By Thomas K. Pendergast
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors last month unanimously approved the combination of operating the Botanical Garden, Conservatory of Flowers and Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park, then placing them under the management of the Botanical. Garden Society.
These three attractions will now be collectively known as the Gardens of Golden Gate Park, although the San Francisco Department of Recreation and Parks will maintain the popular attractions and plants therein.
The new “flexible pricing” approach of charging entrance fees to people who are not military veterans or San Francisco residents, however, was blocked by the board’s budget and finance committee. That other shoe is expected to drop in March, when the details are fully ironed out and the legislation is sent to the full board for a vote.
Flexible pricing for these three popular tourist destinations has already been in place since January 2020, but Eric Anderson, the superintendent of Open Space for Rec. and Park, said it was just a temporary pilot program that they now want to make permanent.
The new arrangement will allow for a “multi-garden ticket”, which would be a group ticket allowing visitors to visit all three gardens.
“The order allows for greater flexibility and would allow prices to be set consistently based on times and seasons of aggregate demand…and all price changes would require 30 days’ notice,” Anderson said.
For a variety of reasons, placing all three under the control of the Botanical Garden Society could be considered complicated, including the fact that there was no bidding for other possible sellers.
“Because the management of these three gardens has never been competitively tendered, we don’t know if the costs are reasonable or if there are other suppliers who would bid on a competitive solicitation,” said Nicholas Menard of the City Budget and City Office. Legislative Analyst (BLA). “We therefore consider the approval of the lease modification to be a matter of policy for the supervisory board.”
As for the proposed new flexible pricing plan “it doesn’t limit price changes to certain periods, like certain months, as is currently the case,” Menard told the Committee.
“The annual revenue loss from eliminating residency fees (in San Francisco) would be approximately $271,000 and approximately $300,000 for non-resident veterans.”
“It’s really been a vision for those who have come before us for generations, including John McLaren, I would say, it’s meant to be a green oasis for all the people who come and how can we make it free,” District 1 supervisor Connie Chan said.
“But more importantly, in the event that we were to offset the cost of operations, how can we ensure that it will remain affordable for people who actually come to visit?” she asked. “I’m in favor of having a non-resident fee.”
District 4 Supervisor Gordon Mar presented a report from the BLA which pointed out that the existing tenancy and management agreement has no performance measures for the Botanical Garden Society.
“It seems like that’s also important, especially because we’re giving up the tender requirement, to really have a tax audit,” Mar said. “The fact that there’s no performance metrics included in the deal is something that I think is really something to look at.”
Dana Ketcham, Director of Property Management at Rec. and Park, responded that they might consider adding a requirement to submit an annual report to Rec. and Park.
“I think that would help strengthen our oversight of this really important deal,” Mar said.
At one point, Ketcham said admission to the Botanical Gardens would be capped at $15, but Chan challenged Ketcham on this.
“There is no specific cap listed at $15 to say that is the maximum. The language, however, says you could increase…the chief executive of the department…may approve a temporary increase of up to 50% in non-resident adult fees with at least 30 days notice,” Chan said. “So there’s no specific language that caps you at $15. In fact, at any 30 days notice, you could go up 50%.”
“We want to use this with agility and intelligence in the best interest of these gardens. Simply raising prices is not an effective thing to do,” Ketcham said. “You have to look at market demand and all of those things. And we need to be nimble and able to respond to these changes.
But Chan was not convinced.
“Why do we allow flexible pricing as a method to raise the price? ” she says. “And what’s wrong technically, in the language itself, in allowing a flat fee table and you coming back to the budget committee like everyone else and then coming up with why you need an increase in fees on an annual basis?
“Flexible pricing as a methodology for price increases even now right now doesn’t make sense to me. And that’s because they’re allowed to lower fees, we can have language saying , ‘you are allowed to lower your price.’
Chan said her issues with the order at that time were unresolved, so she asked the committee to pursue the item until March 2.
“All the revenue generated from the three different venues – the tea garden, the conservatory and the botanical garden – are all plowed back into operations and staff,” said District 11 supervisor Ahsha Safai. is a good thing to note; they are not money makers; it only covers operating and repair costs.
But during the public comments, at least one citizen had none of it.
“It’s a public garden. We’re paying for these gardeners,” said Harry Pariser. “I really hate this business model of our public spaces being run for profit. It’s outrageous!
“We pay taxes to use them. We shouldn’t be banned from using the Shakespeare Garden because of a wedding and they shouldn’t rent the Tea Garden – which they will do for private $300 sushi parties – to raise funds.