Questions San Francisco Supervisors Should Be Asking the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society (But Are Unlikely To)

Harry S. Pariser
8 min readFeb 18, 2022

Below are some questions the Board of Supervisors Should ask the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society About the Proposed Privatization of the Tea Garden and Conservatory of Flowers (and the Extortionate Price Hike on Weekends).

SYNOPSIS: After trying for decades to gain control of who can enter the Strybing Arboretum, 55 acres of formerly freely accessible public space, the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society finally succeeded in doing so 2011 following sellout votes by former Supervisors John Avalos, Chris Daly and David Campos to institute a year of temporary entry taxes.

After that “temporary” set of entry taxes expired, Avalos mounted a half hearted attempt to roll back the entry charges before it was extended further before being made permanent with the help of then District Five Supervisor London Breed.

An account of the privatization is here:

https://commonsprotector.medium.com/how-the-wealthy-stole-55-acres-of-golden-gate-park-daa476cfe72f

There is nothing that elected officials love anywhere as the pursuit of not asking hard questions of vested interests. In the case of the Tea Garden, no one is mentioning the word “privatization.” The formerly-free Conservatory of Flowers was handed over to Parks Alliance in a similarly stealthy process. There was no discussion, and we first read about it in the Chronicle!

Questions

Here are questions that Supervisors who have the will to do due diligence should ask of the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society:

The San Francisco Botanical Garden Society claims over $20-million in assets. The City budget is over $12 billion. Entry taxes generate relatively little money after expenses, although they do give hegemonic control. Please give ten reasons, aside from additional income through taxation, why it is necessary to charge visitors?

These three taxpayer-owned venues were all free for decades. Why is it that free hours or days are at times when 9 to 5 workers are at work? How about joining the De Young in making every Saturday a “free day” (free to all without a check-in or residence check)? Why should not every Federal, State and City holiday be a “free day” for all three facilities?

How about giving free entry with one proof of residency (preferably State of California) to “residents” of both SF and CA, along with four guests?

Why is it that members of the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society have free entry currently for themselves and their guests to enter the Tea Garden and the Conservatory of Flowers?

What percentage of the staff of the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society is unionized? Are the Tea Garden ticket collectors still SEIU members? Would the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society oppose its staff being unionized? If so, why?

Cheerleaders for the privatization effort maintain that there are “costs economies” and that higher entry taxes will lead to more jobs. Please detail these economies and list the jobs to be created.

Nowhere in the legislation does it say what the admission rates for all three gardens will be with this “garden pass.” Why is it that these are to be set by Phil Ginsburg and not legislated?

We have heard reports of people who have been hassled about proving residency when trying to enter Strybing Arboretum (“Botanical Garden”). What exact proof do you currently require? How about liberalizing requirements?

In the past, the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society has engaged in racial profiling. We see this clearly in this video (one of a series) where the late disabled USMC veteran Abraham Siliezer details his persecution at the hands of park police and SF’s finest. What steps has or will the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society take to make sure that veterans will not be harassed by staff who may not like their ethnicity or appearance?

Is the motivation to charge for entry to these public spaces, held by the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society, not based, at least partially, on controlling who enters and a desire to keep some people out?

Some believe that another motivation for entry charges is the idea that this will increase membership in the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society, If members are to be admitted to these facilities for free, how about setting aside 40% of these membership revenues to be contributed to the General Fund? Or how about not granting members (and reciprocal members: very wealthy people who make substantial contributions to other gardens) free entry at all? After all, they should “support the garden” also, should they not?

Why is it that the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society, even when it was still the Strybing Arboretum Society, has never held a single community meeting? How about a requirement that the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society hold bi-monthly meetings with San Francisco residents?

What exact involvement will the Friends of the Japanese Tea Garden have with fundraising if the proposed privatization happens? Will Parks Alliance still be creaming off 10% off the top from any revenues raised?

It looked much better in 1896, when it was free! Everyone knows that it pales in comparison with other Japanese temple gardens, which also are much cheaper to enter.

What exactly are the $20 million in reserves intended towards? Why are you collecting entry taxes when these reserves could be targeted towards meeting the “improvements” you intend to institute? What public transparency and participation in how you spend people’s entry money will you offer?

Why was Strybing Arboretum shut down for months in 2020 when other public spaces remained open? Did it have anything to do about an unwillingness to allow people to enter free of charge while because that might set a precedent?

What is the reason that entrance charges are not displayed at the front gates of the Strybing Arboretum? It is only after reaching the ticket booth, that the charges are revealed.

How much are the total annual expenditure on salaries paid out by the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society, and what percentage or amount of these are paying for the development director and employees involved with entry-tax collection?

The pagoda in The Japanese Tea Garden has been covered with thick white plastic, Cristo style for several years now, and a $1 surcharge has been imposed on visitors. Can you explain how long it will take to rebuild this pagoda, what the total costs will be and exactly what needed repair? Why does it cost exactly $1 million? Why exactly is it that visitors should pay for this?

The San Francisco Botanical Garden Society has commercialized Strybing Arboretum with such events as a $50 evening piano concert, wine tastings, etc. Every meadow is for rent, and its benches all have memorial plaques on them. The San Francisco Botanical Garden Society also sells tombstone-style plaques that surround the taxpayer-funded fountain. What commercialization plans do the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society have for the Conservatory and the Tea Garden?

Prior to the privatization, on sultry summer evenings, locals could enter the 55 acres of Strybing Arboretum through the gates behind the Hall of Flowers. What are the arguments against opening up admission free to all three public spaces after 4 PM daily? Would the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society be amenable to doing this?

Why is it that Trustee Notes for Trustees of the Board of the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society are not available for the general public. How about having your Trustees conduct open meetings with the public twice annually?

Who pays for the advertising (print ads, street banners, Comcast kiosk ads, etc.) promoting the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society? Is this not also a membership-drive promotion? How much did taxpayers contribute towards this in 2020? In 2021?

How does the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society justify spending $1.1 million dollars of working San Franciscan’s tax dollars to pay for a regal new fence? Why was the fence requisitioned in two portions? While the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society claims vandalism spurred the need for a new, very expensive fence, what evidence can the Society provide that repairs and preventive measures, as opposed to a new fence, would not have sufficed? Does the new fence not have something to do with the nabobs of the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society’s narcissistic urge to own and run a “world class botanical garden”?

What does the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society believe constitutes a “world class botanical garden” and what does it mean in an epoch of climate disaster?

How is it that the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society was able to use hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to destroy the lovely Demonstration Garden and replace it with the (largely concrete) “Celebration Garden”? Are the rental rates here affordable to ordinary working people? Why were there no community meetings before the garden was demolished?

The San Francisco Botanical Garden Society, with the help of lobbyist Sam Lauter, negotiated a sweetheart 30-year contract (“lease agreement”) for a new fortress to be sited atop of the hill. Instead, acres were destroyed around the nursery to create a new, gated complex. Why is it that the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society was able to alter this contract with zero control by the Board of Supervisors and not even one meeting with neighbors?

What is the role of the taxpayer-funded “Garden Director” (a position whose current occupant is leaving to head a cemetery)? Is this position to be abolished as an “economy”? How could this director be made more responsible to locals? Why is it he has never chaired even one meeting with locals? How will a new director, if the position of Garden Director will still exist, be selected? Can neighbors be involved in the selection process?

What is the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society’s position regarding generators and food trucks in the park, LED light clusters and light projections? Are they planning any changes to the area surrounding the Conservatory, Tea Garden or any of the structures? Will they be ending the light projections on the conservatory?

Can the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society detail ten prospective events they might host in both the Conservatory and Tea Garden along with the pricing or rental charges?

Does the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society support the covert Recreation and Park Department policy that orders gardeners in Golden Gate Park and elsewhere to avoid speaking to the media?

Why does the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society believe that they can make every decision in a unilateral fashion without involving those whose backyard the Arboretum was before they appropriated it?

⃝⃝I expect that very few or none of these questions will ever be asked by either elected officials or bureaucrats, even though we taxpayers deserve answers! ◼︎

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Harry S. Pariser

Harry S. Pariser is a long time resident of San Francisco, CA. He is a writer (and author), artist and photographer.