Prices are set to rise for non-residents visiting popular city-owned attractions such as the Japanese Tea Garden. (Ming Vong/S.F. Examiner)

Rec and Park’s ‘flexible pricing’ proposal advances with more predictability

Visitors to popular city-owned attractions will pay more during peak hours

A proposed “flexible pricing” program allowing The City to charge nonresidents higher rates at four popular city-owned tourist attractions during peak times has been revised to ensure the rates don’t surprise visitors.

The changes, adopted Wednesday by the Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee, would only allow the Recreation and Park Department to set increased rates for non-residents once a year during specified time periods.

Recreation and Parks Department director Phil Ginsburg proposed the pricing policy change earlier this year, which would empower the department to increase non-resident adult rates during busy hours for the Japanese Tea Garden, the Coit Tower Elevator, the Conservatory of Flowers, and the San Francisco Botanical Garden.

The proposal, intended to manage crowds, would also increase revenues.

“It’s primarily about incentivizing behavioral change, although there is some budget impact,” said Sarah Madland, spokesperson for the Recreation and Parks Department.

Amendments adopted Wednesday allow Ginsburg to raise the rates up to 50 percent once a year and “approve decreases at any time, based on one or more of the following factors: fluctuations in customer demand at particular times or on particular days or dates, rates at comparable facilities, adverse weather conditions, and facility conditions.”

The changes were made to address concerns raised about the potential lack of predictability in pricing.

“I don’t have a problem with the flexible pricing and the pricing of up to 50 percent,” said Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer, committee chair. “What I had a problem with was that I wanted it to be set once a year.”

“These are not locals. These are for non-residents so these are for tourists. Tourists should really know how much it costs,” she said.

The change goes beyond a compromise Ginsburg had suggested last week to allow rate changes with a 60-day notice, and would allow the rate hikes only during certain time periods each year, which vary by the locations.

“We will publish on an annual basis, starting Sept. 1, what the rates will look like for that whole year,” Madland said.

For the Japanese Tea Garden, the increases can only occur “during the months of March through October, for Coit Tower Elevator during the hours of 11am to 4pm, for the Conservatory of Flowers on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays and at the Botanical Gardens on Saturdays and Sundays.

The department is expected to increase the non-resident adult fees to $13.50 as permitted under the proposal, up from the current $9, when the law goes into effect on Sept. 1.

Bonnie Bergeron, with the San Francisco Parks Alliance, said that the pricing increases “will allow for more manageable traffic at these sites and within the surrounding neighborhoods.”

“It also encourages attendance at non-peak times, which will result in a richer experience for all people who attend because there would be less congestion,” she said.

Jon Golinger, founder of Protect Coit Tower, opposed the peak pricing plan in letters to the committee. Among his concerns was that fee hikes without proper notification are likely to cause “confusion, frustration, and a slow down to the long lines that already cause some murals to be obscured from view.”

On Wednesday, Golinger said the amendments were an improvement “because it provides some parameters.”

But he said he still thought the proposal handed too much power over rates to the Rec and Park director and planned to push for an amendment for the program to sunset after one year when it comes to the full board for a vote on July 16.

The legislation requires annual reporting on the rate changes to the board.

In addition to the “flexible pricing” proposal, the board is also expected to approve a separate proposal from the department to add a $1 surcharge on the cost for non-resident adults to visit to the Japanese Tea Garden to help fund the restoration of the pagoda.

jsabatini@sfexaminer.com

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