Squawking loudly over change in one San Francisco neighborhood

11/10/2013 12:00 AM

11/09/2013 5:53 PM

So, San Francisco park officials want to put a small fish restaurant next to the Marina Green, one of the sweetest spots on the city’s northern shore, with a magnificent view of the Golden Gate Bridge, the wind-swept bay and the hills of Marin County beyond.

To the uninitiated, this proposal might seem unlikely to foment a battle royal. Well, think again. This is San Francisco.

Last year, the project won unanimous approval from the city’s Recreation and Parks Commission, and it picked up the endorsement of the 500-member Marina Community Association after the project was amended to meet residents’ concerns about issues including lighting, hours of operation and limits on sale of wine and beer.

The restaurant’s 10-year lease was expected to produce $1.7 million for the Recreation and Parks Department, which relies on leases and other fees for more than a third of its operating budget. The proposed, city-selected concessionaire was the Woodhouse Fish Company, a family-owned enterprise with three popular restaurants in the city.

“We want to provide an amenity for park visitors – where it would be nice to grab a sandwich,” said Sarah Ballard, the parks department’s policy director. “In this budget climate, we think we are creating benefits for park users and also for our bottom line.”

All good to go, right?

No. Not in San Francisco, a city that specializes in protracted, bitter battles over development of any stripe – especially a battle like this one, where the stunning view from a string of multimillion-dollar homes along Marina Boulevard would be affected.

All in all, the fight to crush this restaurant project makes me think more broadly about San Francisco and how many of its residents approach change. On the whole, I have found San Franciscans think that they live in Eden, that any proposed change in paradise is unwelcome, and that no other city compares. A corollary, in the minds of some San Franciscans: Los Angeles is a giant parking lot; Southern California is a soulless amalgamation of freeways; and the Central Valley is a cultural wasteland.

On the other hand, I not only find much of worth in Los Angeles, Southern California and the Central Valley, I also favor tattered corners of San Francisco that give off a sense of what the city was before it grew increasingly to be a home for the well-to-do. But another part of me knows that change, once in place, is not always bad – whether it occurs in San Francisco, the city I have called home and loved for more than three decades, or elsewhere. Sacramento is a case in point. I recall the tired, faded feel of much of the city’s downtown decades ago when I lived there, and today the place bustles with restaurants, music and sidewalks crowded into the evening hours.

Paul Somerhausen, director of SactoMoFo, which helps food trucks in the Sacramento area hold events downtown and elsewhere, recalls his experience with change – how gourmet food trucks initially were viewed with skepticism but gradually won over many converts. “Change is hard,” he said. “Humans are comfortable with what they know.’’

In San Francisco, change in the form of a small restaurant on the edge of the bay does not seem to be happening any time soon. The project languishes in a Board of Supervisors committee, and politicians have surfaced to voice negative concerns or outright opposition.

In a radio interview, Mayor Ed Lee, who has veto power over the project if the board approves it, has expressed doubts. He cites “the pristine feeling” of the Marina Green. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, formerly San Francisco’s mayor, has slammed the proposal.

Conceivably, these politicians’ opposition could be a spontaneous upwelling of disapproval, but years of watching the political world make me suspect that they are participants in a carefully crafted campaign that so far has succeeded splendidly in killing off the restaurant.

Never mind that the proposed site for the one-story, 75-seat restaurant is a long-vacant eyesore of a building with a roof that now serves as a favored location for pooping seagulls.

The foes speak reverentially of preserving open space. Some have posted big signs in their windows proclaiming, “Stop Restaurant on Marina Green.” They argue the project violates the city’s park code, charter and general plan. They warn of traffic, garbage and inebriated patrons, and they attack the plan to serve beer and wine in a facility next to the Marina Green where, they say, children play soccer.

To publicize their cause, opponents created a website (www.savemarinagreen.org) that leaves one thinking the ruination of the city may be at hand if the project wins approval.

The issues that opponents raise are worthy of examination, to be sure. But at the end of the day, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that these arguments have been seized upon primarily because they sound so reasonable and because they so effectively cloak the fact that much of the push behind this campaign comes from wealthy residents across the street who want no restaurant marring their lovely world and bay view.

Foes mock as ridiculous the idea their opposition is NIMBY-driven.

“The Marina Green is the significant park of the city on the shoreline,” said Joan Girardot, who owns a Marina Boulevard home and is a spokeswoman for the opposition. “I think the neighborhood is to be congratulated for fighting to preserve open space.”

Restaurant supporters see the fight differently.

It is Marina Boulevard residents “who have definitely spearheaded the effort” against the restaurant, said Ariel Kelley, president of the Marina Community Association, which supports the project after winning concessions for a 9 p.m. closing time and a requirement that alcohol not be taken off the premises.

Now, more than three years after city park officials began working on the restaurant proposal, opponents say they have collected more than 3,000 signatures and could get thousands more. The project’s sponsor, Supervisor Mark Farrell, allegedly has described the project as “permanently on hold.” Neither he nor anyone representing the proposed lease concessionaire, Woodhouse Fish Company, responded to my calls.

In the Marina neighborhood, Kelley says the battle has pitted neighbor against neighbor along Marina Boulevard and elsewhere, and opponents “have accused the Recreation and Parks Department of trying to ruin the Marina Green. But supporters feel this is an opportunity to fix up a dilapidated building and attract more visitors to the park.”

In the unlikely event that the restaurant were to win approval, I view it as quite possible that in time it would become an accepted, popular piece of that stretch of shoreline where there is now no restaurant offering food and drink.

Somehow, though, I see the well-heeled opposition as capable of supporting endless challenges and carrying the day. That leaves the proposed site of the restaurant as a vacant building with its seagull clientele squawking to one another on the roof – undisturbed.

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