swan. When they get hurt, they bleed like you wouldn’t believe,” Hagerty said.

Wednesday’s disappearance left the lake’s three female swans — 18-year-old Friday and her 12-year-old daughter Blanche and 3-year-old daughter Monday — without a guardian, according to swan caretaker Gayle Hagerty.

Hagerty and fellow caretaker Judy Wilkes pooled their money and bought a new 1-year-old male swan in October, naming him Maybeck, after Palace of Fine Arts architect Bernard Maybeck.

“He’s one of the most magnificent swans I have ever seen,” Hagerty said. “At first he was shy. He fainted when we first put him in the lake. But he’ll be king of the land in another six months.”

For now, Maybeck is taking a pecking from the ladies, who chase him around the lake mercilessly. But as the yearling grows, he’ll take over as head of the roost, and within two years he’ll be able to fertilize eggs and rejuvenate the flock, Hagerty said.

This story originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

November 9, 2008 at 11:18 PM

City sued over Stern Grove tree death

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
September 23, 2008

The family of a woman killed by a falling redwood branch in Stern Grove last April is suing The City on the grounds that the tree was a known hazard, attorneys for the family said Tuesday.

Resident Kathleen Bolton was loading her car in the grove’s concert meadow parking lot April 14 when the branch fell onto the car, crushing it and killing her.

Pleasanton-based HortScience described the tree as, “in decline, with extensive dieback of large branches and significant structural defects which cannot be abated” in a January 2004 report commissioned by the Recreation and Park Department.

“This tree had been in this condition for a very long time,” said Doris Chang, a partner with Walkup, Melodia, Kelly & Schoenberger who is representing Bolton’s parents, Bernard and Mildred. She faulted the city for “being as careless as to not have done something, especially in a [parking lot].”

However, representatives for the department said in April that the tree did not merit immediate action.

“On an ongoing basis, all those trees are looked at,” former Recreation and Park spokeswoman Rose Marie Dennis told the Examiner in April. “Our first line was dealing with the worst trees, which this tree was not. And the reality is … tree failure can happen at any time.”

The Boltons filed two initial claims against San Francisco in July. The City Attorney’s office rejected both claims, according to Matt Dorsey, spokesman for the office.

The City Attorney’s office conducted an investigation that found no evidence of liability on the part of the city, but Dorsey characterized the rejection of the Bolton’s claim as “procedural.”

“It’s a step in what will likely be litigation, and is not intended to diminish the seriousness of the loss for the victim’s family and friends,” Dorsey said. “This was a freak accident.”

A formal lawsuit against The City will likely be filed next week, Chang said.

This story originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

September 23, 2008 at 11:16 PM

Posted in Parks, San Francisco

Public golfing greens may be privatized

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
September 21, 2008

The City’s public golf courses could earn significantly more money if they were turned over to private management, according to a long-awaited study that critics say is based on faulty fiscal and demographic information.

The San Francisco Recreation and Park Department operates six golf courses, ranging from the carefully manicured Harding Park — which hosts the PGA Tour — to the scruffy Lincoln Park, which boasts views of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Golfing has declined 50 percent at these courses in the past decade, leading The City’s golf fund — used for golf-related revenues and expenses and managed by the Recreation and Park Department — to lose money or break even, according to the study prepared by Indiana-based PROS Consulting.

Golfers played 130,409 rounds at Harding, Lincoln and Sharp courses in 2006 — down from 210,638 in 2001, according to the report.

Citywide golf revenue in 2007-08 was $12.5 million, the majority earned from admission fees and concessions — up from $8.6 million in 2004-05. Last year’s expenses totaled $12.4 million, according to documents from the Recreation and Park Department.

Parks advocates say the department entered a financial sand trap in 2001 when it borrowed $4 million from the open-space fund and $12 million in state park bond money destined for other projects and spent it to make Harding PGA-worthy.

“We were sold [the idea] that we’d get the money back, along with interest, so we can benefit other parts of town,” said Nancy Wuerfel, a member of the citizen-based Parks, Recreation and Open Space Advisory Committee. “We were convinced it was a good deal.”

Instead, the Recreation and Park Department is paying that money back as it can in a 25-year period — and has withheld payment in lean years, such as 2008-09, Wuerfel said.

At the same time, recent golf-fund balance sheets show that the courses can turn a profit. The program earned $52,753 in 2007-08, in a year when use of the fields continued to decline, according to the Recreation and Park Department.

Putting the golf courses — and their maintenance — into private hands could provide the funding for landscape and amenity improvements needed to attract more players, according to the PROS Consulting report.

Isabel Wade, director of the Neighborhood Parks Council and part of a task force assigned to determine the future of city golfing, questioned the likelihood that golfers would come from across the Bay to play here.

“We might attract a few from Sausalito and the Peninsula, but I don’t think people will drive from Fremont — but [the report] didn’t study that data,” Wade said.

However, privatizing could also boost prices. Adult golfers pay $14 to $18 to play at Golden Gate Park, while admission at the Presidio ranges from $45 to $145.

Golfers at Lincoln Park on Sunday said they would like to see many of The City’s courses remain public, in part because the low cost and accessibility attract community members who are just playing for fun.

However, “I bet they could attract more tourism if it was much nicer,” resident Scott Molina said.

Task force members, who were waiting on the PROS report to kick off their own recommendation process, said they’re angry that a meeting scheduled for Sept. 29 may be their last chance to weigh in.

“It seems to me that the discussion on this hasn’t really begun,” member Zach Tuller said.

How city golf courses could change

An independent consultant that recommends leasing out The City’s golf courses to private management has also made a number of other recommendations in a report to the Recreation and Park Department:

Lincoln Park
Reduce from 18 holes to nine, add driving range, improve clubhouse and add nature/hospitality center.

Sharp Park
Raise private donations and use the money to redesign the 18-hole course — with protections for endangered species, such as the garter snake.

Harding Park and Fleming courses
Continue with course improvements to make these “signature” golf courses.

Gleneagles Golf Course
Give existing operator a nine-year lease extension in exchange for capital improvements at the course.

Source: PROS Consulting

This story originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

September 21, 2008 at 11:24 PM

Posted in Golf, Parks, San Francisco

Budget weighs on lead removal

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
September 20, 2008

The Recreation and Park Department knows that nearly 140 of its facilities are contaminated by lead, but it says a tight budget means it will be years before cleanup is completed.

City agencies are required by the Department of Public Health to remove lead from buildings constructed before 1978. Recreation and Park fell behind, and in 2003, the department was required to step up its efforts and report quarterly to the Board of Supervisors on its progress, said Karen Cohn, a children’s health manager at DPH.

At the same time, DPH lobbied for an annual allowance of $200,000 to help Recreation and Park continue cleanup. However, “$200,000 doesn’t really do anything,” Cohn said.

Since 1999, the department has slowly made progress, removing lead paint and other contamination at 149 sites — but it has another 136 to go.

Among those sites are many city landmarks, including the Palace of Fine Arts, the War Memorial Opera House, 16 public libraries and the 84-year-old Kezar Pavilion, according to a report from Recreation and Park General Manager Yomi Agunbiade.

Kezar alone — which the U.S. Department of Public Health investigated after reports that employees were getting sick and dying of cancer from asbestos and lead contamination — required the department’s entire 2007-08 lead-cleanup allotment, part of 2008-09’s and another $241,000 in department funds, spokesman Elton Pon said. Paint replacement and other cleanup is due to finish in November, Pon said.

Ten other sites slated for lead cleanup in 2007-08 remain on the back burner, according to Agunbiade’s report.

Roughly 15 to 20 Recreation and Park employees work at Kezar at any one time. The U.S. Department of Health and HumaN Services investigated the gymnasium and offices in 2007 after a handful of former employees died of cancer and two current ones were diagnosed, but found no evidence that the presence of lead and asbestos were the cause, according to a report from investigator Elena Page.

“We know there should not be any exposure to lead — there is no ‘normal level,’” said Cohn, whose office handles more than 400 cases of lead toxicity in local children each year.

In addition to city workers, Kezar hosts youth basketball practices and games, and is the current home of the Bay City Bombers Roller Derby.

The presence of lead in the building “is common knowledge,” Bay City Bombers general manager Jim Fitzpatrick said. “There’s no concern from us — they say everything is being taken care of.”

By the numbers

149: Sites where lead abatement is complete (1999-2008)

Glen Park playground and recreation center
Duboce Park and Harvey Milk recreation center
South Sunset playground
Chinese recreation center
Golden Gate Park playgrounds

136: Sites where abatement is still needed

Palace of Fine Arts and Exploratorium
War Memorial Opera House
Justin Herman Plaza
Fort Funston
Japanese Peace Plaza and Pagoda

Total sites: 285

Source: Recreation and Park Department

This story originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

September 20, 2008 at 11:21 PM

Posted in Health, Parks, San Francisco

Recreation and Park shakeup may have been final straw

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
September 11, 2008

A decision by the head of The City’s Recreation and Park Department to fire a popular manager may have been the reason he was pushed out of a job, officials said Thursday.

Following months of rumors that his job was in jeopardy and closed-door talks with Mayor Gavin Newsom on Tuesday night, General Manager Yomi Agunbiade announced Wednesday that he was stepping down from his post.

Just days earlier, Rhoda Parhams, director of the department’s capital division, told staff she would be leaving, according to spokesman Elton Pon. Agunbiade had taken steps to remove her, a department staffer confirmed.

Jim Lazarus, vice chair of the Recreation and Park Commission, believes the situation with Parhams may have contributed to Agunbiade’s announcement.

“I think that got the mayor’s attention in a negative way,” he said.

Mayor’s Office staff did not return calls for comment Thursday.

Agunbiade has been an unpopular leader, taking heavy criticism from park advocates for his lack of rapport with the public, as well as his handling of a number of bond-funded projects that were designed improperly, behind schedule or over budget.

He has also been at the helm through a number of high-profile crisises, including fatalities at the San Francisco Zoo last December and Stern Grove in April.

Additionally, in July, Recreation and Park Department spokeswoman Rose Marie Dennis was offered a job reassignment after she filed a personnel complaint against Agunbiade, charging him with harassment.

In recent letters to Newsom, supervisors and the department, residents said Dennis and Parhams were park staff who welcomed input from the community, while Agunbiade had a reputation for top-down management and rocky interactions with the public.

Agunbiade will remain in his post while a search team recruits his replacement, according to Newsom’s office.

Agunbiade declined an interview request with The Examiner on Thursday.

This story originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

September 11, 2008 at 11:44 PM

Recreation and Park director steps down

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
September 11, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO — After months of criticism and rumors that his job was in jeopardy, the embattled head of The City’s Recreation and Park Department, Yomi Agunbiade, is leaving the troubled department.

Mayor Gavin Newsom’s office met privately with Agunbiade Tuesday night, according to Jim Lazarus, vice chair of the Recreation and Park Commission.

Agunbiade then reportedly told Recreation and Park staff Wednesday morning that he was stepping down from the job, according to Isabel Wade, executive director of the Neighborhood Parks Council, a city parks-advocacy group.

Commissioners were not informed of the decision or the reason behind it, Lazarus said.

Newsom has asked Agunbiade to remain in his position while a panel of key city staffers identifies a replacement, according to the statement released from the Mayor’s Office Wednesday.

However, talk at City Hall suggests that Phil Ginsberg, Newsom’s former chief of staff, could be tapped to replace Agunbiade, at least until a long-term director can be found, multiple sources confirmed.

Newsom appointed Agunbiade — a former sewer engineer who also worked in the capital divisions of The City’s Department of Public Works and Recreation and Parks Department — to head the park department in 2004.

He has been an unpopular leader, taking heavy criticism from parks advocates for his lack of rapport with the public, as well as his handling of a number of bond-funded projects that were designed improperly, behind schedule or over budget.

And while Newsom put a complimentary spin on the news of Agunbiade’s departure, saying that he had “seen many significant improvements to our park system,” it had long been rumored in City Hall that the Mayor was displeased with his performance.

In the wake of a closed-door performance review last month, a number of those advocates wrote to the Board of Supervisors this week asking for his removal.

“Mr. Agunbiade has not fulfilled the necessary role of accounting for the performance of this department, and cannot assure its future,” wrote resident Linda Harte, one of the letter writers.

The Recreation and Park Commission did make any recommendations regarding his employment, according to Lazarus.

Agunbiade has also been at the helm of the department through a number of high-profile crisises.

The department drew fire after a Siberian tiger escaped her enclosure at San Francisco Zoo and mauled a 17-year-old patron to death on Christmas Day, 2007.

Then, on April 18, a dog-walker was killed in Stern Grove by a limb that fell from a redwood tree arborists had tagged as a potential hazard.

In July, Recreation and Park spokeswoman Rose Marie Dennis filed a complaint against Agunbiade, charging that he harassed her regarding her appearance and religious beliefs in a series of notes over a multi-year period.

“I think he finally saw the handwriting on the wall, or perhaps the mayor pushed him out,” Wade said.

As general manager, Agunbiade was responsible for overseeing the operation of the department, which includes roughly 900 personnel, according to the controller’s office. He was earning $198,822 per year in the post – the top of the salary range for the general manager’s job, according to the controller’s office. He was an at-will employee, not under contract, according to the City’s human-resources department.

Officials did not confirm whether Agunbiade would be offered another position within city operations.

“Yomi’s a career civil servant — it wouldn’t surprise me if the Mayor asked him to go back to the Department of Public Works,” Lazarus said.

This story originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

September 11, 2008 at 9:21 PM

Park department seeking money for recreation centers

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
August 27, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO — Three recreation center projects funded by voter-approved bonds have suffered significant delays and, in some cases, costly design errors, according to Recreation and Park Department officials.

The department is seeking more than $2 million in damages from West Bay Builders, the company that performed major renovations at the Minnie and Lovie Ward Recreation Center in Oceanview.

Although the center opened this summer, its heating system still does not work and there are ongoing problems with the new landscaping, said Rhoda Parhams, planning director for the department.

Rec and Park is working with the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office to require West Bay to repair the problems and pay a financial settlement, Recreation and Park Department spokesman Elton Pon said.

West Bay Builders could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Residents in the neighborhood waited more than two years for the center to re-open, and saw more than one construction delay, neighbor Mary Harris said. Roofers had to re-roof the building after doing the work improperly the first time — a six-month setback, Harris said.

Neighbors near Upper Noe Recreation Center, which was scheduled to open Sept. 6, have also suffered roughly nine months of delays because of construction mishaps, including trouble ordering sod for the new fields, park supporter Alexandra Torre said.

The largest problem was the electrical system, which was installed but wired incorrectly, Parhams told the Recreation and Park Commission last week.

“There were clearly safety issues,” she said.

At Harvey Milk Recreation Center — still under renovation with no opening date scheduled — disabled-access points were designed incorrectly and needed to be re-designed, Parhams said. Neighbors were told the center would open this September, but are now hearing the opening could be in 2009, nearby resident Steve Medoff said.

“Had we looked at the designs ahead of time we could have caught it,” Parhams said. “We depended on the Department of Public Works to do that for us, and they didn’t.”

The Department of Public Works manages a number of construction projects for Rec and Park, and communicates with the department daily during such projects, spokeswoman Christine Falvey said.

“We have a good working relationship with them and we’ve delivered a lot of great projects for them, such as the California Academy of Sciences and Moscone Recreation Center,” Falvey said.

Some Rec and Park Commissioners were surprised by the news that these projects had significant design problems.

“We’re not designing the Transamerica Pyramid here,” Vice Chair Jim Lazarus said.

“It happens,” General Manager Yomi Agunbiade said. “We do have recourse when the work is done by a private contractor, but not when it’s done by another city department.”

Parhams said her department would add another level of design review to prevent future problems before they enter the construction phase.

Parks in progress
Construction costs and status of three San Francisco recreation centers.

Facility, Construction cost, Status
Minnie & Lovie Ward Oceanview Recreation Center, $16.8 million, Open
Harvey Milk Recreation Center, $9.3 million, Opening Sept. 6
Upper Noe Recreation Centerand Playground, $11.1 million, Under construction

Source: Recreation and Park Department

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

August 27, 2008 at 4:39 AM

Posted in Parks, San Francisco