Northside SF
Publisher's Note
Six degrees of Phil Ginsburg: How a good ole boys network is taking
Golden Gate Park to hell in a handbasket

All over San Francisco, buildings sit empty primarily because the folks at City Hall don’t like chain stores. And neither do the residents of San Francisco, who approved Proposition G in 2006, which requires formula retailers (any retailer operating 11 or more stores nationwide) to get a conditional use permit from the Planning Commission.

Despite Target chomping at the bit, the parking lot of the long-empty Mervyn’s building on Geary and Masonic has turned into a late-night meeting place for drug sales and Craig’s List hook-ups, but God forbid we let another chain move in there and sully the neighborhood. Dead women keep turning up at Lombard Street motels, but it’s a good thing Pet Food Express didn’t take over the abandoned Blockbuster store and drag everyone down with them. Gang violence is one thing, but an American Apparel store on Valencia Street in the Mission district? Completely unacceptable!

That hatred of chains, however, does not extend to Golden Gate Park. San Francisco Recreation and Park Department general manager Phil Ginsburg and his buddies have finagled Ortega Family Enterprises, a New Mexico concessions company, into the Stow Lake boathouse, yanking the lease away from San Francisco native Bruce McLellan, whose grandfather bought Stow Lake’s first fleet of boats in 1946. For Ginsburg, who began using the words “privatization” and “Golden Gate Park” together almost immediately after his jogging buddy, then-Mayor Gavin Newsom, appointed him, Stow Lake is just the beginning. If Ginsburg has his way, every inch of Golden Gate Park will be “privatized” and bringing in boatloads of cash.

Ginsburg left his position as Newsom’s chief of staff in 2008, citing as the reason the ambiguous “desire to spend more time with his family.” Evidently he quickly grew tired of his family because he accepted the Rec and Park job just one year later, even though he had no experience managing parks. In August of last year, he quietly fired every Rec and Park director (the low-paid people who actually do the hands-on work) and hired more six-figure middle managers. Each is expected to generate revenue up to 10 times the amount of their salaries, effectively turning them into sales people.

And do they have a park to sell you – or anyone who has a big enough checkbook. Case in point: the sprawling AstroTurf-covered, brightly lit soccer complex the Gap-founding Fisher family wants to build by the Beach Chalet. To add insult to injury, Ginsburg wants San Francisco homeowners to pay for the salaries of his sales staff with yet another parcel tax (look for it on next November’s ballot). San Franciscans already paid $110 million in 2000 for the Neighborhood Park Bond and nearly $200 million for the Clean and Safe Neighborhood Parks Bond in 2008 – yet Ginsburg is whining about city cutbacks forcing him to fire gardeners (all the while collecting a salary of over $200,000 a year for himself).

The money from the Clean and Safe Bond was meant to renovate rundown clubhouses and playgrounds, but after spending nearly $4 million on the J.P. Murphy Clubhouse (Ninth Avenue and Ortega), Carli Fullerton, J.P. Murphy Park's recreation director, was laid off and the doors to the clubhouse were padlocked shut. As our tax dollars pay for the renovations, Ginsburg plans to lease at least half of San Francisco's 48 clubhouses (including J.P. Murphy) to private tenants.

In the case of Stow Lake, it seemed Ginsburg had a personal agenda – or something personal against Bruce McLellan, who made it clear that he was willing to put money into renovating the boathouse, just not with his current, shaky month-to-month lease. McLellan submitted a competitive bid, but Ginsburg made sure the Ortega Family had his pal, topnotch lobbyist Alex Tourk, to help navigate them through the process and seal the deal.

If Tourk’s name sounds familiar, that’s because he is a former Newsom associate, too, serving as the mayor’s deputy chief of staff and then as his re-election campaign manager until January 2007. Tourk then resigned after discovering that his wife, Ruby Rippey-Tourk, had an affair with the mayor while serving as his appointments secretary. Wrought with guilt, Newsom promised to pay Tourk’s $15,000 monthly salary from his own pocket until his ex-friend got back on his feet. Tourk used that money to start his own lobbying and public relations firm, Ground Floor Affairs (no pun intended, I’m sure). Between Nov. 30 and Dec. 31, 2010, Ortega Family Enterprises paid Alex Tourk the same amount Newsom paid him for a month’s work – $15,000 – to pitch them to the local media, sell them to the neighbors, and show up at City Hall with hoards of supporters wearing pro-Ortega buttons.

If you’ve been to Muir Woods, another of the Ortega’s state park contracts, you’ve seen the future of the Stow Lake boathouse – tacky trinkets and overpriced “sustainable” sandwiches; an upscale version of the souvenir shacks you visit to buy plastic jackalopes in Wyoming. According to the Ortega website, some of their other projects include Yippee Yi Yo, a New Mexico gift shop with 4,000 square feet of “Southwestern books, gifts, Native American jewelry and pottery, toys, games, kitchenware, housewares, and clothing”; Simply Santa Fe, a three-story, 15,000-square-foot “selling space” offering “Western and Native American jewelry and clothing, home furnishings, accessories, and gifts”; and the Carlsbad Caverns Trading Company, a gift shop that hawks cave- and geology-related toys and kits, “gifts inspired by the surrounding desert,” regional food products, T-shirts, mugs, and caps.

Thanks to Ginsburg and his cronies, the Stow Lake lease received little scrutiny. With the exception of David Lee, the Recreation and Park Commission voted to approve the Ortega’s 15-year lease with a minimum base rent of $140,000 per year plus concession revenue – less than McLellan is currently bringing in. The Ortegas even offered to more than double their yearly base rent to $315,000 and run the boathouse as-is, but Ginsburg’s cash-strapped department turned them down, stating they were more interested in renovating the boathouse with a fancy cafe and attracting more concessions, for which the Ortegas have pledged a quarter of a million dollars.

After being approved by the Rec and Park Commission, the issue went before the historically chain-hating Board of Supervisors, who unanimously voted to throw out the local guy in favor of the out-of-state gift shop franchise. “The new concessionaire will have a bigger menu, a new fleet of boats, and we’re preserving the boathouse for the next generation,” a beaming Ginsburg told the supervisors.

Give me a break, Ginsburg. You don’t care about preservation – you care about money – even if that means the next generation is saddled with artisan-beer-swilling tourists, overpriced sustainable sandwiches, and a tacky gift shop full of plastic great blue herons.


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