By Carmen Chu, Rodney Fong, and Joe D’Alessandro
Like many visitors to San Francisco last March, the 150-foot SkyStar Wheel came for a party. Instead, it got a pandemic. Now, the currently idle Golden Gate Park attraction could become a symbol for economic recovery through outdoor spaces.
Like all of us, the planned centerpiece of Golden Gate Park’s 150th anniversary has endured a tough year. America’s largest traveling observation wheel boasted Bay-to-breakers views and the capacity to give half a million rides over its planned year in the park’s Music Concourse. But before its gondolas were hung, the world shut down. It eventually opened for 39 days, at 25 percent capacity, before rising COVID cases forced its closure again. When San Francisco leaves the purple tier, it can spin again.
The Wheel is now at a crossroads. On Feb. 17, San Francisco’s Historic Preservation Committee will decide whether the Wheel can extend its stay until 2025, allowing it to fulfill its promise to would-be riders, as well as its potential to reinvigorate the city’s economy. If given the green light, it will go before the Recreation and Park Commission for final approval.
We believe the SkyStar Wheel will play an important role in our economic recovery plan. All while fostering joy and excitement as we slowly emerge from lockdown.
As members of the San Francisco Economic Task Force, we have been guiding the city’s short and long-term recovery. Extending the SkyStar Wheel’s stay will help bring visitors back to San Francisco from around the Bay Area and beyond and connect people to the park.
We know outdoor public spaces are crucial to our recovery. And nowhere has been more alive with visitors in the past year than parks. According to the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department, Golden Gate Park has seen a 600 percent increase in bikes and pedestrians. Even while grounded, the illuminated SkyStar Wheel has contributed to a nighttime wonderland in the park alongside a lighted art installation and illuminated icons such as the Spreckels Temple of Music and Conservatory of Flowers. Together, these attractions continue to draw thousands of new visitors and make the park safer at night.
For tourists, the SkyStar Wheel promises an only-in-San Francisco experience a stone’s throw from storied museums and gardens and set amid 1,000 acres of breathtaking parkland. For locals, it is a chance to see their beloved park in a new way while harkening back to the 1894, when a giant Ferris wheel dazzled San Franciscans at the California Midwinter Fair. Keeping the Wheel in the Music Concourse will benefit both cultural institutions in the park and businesses in the Inner Sunset.
Meanwhile, recovery cannot be achieved without economic justice for vulnerable communities hardest hit by the pandemic. Allowing the Wheel to remain in San Francisco also allows its operator, Skyview Partners, to extend its commitment to providing 500 tickets each month to underserved communities in San Francisco. The extension, if passed, would allow up to 24,000 free tickets to go to deserving families. The Wheel will offer discount programs for veterans, seniors, and San Francisco residents. In addition, a portion of revenue from ticket sales would go toward transportation access to Golden Gate Park and cultural performances that celebrate San Francisco’s diversity and support the arts community.
We are confident that San Francisco will recover, but it will take encouraging economic activity, activating outdoor spaces, and promoting safe reopening. The Historic Preservation Commission and Recreation and Park Commission can do all three by allowing the SkyStar Wheel to stay until 2025.
Carmen Chu is the San Francisco city administrator and co-chair of the San Francisco Economic Taskforce. Rodney Fong is the president and CEO of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and co-chair of the San Francisco Economic Taskforce. Joe D’Alessandro is a member of the San Francisco Economic Taskforce and the CEO of San Francisco Travel.