Conservatory of Flowers. (Melissa Vong/S.F. Examiner)

Surge admission fees proposed for four San Francisco tourist attractions

San Francisco Recreation and Parks officials want to switch to a flexible pricing model

San Francisco Recreation and Parks officials want to switch to a flexible pricing model at four of The City’s major tourist attractions with admission fees increasing and decreasing depending on customer demand during certain times of the day or season.

The proposal would amend The City’s park code to authorize flexible pricing at three Recreation and Parks properties in Golden Gate Park — the Japanese Tea Garden, the Botanical Gardens and the Conservatory of Flowers. It would also affect fees for taking elevators to the top of Telegraph Hill’s Coit Tower.

If approved by the Recreation and Parks Commission’s Operations Committee on Thursday, the proposal is expected to move before the full commission in two weeks. If approved by The City’s Board of Supervisors, flexible pricing could be implemented at the four sites by September 1, according to Recreation and Parks spokesperson Tamara Aparton.

Admission fees for non-resident adults are currently set at $9 across all four of the sites.

The flexible pricing admission fees would only apply to non resident adult admissions. Prices could temporarily decrease by 25 percent and increase by 50 percent based on time of day, season and as well as weather and facility conditions. If it is raining, for example, admission to outdoor venues would drop.

“It’s like surge pricing on the roads, where it is more expensive for the most congested times and cheaper for the least congested times,” said Aparton.

Aparton said the proposal is a financial justice-focused effort to refine admission fees in order to ensure access for low-income San Franciscans.

“We want to improve equity and access for low-income families to San Francisco’s cultural attractions,” said Aparton, who stressed that prices are not “changing for residents of San Francisco” or for “seniors youth or children, whether they are residents or not.”

About 25 percent of The City’s population, or some 225,000 San Francisco residents who currently receive either Medi-CAL, CalFresh, or CalWORKS, would be admitted for free under the proposed flexible pricing model.

Rec and Park Staff have recommended approval of the proposal, and say it will also help reduce long lines and wait times for visitors to the four attractions. The Coit Tower Elevator, for instance, has “long and substantial lines at the middle of the day but relatively short lines early and late in the day,” according to a staff report.

The Japanese Tea Garden draws some 402,000 non-resident visitors annually, while the Botanical Gardens, Conservatory of Flowers and Coit Tower Elevators average about 174,000, 127,000 and 143,000 visitors each year, respectively.

According to the department, flexible pricing implemented at the Harding Park Golf Course has increased revenues by more than 10 percent.

Past efforts to reform park fees for out-of-towners have proven controversial. A move to impose an entrance fee on visitors to the Botanical Gardens, where admission was previously free, spurred controversy before it was adopted in 2011.

Likewise, not everyone is supportive of the newest proposal.

Protect Coit Tower, a nonprofit citizens group dedicated to educating the public about Coit Tower and “the 27 New Deal fresco murals that live inside,” has come out in opposition, citing concerns over the potential “logistical chaos” created inside the already small Coit Tower by flexible pricing admissions.

“It’s always a delicate balance trying to get as many people as possible through there and ensure that they have a good experience, see the art and don’t have to wait for an hour or more to get to the top [of Coit Tower],” said Jon Golinger, the group’s founder.

In a letter penned to the Recreation and Parks Commission on Wednesday, Golinger wrote that “by lumping Coit Tower into the same category as the three locations in Golden Gate Park,” the proposal “assumes that random changes to the pricing would simply mean that visitors who show up would either pay more than they expected to pay or go somewhere else.”

“If visitors traverse Telegraph Hill based on guidebooks that tell them they will have to pay $9 (the current non-resident fee) to ride the elevator up Coit Tower –but then when they arrive they are sometimes told they will have to pay $11.25 (the proposed increased fee), the likely result will be confusion, frustration, and a slow-down to the long lines that already cause some murals to be obscured from view,” wrote Golinger.

The group also criticized the plan for purportedly violating “the will of the voters as expressed by their approval of an official official Coit Tower Preservation Policy at the ballot in June 2012’s

Proposition B,” which prioritized funds received by the City from “any concession operations at Coit Tower” for preserving its murals, building maintenance and “beautifying Pioneer Park around Coit Tower.”

“The new pricing proposal seeks to charge visitors to Coit Tower more but diverts those funds to other Recreation and Park programs without improving access to Coit Tower itself,” wrote Golinger, and suggested asking Coit Tower visitors to “make a voluntary donation of $1 when they purchase their elevator tickets to support free elevator rides at Coit Tower for low-income families” as an alternative.

The opposition was echoed by a member of the Coit family, Susie Coit Williams, who said in a statement on Tuesday that “any visitors as well as local citizens are on strict budgets and Coit Tower with all of its history should be available to all at a reasonable and affordable cost.”

Supervisor Aaron Peskin, whose district includes Coit Tower, said that he is reserving judgement of the proposal until hearing “what the public has to say” should it move before the full board.

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Conservatory of Flowers. (Melissa Vong/S.F. Examiner)

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