The SkyStar Wheel in Golden Gate Park’s Music Concourse cannot resume operations until The city returns to the red COVID-19 risk tier. (Shutterstock photo)

The SkyStar Wheel in Golden Gate Park’s Music Concourse cannot resume operations until The city returns to the red COVID-19 risk tier. (Shutterstock photo)

Rec and Park Commission approves extension of SkyStar Wheel permit despite environmental concerns

Historic Preservation Commission approval still needed before end of next month

The Recreation and Park Commission voted Thursday to approve the operation of a 150-foot tall, illuminated Ferris wheel in Golden Gate Park for another four years, but it still requires approval from another city body.

The Historic Preservation Commission postponed making a decision Wednesday for two weeks on whether to allow the Ferris wheel to remain in the park amid opposition from hundreds of residents and several members of the Board of Supervisors.

The Rec and Park Commission, however, spoke highly of the wheel as a fun attraction bringing families to the park’s Music Concourse.

The Recreation and Park Department still needs approval by the Historic Preservation Commission to enter into an extended agreement with SkyStar Wheel, LLC, a Missouri-based company, to continue to operate the wheel.

Opponents argue the attraction, which is lit up at night and uses a noisy generator, has adverse impacts on wildlife and is not appropriate for the park.

“Why does everything have to be so controversial and negative?” asked Rec and Park Commissioner Larry Mazzola, Jr. “We are talking about a Ferris wheel, OK. The next thing people are going to want to do is cancel Halloween. I heard stuff in public comment about corruption on the Ferris wheel and a club for rich people. Dude, seriously, come on. That’s ridiculous. I am going to vote that the lights do not go down in The City and that the wheel in the sky keeps on turning.”

Dana Ketcham, the Rec and Park Department’s director of property management, said they were “surprised” by the Historic Preservation Commission’s postponement at the request of Supervisor Connie Chan, who represents the Richmond neighborhood and Golden Gate Park. Chan had said she wanted more time to address the concerns being raised and supported just a year-long extension.

Ketcham said the department continues to work to address concerns. She said it plans to address the generator noise by buffering it better or replacing it with a quieter one, as well as turning it off shortly after closing and running security lights on a battery instead. She said there are also plans to beautify the fencing.

But critics remained opposed to the project.

“The meager mitigations do not meet our concerns,” said Katherine Howard of the Sierra Club’s San Francisco Bay Chapter. “Sierra Club is committed to environmental equity and education. Underserved communities cannot have that experience if nature is destroyed by artificial attractions.”

Howard said an adequate environmental review should have been conducted before the wheel was installed, and that the vote shouldn’t have taken place before the Historic Preservation Commission voted.

“Putting business and commercial interests ahead of environmental protections threatens the future of not only Golden Gate Park but all of San Francisco’s parks,” Howard said. “We are frankly shocked that you are planning to vote today.”

The department said one of the reasons it is pursuing the extension is to fulfill the expectations of the initial one-year agreement. They had planned to operate the wheel for one year beginning in April 2020 as part of the 150-year anniversary celebration of the park. A share of the revenue from the $18 adult tickets goes to the San Francisco Parks Alliance to help pay for the celebration.

But due to The City’s COVID-19 shutdown, the wheel only opened in October and could operate for only 39 days. The proposed four-year extension is not just for the operator to recoup costs. That could be achieved in a much shorter time frame. But the wheel has become supported by many as part of San Francisco’s economic recovery.

“This would be a tourist attraction to bring people back to San Francisco,” Ketcham said. “We really viewed it as part of the economic recovery and that it was a four-year recovery from now.”

The Ferris wheel is currently closed and cannot reopen until San Francisco moves out of the state’s most restrictive COVID-19 purple tier. The permit expires at the end of next month unless the Historic Preservation Commission votes to allow for the extension. The vote is scheduled for March 3.

jsabatini@sfexaminer.com

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