Golden Gate Park wheel wins extension, but for how long?

Supervisors move to limit contract under City Charter provision requiring two-thirds approval

The Historic Preservation Commission voted unanimously Wednesday to allow San Francisco’s 150-foot tall, illuminated Ferris wheel to keep on turning in Golden Gate Park, seemingly securing its future for the next four years.

But not so fast, according to Supervisors Aaron Peskin and Connie Chan.

The two issued a statement after the vote arguing the contract extension requires Board of Supervisors approval. They said they introduced a resolution that the full board will vote on next week to make it only a one-year extension, with removal by March 15, 2022.

The SkyStar Wheel was installed in the park’s Music Concourse as part of the planned 150th Anniversary celebration for Golden Gate Park in 2020. But The City’s COVID-19 shutdown meant the wheel could only operate for 39 days.

The Recreation and Parks Department proposed keeping the wheel in the park for another four years, citing the need to fulfill the initial one-year agreement with the operator, which expires later this month, and to help with The City’s economic recovery.

Hundreds of residents have objected to the wheel’s presence in the park due to the light pollution and noise from a generator it produces, and argued the park is an inappropriate setting for the attraction. Responding to those concerns, Chan had called on the commission to only approve an extension of 326 days, to allow the wheel to operate for one year including the 39 days in 2020.

Those concerns did not sway the Historic Preservation Commission, which voted 7-0 to approve the four-year extension.

However Chan and Peskin, who have sided with the wheel’s critics, have cited a provision in the City Charter that states “no building or structure, except for nurseries, equipment storage facilities and comfort stations, shall be erected, enlarged or expanded in Golden Gate Park or Union Square Park unless such action has been approved by a vote of two-thirds of the Board of Supervisors.”

The two supervisors also called for an investigation last week into the department’s agreement with a nonprofit receiving revenue from the ticket sales, which has been implicated in an ongoing City Hall corruption investigation.

The initial one-year permit awarded the nonprofit San Francisco Parks Alliance $1 from every $18 adult ticket sold for a Ferris wheel ride to help pay for the $1.9 million anniversary celebration, which was largely paid for by private donations, a Rec and Park spokesperson previously said.

“This goes beyond the Ferris wheel now, it is about good and clean government,” Chan said in a statement.

This is the first mention that the wheel may need board approval, as the two now contend; the City Charter provision didn’t come up during Wednesday’s vote.

In a statement to the San Francisco Examiner Thursday, Rec and Park Department officials rejected the supervisors’ challenge to the legal underpinnings of the project.

“The observation wheel has been the subject of eight public hearings, three community meetings, and generated thousands of public comments. It was approved at every point. The City Attorney has reviewed and signed off on all aspects of the wheel,” said Tamara Aparton, a spokesperson for the department. “It is time to move on.”

Historic Preservation Commissioner Kate Black said during the hearing that she was supporting the extension “to promote the needed economic recovery in this unprecedented time.”

“At the end of the day, Golden Gate Park is not just a sylvan quiet place nor is it Pier 39 or Playland,” Black said. “It’s a very large park that offers up a variety of activities over its acres. There’s really something for everybody. It’s just not one kind of park.”

Historic Preservation Commissioner Richard Johns said the question was whether “extending the temporariness to four years rather than the one year” would run afoul of historical regulations including Article 10.

“I don’t think it does,” Johns said. “I think that it is still a temporary use and that at the end of the time it can and will be put back.”

He added, “We have been offered all kinds of distracting arguments and positions … that I think would take the commission into areas where we don’t have any business going.”

Backers of the wheel praised it for the benefits they say it can bring to The City.

Recreation and Park Commissioner Larry Mazzola Jr. said approval “is the right thing to do for San Francisco.”

“Activating public spaces will also play a key role in our economic recovery,” Mazzola said. “It will bring visitors to the museums, the gardens and businesses in the surrounding neighborhoods. It is disheartening to me that an issue of a Ferris wheel is such a controversial and negative thing at a time when we could all use an escape from reality.”

The Recreation and Park Commission approved the four-year permit last month, but needed the Historic Preservation Commission’s approval before the agreement could go into effect.

Katherine Howard of the Sierra Club’s San Francisco Bay Chapter wanted the wheel “removed immediately.”

“If there is an extension, one more year is the longest this environmental-damaging structure should be allowed to remain in Golden Gate Park,” Howard said. “Meanwhile, there are birds and other wildlife to take care of. Therefore, we support turning the lights off at sunset for the duration of the wheel’s presence at Golden Gate Park, which is San Francisco’s premier historic landscape park.”

A day before Wednesday’s vote, the Recreation and Parks Department and SkyStar Wheel, LLC, a Missouri-based company, announced the wheel would reopen Thursday, as is allowed, now that San Francisco moved into the state’s second most restrictive COVID red tier this week. They apparently assumed approval by the commission, because they also announced that they would “offer to all San Francisco public school graduating seniors to take a free ride on the wheel this summer beginning June 2 through Sept. 6.”

“The pandemic has been especially hard on kids who are missing out on celebrating their milestones and achievements the way they’ve envisioned,” Rec and Parks head Phil Ginsburg said in the announcement. “The SkyStar Wheel allows them to rise above the fray and find inspiration in the exhilarating view.”

Mayor London Breed seemingly criticized opponents of the wheel during a Tuesday press conference announcing the reopening of more businesses.

“You better hurry up and go ride the Ferris wheel in Golden Gate Park before the fun police shut it down,” Breed said at the time.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated Thursday with comment from the Recreation and Parks Department.

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