Stow Lake tiff spotlights SF’s resistance to change

Stow Lake (Examiner file photo)Stow Lake (Examiner file photo)

Stow Lake (Examiner file photo)Stow Lake (Examiner file photo)

One of San Francisco’s most conflicting traits is that it is so resistant to change. Though The City politically calls for revolution, in reality, it resists transition.

Nowhere has that been more evident than at the Stow Lake Boathouse, a quirky but beloved structure in the middle of Golden Gate Park. The boathouse quietly reopened a few days ago after months of public rancor over a new concessionaire being brought in to do what the old one did not — fix it, upgrade it and rejuvenate it.

It’s now getting painted for the first time in a decade. New boats hit the water this week for the first time in a generation. A new kitchen is being installed that will allow hot ingredients to be served beyond boiled hot dogs. The deck has been stained. An interior redesign is under way that will include an indoor café.

And I’m happy to report at a recent visit that there were no injuries. There were no protesters. There was a sign outside, however, thanking the former operator and his family for decades of service.

“We’re not really changing it that much,” said Frank Klein, the project manager for the Ortega family, which will operate the concession. “We’re just trying to restore the old magic.”

So why did a small but fervent band try to block a change that will result in a much-improved space fight so relentlessly in public forums and court rooms? The answer, my friends, is because in San Francisco there is a group for every cause, even if the cause is a lone tree, a food truck or some gopher-ridden turf. And they will cling to it like a barnacle to a ship.

I can appreciate embracing the past — if I had a soap box in the day I might have tried to stop the demolition of Playland. But then some reasonable people would have probably pointed out that the owner of the amusement park had let it run down for so long that it was not only a blight on the landscape, but unsafe as well.

It was a place of nice memories — in the same way Fleishhacker Pool was once a local landmark that gave way to time, taste and weather. Fleishhacker was for decades the largest swimming pool in the world and quite a novelty. It was so long, lifeguards used kayaks to patrol it and legend has it that it could be seen from space.

But a saltwater pool right next to the ocean defied both man (who all but stopped using it) and all attempts at maintenance, which were considerable. It closed with hardly a tear and is now home to a sewage plant.

On a more recent front, a group of less than a dozen individuals spent years and cost a developer millions in court fees trying to stop an underground garage from being built beneath the de Young Museum and the California Academy of Sciences. And for what did “Trees not Cars” lay down its collective soul? Well, the trees are still there, but the cars have gone into hiding below.

There is still an ongoing legal battle to keep an antiquated recycling center that attracts vagrancy and crime, yet is somehow dear to the organization that started it. The recycling world passed it by 20 years ago, but apparently no one was watching. San Francisco just loves a good fight.

The Ortegas won theirs, as they should have, since at various national parks around the country they have displayed the kind of sensitivity and know-how to champion renovation projects like the boathouse. They use locally grown produce and meats for all their kitchens and they employ high-end architects for their redesigns.

Yet the disinformation campaign against them got so pronounced at one point that rumors were circulated that the boathouse would be replaced by a Walmart. Here in the big-box retail haven?

In about five months, the boathouse will look better than it has in decades, with more offerings than pink popcorn and Coke. People will marvel that someone decided to build a swiss chalet doubling as a snack shack. It seems at some point, even the Swiss had a small lobby here in San Francisco.

Ken Garcia appears Thursdays and Sundays in The San Francisco Examiner. Email him at

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