City parks officials want to keep 150-foot Ferris wheel in Golden Gate Park longer

Nature lovers oppose extension due to potential impacts on migrating birds

The illuminated 150-foot tall Ferris wheel in Golden Gate Park may remain in place beyond this spring, but some nature lovers want it taken down by February before the bird migration season.

The wheel was installed in March under a one-year city approval as part of planned festivities celebrating the beloved park’s 150-year anniversary. The installation was the first time an observation wheel on this scale has operated in the park since the Midwinter International Exposition of 1894, when the Firth Wheel stood 120 feet high for about six months.

But then COVID-19 struck and the Ferris wheel’s grand-opening on April 4 was postponed until Oct 21, when there was a decline in new cases of the illness. The interlude was short-lived, however. Cases have surged since then, forcing another shutdown on Nov. 29. It’s unclear when the wheel may reopen, but it’s only permitted to remain in place in the park’s historic Music Concourse until March 2021.

Recreation and Parks Department officials, however, are planning to propose an extension.

Stacy Bradley, deputy director of planning for the Recreation and Parks Department, told the Historic Planning Commission Wednesday that the department is developing “an extension proposal” that would “allow the anticipated number of San Franciscans and visitors to enjoy the observational wheel.”

The City projected a yearlong ridership of 500,000, but in the 39 days it was operating, it saw 65,693 riders, an average of 1,617 people daily.

Bradley said the department also wanted to make sure that the wheel operator could recoup their initial investment.

But some nature lovers are opposed to the wheel and told commissioners that not only should they not approve an extension, they should act to take it down earlier.

“We would like to see an early removal of this structure,” said Katherine Howard, of the Sierra Club’s San Francisco Bay Chapter. “The wheel was installed without an adequate environmental review. Now that we see it in place with its intensely bright, flashing and completely unshielded lighting we are concerned about the environmental damage this can cause.”

The group wrote in a letter that “the lighted Observation Wheel may have negative impacts on wildlife, in particular on birds. The bands of exterior booth lights and the flashing, rotating designs on the wheels are all extremely bright LEDs.”

The department had agreed to turn off the brightest LED lights, the white ones, in the final hour of its operation, between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. in mid-November when the wheel was operating to try and address concerns, Bradley said.

A letter from the Golden Gate Audubon Society’s San Francisco Conservation Committee also called for the wheel to come down before the upcoming bird migration season.

“Numerous studies have shown that birds and insects are negatively affected by bright night lighting. Many bird species migrate at night, and the spring migration begins at the end of February,” the group’s member Whitney Grover wrote. “At best, birds could be veered off track and waste valuable energy. At worst, they could collide with the structure resulting in injury or death.”

Bradley told the commission that “questions have been raised if there’s been any evidence of wildlife injury during the operations of the wheel and there have been none.”

Others objected to the appropriateness of having the Ferris wheel in the park at all.

“The wheel sets a bad precedent that can lead to further cannibalization of the park by even more attractions, buildings, and other built elements and the eventual loss of its historic character and significance,” wrote Natalie Downe, who said she is a member of a newly formed group, San Franciscans for Urban Nature.

Despite the concerns raised, Bradley said, “We do hope to continue.”

“Many people are really thankful that we’ve installed it,” Bradley said. “We’ve heard a lot of enthusiasm.”

Count all but one of the commissioners among the enthusiastic. They said Wednesday they would support an extension.

Commissioner Chris Foley called the wheel “a wonderful addition” and suggested an extension of up to a year would be appropriate to draw more people to the area and help nearby businesses.

“We can actually generate some economic activity for those little businesses on Ninth and Irving that really need the help,” Foley said.

Commissioner Richard Johns said he took his grandsons for a ride when it was opened and found “the whole experience was really quite pleasant.”

“I have no desire to see the wheel become a permanent exhibition, but I do think it would be appropriate given what happened to have some kind of an extension, so that so many of the people that didn’t have an opportunity to take a spin on it can do that,” Johns said.

Commissioner Jonathan Pearlman was the only member on the body who said he would oppose an extension. He said the park as it is should be the main draw, not a Ferris wheel.

Pearlman said that he visited the wheel and afterwards the Japanese Tea Garden, which he found to be the better experience.

“That was amazing,” he said of the garden. “That was restorative, inspirational.”

“I agree with the naysayers on this,” Pearlman said. “My question is, Why isn’t it at Pier 39 where it would be totally appropriate? That is an amusement park. Why not put an amusement park ride where it would be appropriate?”

The SkyStar Observation Wheel, operated by SkyStar Wheel, LLC under an agreement with the Recreation and Parks Department, boasts on its ticketing website “unparalleled Bay to breakers views” during the ride and says that “with more than 1,000,000 colored LED Lights, SkyStar promises to light up the San Francisco skies nightly.”

With operation hours until 10 p.m. daily, it costs $18 for 12-minute rides in the 36 gondolas with six seats. Under the agreement, the nonprofit San Francisco Parks Alliance receives a portion of the revenues to help fund the park’s year-long celebration.

Drew Becher, CEO of the Parks Alliance, said “the wheel is a signature component of the celebration” and that it should remain in place longer to help boost local business and sell museum tickets when they reopen.

“We think it is a big draw for residents and tourists alike,” Becher said.

The department is expected to ask the commission to vote Feb. 3 on an extension.

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