A batch of recently released emails has reignited the public war over the fate of the historic Stow Lake Boathouse. Built in 1949, the city-owned Golden Gate Park fixture has been operated by the McLellan family for well over half a century.
Last year, the Recreation and Parks Department ended their contract with current operator Bruce McLellan and awarded it to the New Mexico-based Ortega Family Enterprises.
The newly public emails appear to show how a coalition of Recreation and Parks Department employees worked together with a well-connected lobbyist to, reports the Chronicle, guide a preferred candidate though the often thorny process of moving something potentially unpopular through the murky channels of city government. An out-of-town firm taking over a beloved local business is one thing sure to raise more than a few eyebrows around town.
After an independent panel recommended Ortega win the bid to manage the boathouse, people from the Recreations and Parks Department advised the company to hire a San Francisco-based lobbying firm because, not only had McLellen already hired a lobbyist of his own, but was the beneficiary of a grassroots campaign to save his business.
The Save the Stow Lake Boathouse Coalition had gathered over 3,000 signatures protesting the transfer and, if the department wanted Ortega (who was apparently their first choice to take over the boathouse), that meant they had to act fast. That’s appears to be the reason department employees told the company to hire Ground Floor Public Affairs, the lobbying firm of well-connected San Francisco politico Alex Tourk.
Tourk is a long-time fixture in Bay Area politics. He’s worked for Donald Trump frenemy Willie Brown, Dennis Herrera, Maria Shriver, Gavin Newsom and was driving force behind both Project Homeless Connect and Proposition L, also known as the Sit-Lie law.
Tourk left City Hall after news broke that his wife, who was then Mayor Newsom’s appointments secretary, had an affair with her boss (you may have heard about this). After decamping from Gavin’s den of iniquity, Tourk founded his own lobbying shop.
If you need something done in San Francisco, there are few people better to turn to than Tourk, who has managed to impress even his political opponents.
“Even though I found myself on opposite sides of the aisle [from Tourk],” said former supervisor and current bartender Chris Daly, “I have a great deal of respect for Alex Tourk, and there’s no denying he has made significant contributions here in San Francisco.” This is a guy who was Gavin Newsom’s right hand man and he’s earned high praise from the former mayor’s arch-nemesis. (That said, Daly isn’t so much a fan of Tourk’s post-City Hall lobbying work, which he calls, “less than savory.”)
Also, it certainly didn’t hurt that current Recreation and Parks chief Phil Ginsburg used to be Newsom’s chief of staff and worked closely with Tourk at City Hall.
“We won because of our back channeling with commissioners,” Tourk wrote to Ortega after they were awarded the boathouse contract. Tourk’s firm also managed media outreach, telling Ortega that, “if you can’t explain it in a paragraph, it can’t be explained. We will be concise and to the point as reporters need to be fed, are generally lazy and we can’t ramble on.” TouchÃ©.
Additionally, the Chron reports that an organizer was hired to set up an astro-turf campaign of “volunteers” supporting Ortega’s bid at public meetings. “[It’ll cost] $500 for the first 30 individuals and $500 for another 15,” wrote one of Tourk’s employees in an email.
Despite all of the shady backroom dealings, the department legitimately appeared to initially choose Ortega on the merits of their bid. It was only after the first intra-department committee recommended they be awarded the contract that Ortega started working with Tourk to game the system.
McLellan claims that Ginsburg wanted him to significantly renovate the boathouse, however McLellan says he refused to put money into the building unless the city gave him something more substantial than the month-to-month lease he was currently on.
That said, what likely did McLellan in was the amount of capital improvements he was willing to put into the boathouse. In his bid, he only offered to put $23,000 toward renovating the building, while Ortega’s offer was just over ten times that figure.
Another major sticking point was concessions. Unlike many other food vendors in the park, McClellan refused to sell alcohol under the prudent, although not especially fun, dictum that booze and water sports aren’t exactly the smartest mix. He also kept food prices at the boathouse low–a hot dog there cost $5 less there than at the nearby deYoung Museum Cafe.
The Save Stow Lake Coalition filed to make the boathouse a historic landmark late last year. In the hopes of blocking the transfer, however they quickly discovered that landmark status would only preserve the aesthetics of the building and not stop McLellan from losing control.
Ortega’s lease to operate the boathouse is expected to bring the city $140,000 per year and will last for 15 years. The company also manages a shop and cafe in Muir Woods, The Muir Woods Trading Company.
The fight over the boathouse is just one piece of a larger debate over the growing privatization of the city’s parks under Ginsburg’s leadership.
In the face of ever-looming budget cuts, the department is looking for new ways to raise revenue. A measure to charge a $7 non-resident fee to visitors at the Botanical Garden was met with outrage and attempts to bring local food vendors into Dolores Park inspired similar vitriol.
Local gadfly “Chicken John” Rinaldi planned a “puke-in” at the hipster hotspot last weekend to protest the presence of a food trailer run by the Mission-based non-profit La Cocina. In the process, Rinaldi says he amassed what he estimates is the world’s largest collection of fake vomit, something he called, “an investment.”
On that topic, the San Francisco Bay Guardian’s inimitable Tim Redmond mused that, “Once you decide that parks have to pay for themselves, you’ve destroyed the whole notion of public space.”
In a completely unscientific poll conducted by SF Appeal last year, keeping the boathouse in local hands came out decisively on top.