Phil Ginsburg isn’t a big fan of statues.
“Statues reflect a society’s values at a fixed moment in time for eternity,” he said on a recent walk among the 19th century heroes and empty plinths in Golden Gate Park’s Music Concourse. “Whereas parks, like cities, like societies, are constantly changing and evolving.”
In his 13-year tenure as general manager of San Francisco’s Department of Recreation and Parks, Ginsburg has presided over one of the most transformative periods in the world-famous park system’s history. Leveraging more than half a billion dollars from three park bonds, Ginsburg’s Rec and Park has embarked on over 100 major renovations and opened several new parks, from Francisco Park in Russian Hill to In Chan Kaajal Park in the Mission, making San Francisco the first big city in the country to have a park within a 10-minute walk of every resident’s home. Ginsburg has also placed a greater emphasis on large-scale events like Outside Lands and temporary installations, like “Monumental Reckoning,” which surrounds the plinth recently vacated by Francis Scott Key in the Music Concourse.
“It’s a well-oiled machine, and you can see that by the quality of the experience you have when you go to a park,” said Jared Blumenfeld, secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency and Ginsburg’s immediate predecessor as head of Rec and Park. “It just feels like it’s working.”
For San Francisco residents enjoying the new facilities at Dolores Park, Civic Center Plaza or the Golden Gate Park Tennis Center, the proof is in the healthy lawns, clean bathrooms and near-constant programming. During the pandemic, in particular, the park system showed its true value, providing safe, communal gathering places and offering a dose of sanity to the stir-crazy. Now that The City has reopened, its new and spiffed up parks have emerged as one of its greatest tourist draws, rounding out the list of attractions in a recent New York Times travel dispatch. For all who live in, work in and visit San Francisco, the parks are a constant refutation of the narrative that this is a “failed city.”
But the parks, and Ginsburg himself, are hardly immune from The City’s rough and tumble politics. Ginsburg’s skill at leveraging philanthropic donations for park improvements — totaling nearly $200 million over the course of his tenure — has drawn suspicion from ethics reformers hoping to tamp down on City Hall corruption. His efforts to generate new revenue streams for the park system by permitting more vendors and events have long irked lefties who accuse him of trying to “privatize the parks.” And many of his biggest, boldest initiatives, from the turf soccer field program, to the Ferris wheel in Golden Gate Park to the closure of JFK Drive, have reliably brought out a chorus of detractors. The marathon runner’s competitive spirit and sometimes brash personal style haven’t always helped defuse tensions, either.
From Ginsburg’s perspective, the finish line is still miles away. His most important project, the 64-acre park network at India Basin that he calls the Bayview’s “Chrissy Field moment,” is only just getting started.
“I would love for my team’s legacy to be investing in the southern waterfront,” Ginsburg said. “Opportunities like the one presented by India Basin come along to cities once in generations, and we need to do it right.”
Big shoes to fill
No matter his aspirations, Ginsburg will probably always remain Rec and Park’s second-longest serving leader. He’s bested by John McLaren, one of the founders of the park system, who led the department for 56 years.
McLaren, it turns out, didn’t like statues either. While a life-size bronze statue of the horticulturalist inspecting a pinecone was cast in 1911, it wasn’t installed in Golden Gate Park’s Rhododendron Dell until after his death in 1945. To avoid offending the deceased too much, the statue was built without a pedestal, leaving McLaren’s feet firmly planted in the dirt.
“I hear this guy’s voice in my head every day,” Ginsburg said as he sidled up to McLaren’s side for a photo op. “‘Don’t screw it up.’”
From his youth in Philadelphia, Ginsburg has always loved the outdoors, but he never expected he would head up a big city park system. After moving to San Francisco to attend UC Hastings, he went into labor law, first representing public sector unions and then representing The City in labor negotiations in the City Attorney’s Office.
In the mid-2000s, Ginsburg led San Francisco’s Department of Human Resources, where he carried out the search for Mayor Gavin Newsom’s new chief of staff. At the end of the search, Newsom went with Ginsburg himself. Some of his accomplishments from his time in the mayor’s office, like leading the negotiations for the Saturday closures of JFK Drive, and crafting the initial Outside Lands agreement, would turn out to be valuable experiences for his next gig. In his personal life, too, Ginsburg has long had a deep attachment to the parks, through long runs with his wife and fellow marathon runner, Emily, and countless hours of soccer practice and summer camps for his two daughters.
When Newsom tapped Ginsburg to lead Rec and Park in 2009, his most important mission was to carry out the projects funded by the $185 million park bond voters approved the previous year. Things moved slowly at first. By 2011, park bond projects were delayed over a year on average, due to extensive community outreach and environmental impact reports. The public’s faith in the department, and Ginsburg, would determine whether it could successfully raise another $195 million in a 2012 bond measure known as Proposition B.
Some progressive groups, including the local Sierra Club chapter, the League of Pissed Off Voters and the San Francisco Tenants Union, joined fiscal conservatives in opposition to the measure. Their concerns included the department charging admission for non-residents at the Arboretum, the plan to add artificial turf and lights to the Beach Chalet soccer fields and the cancellation of free events like the Power to the Peaceful festival. Some activists worried about Rec and Park becoming more like an “enterprise agency” — a financially self-sustaining organization like the airport or the Presidio Trust — by increasing commercial activity in the parks. Ginsburg’s close ties to Newsom and the moderate wing of San Francisco politics naturally put him at odds with progressive leaders like Aaron Peskin and Matt Gonzalez, who both opposed the bond.
In the end, voters approved Proposition B with 72% of the vote, and it was off to the races for Ginsburg and Rec and Park. The department would score two more wins at the ballot box in the ensuing years. The first, in 2016, provided a baseline general fund allocation for Rec and Park, allowing the department to begin chipping away at an estimated $1 billion in deferred maintenance. Then in 2020, Rec and Park got a big piece of a successful affordable housing and parks bond.
Those funds have enabled park renovations across The City, from small inner-city oases like Boeddeker Park in the Tenderloin and Willie “Woo Woo” Wong Park in Chinatown, to the rec centers in Glen Park and the Sunset District. The Let’s Play SF Initiative, made possible by a $13 million philanthropic campaign from the Parks Alliance, has resulted in the renovation of nine additional playgrounds, with four more expected to be complete by the end of 2023.
Beyond improving the physical assets of the park system, Ginsburg has also sought to increase the number and type of activities that happen there. Civic Center Plaza and the Stanyan Edge where Haight Street meets Golden Gate Park were outfitted with cafes and improved lighting, which Ginsburg credits with improving safety. The once-dormant Jerry Garcia Amphitheater in McLaren Park, fresh off of a renovation, now hosts a regular roster of free concerts and performances, providing some sunny competition to frigid Stern Grove.
“Parks are not just hard infrastructure, but they’re also social infrastructure,” Ginsburg said. “Great cities facilitate unique, special moments, whether it’s food in parks or music in parks.”
In many ways, the stars aligned for Ginsburg. Following an organizational shakeup at the beginning of Ginsburg’s tenure, the Parks Alliance went from being something of a critical watchdog group to a close partner of Rec and Park. And since 2010, Mark Buell, a reliable Ginsburg ally, has served as president of the Parks Commission, the group that oversees Rec and Park. For the first time in a long time, the department, the commission and the alliance have all been on roughly the same page.
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Rec and Park’s approximately 1,000 full-time staff members have also been instrumental in the park system’s comeback. “All of our accomplishments have been team-oriented,” Ginsburg said. “During COVID, when parks were super important and a lot of institutions basically locked their doors, we were open. Our custodians, our gardeners, our rec staff, our park rangers — everybody showed up every single day.”
Efforts that predated Ginsburg’s tenure helped set in motion the virtuous cycle of park improvements and public support. Dawn Kamalanathan, currently head of facilities for San Francisco Unified School District, served as Rec and Park’s director of planning and capital management from 2006 to 2018, where she helped lay the groundwork for the 2008 bond measure. “The bond passed, the accountability measures ensured all projects were delivered, and that success increased confidence and optimism about Rec & Park’s ability to deliver,” Kamalanathan said. “That in turn created the conditions for a new GM to be effective in attracting additional public and private investment.”
As Ginsburg walks around Golden Gate Park, he’s eager to point out the impact that philanthropy has had on the landscape. “Our park system wouldn’t exist today without philanthropy,” he said as he passed the Conservatory of Flowers. “I bet under the terms of this ordinance, that building would not have been built today.”
Ginsburg is speaking of the behested payments measure that went into effect this year in the wake of the Mohammed Nuru scandal, in which the disgraced head of the Department of Public Works funneled nearly $1 million in de-facto bribes into an account that he controlled with the Parks Alliance. The ordinance prohibits public officials from soliciting donations from an individual or group that has business with that official’s department, and it bars departments from coordinating with nonprofits on fundraising and other initiatives. (The Parks Alliance says it was not aware of Nuru’s illegal activity and has not been accused of wrongdoing in the FBI’s City Hall corruption probe.)
Despite its initial popularity — the ordinance passed the Board of Supervisors unanimously and was reaffirmed by the voters with nearly 70% of the vote as this year’s Proposition E — there’s now a consensus at City Hall that some of its provisions are overly broad and hamper government functioning. Mayor London Breed and Supervisor Aaron Peskin are currently negotiating a package of amendments to the law.
According to Ginsburg, the current ordinance would have prevented the Parks Alliance-led campaigns that raised $24 million for the Tennis Center and $28 million for Francisco Park. And he’s concerned about his ability to raise another $40 million or more for India Basin.
Philanthropy has also been instrumental in Rec and Park’s programming for underserved communities, Ginsburg said. The Tennis Learning Center’s after-school program has served 500 low-income students in three years and has been correlated with a significant decrease in absenteeism, he said. The initial phase of India Basin is already funding a youth and family swim class in Hunters Point — which community members requested during the outreach process.
“Twenty-first century city government can’t do it alone. You need partners and you need friends, it doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about parks or homelessness,” Ginsburg said. “And there is no park system in the United States of America that doesn’t rely on philanthropic support.”
Nonetheless, Rec and Park’s relationship with the Parks Alliance has continued to be a political football. The leading critics are Supervisors Peskin and Connie Chan, who, in a matter of years, has gone from defending Ginsburg as a Rec and Park spokesperson, to becoming one of his loudest critics. Their most recent battle was over the contract extension for the Ferris wheel in Golden Gate Park last year. The two supervisors called into question an arrangement in which the Parks Alliance would be reimbursed the first $200,000 in revenue generated by the Ferris wheel to pay back the costs of Golden Gate Park’s 150th anniversary celebration and angled to torpedo a four-year extension of the Ferris wheel’s run.
In an apparent act of retaliation, the Parks Alliance sent a letter to Chan all but threatening to pull funding from a Let’s Play SF playground renovation project in her district.
Ultimately, the Board of Supervisors rejected Peskin and Chan’s view of the Ferris wheel, and it continues to spin in Golden Gate Park. The Richmond Playground renovation that the Parks Alliance threatened to halt is still listed as having a 2023 opening. Chan and Peskin both declined to comment for this article.
With the behested payments ordinance and concerns about the Parks Alliance continuing to simmer, Ginsburg now has another battle on his hands. The closure of JFK Drive is the subject of dueling November ballot initiatives. Rec and Park remains in favor of keeping cars off JFK, in light of data showing that three quarters of car trips down the road started and ended outside of the park. “If we really want to walk the talk,” Ginsburg said as he trotted down the middle of JFK, “we need to place a higher value on parks and people than we do on cars and convenience.”
Ginsburg describes the debate around JFK Drive as “a conversation between the past and the future.” Once a devoted motorist, Ginsburg has recently become an avid e-bike rider, using JFK to commute from his Sunset District home to Rec and Park headquarters at McLaren Lodge or meetings at City Hall. “I’ve come to understand that true environmentalism is preserving or enhancing urban density,” he said. “That’s how we save the planet, by creating dense, functional cities.”
That perspective informs his support for transportation moonshots like the west side subway that city planners are currently studying. The project would likely tunnel under — and potentially even include a station in — Golden Gate Park. “No doubt such a project would be inconvenient for many of us over a long period of time,” Ginsburg said. “But if that is something that will make San Francisco more livable, more sustainable and more equitable, then I’m for it.”
But Ginsburg’s Rec and Park doesn’t always “walk the talk.” In a recent column, John King, the Chronicle’s urban design critic, described Francisco Park as a missed opportunity to use the publicly owned former reservoir site in uber-wealthy Russian Hill for affordable housing as well as a park.
Ginsburg called that “a reasonable discussion point” but went on to say, “We have to remember that this space was built with $27.5 million in philanthropy. … It’s hard to say whether we would have been able to build the park at all under that scenario, because maybe people would not have felt as inspired to support the project.”
For better or for worse, parks are something virtually all San Franciscans can agree to support. Housing, homeless shelters, improved public transit and criminal justice reform? Not so much.
And so San Francisco’s deepest problems continue to fester, producing easy fodder for parachuting pundits and inspiring a dour civic mood. But at least we have our glorious parks as a refuge or a distraction or, perhaps, a reminder that San Francisco can still do great things.
“All this angst speaks to the importance of our mission, and the need to never, ever, ever let up,” Ginsburg said over the beat of Anderson .Paak’s “JEWELZ” in Golden Gate Park’s newly refurbished Skatin’ Place. Rollerbladers were gliding round and round, all smiles. “It is our responsibility to provide soothing, inspirational, cohesive social infrastructure for San Francisco, and it needs it now more than ever.”