It’s Sunday morning, 5 a.m., on the ragged fringes of San Francisco, California. It is strangely quiet. Where once birdsong emanated from the underbrush, there are now signs posting the use of glyphosate (the soil toxin found in Roundup and Aquamaster), and much of the avian habitat has been removed. Where once there was an open meadow behind Golden Gate Park’s Beach Chalet, there is an imposing chain link fence that surrounds the field. Inside the enclosure is seven acres of grass – forage grounds for wildlife, and fields of play – a pastoral setting for recreation in the wilder-by-design far west end of Golden Gate Park and, now, the site of intense controversy.
In the spring of 2013, the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department announced that it was planning to convert the Beach Chalet Fields, a naturalistic meadow near Ocean Beach, into a massive soccer field complex. The proposed project would transform the grassy area into four sports fields made out of what’s called “SBR Field Turf” – that is, a kind of artificial surface made from plastics and recycled tire rubber. The Recreation and Park Department plan also called for parking lots, bleachers, concrete pathways and patios, and 150,000 watts of stadium style lighting mounted on 60-foot-high poles to daylight the complex from dusk to 10 p.m. every evening of the year.
According to local activist Kathy Howard of SF Ocean Edge, the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department had prepared in advance for a fight, well aware that the Beach Chalet Fields are listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Golden Gate Park Historic District. And a fight is what the city got. During the last year, the proposed soccer complex and its fake turf have been the subject of California Coastal Commission Hearings, the focal point of a lawsuit, and much political wrangling in the upcoming June election. Now, opponents are gathering signatures for a local ballot measure on the issue. It’s very likely that this November San Francisco residents will vote on the “Golden Gate Park Athletic Fields Renovation Act,” which will require the city to maintain all sports fields in the western section of the park as natural grass, and would prohibit night sports lighting in that same area.
Steve Blank, a former member of the California Coastal Commission, describes the proposal as an “industrial scale sporting facility … unambiguously in violation of the Local Coastal Plan,” a project that “the people of San Francisco will come to think of … in the same way they think of the Embarcadero Freeway.” That is, a “pretty obvious mistake to pave over a cool park, one of the most beautiful parks in the country, in an urban area.” Even though the coastal commission staff expressed strong reservations about the project, Blank was the only coastal commission member to oppose the city’s fake turf soccer installation. During a May 9, 2013 hearing on the proposal, Blank put this seemingly parochial issue into the larger context of environmental conservation:
“One of the reasons why our coast looks like no other state is because of this commission. Our opening charter, Section 30001, says the ‘California coastal zone is a distinct and valuable natural resource of vital and enduring interest to all the people and exists as a delicately balanced ecosystem … that the permanent protection of the state’s natural and scenic resources is a paramount concern to present and future residents of the state and nation,’ and that our job as a state agency is to determine whether this project is consistent with the policies that protect the coast for all Californians.”
Blank stated that although the project had been reviewed under San Francisco’s own criteria, because the project “is in the Coastal Zone, that means the review is based on the needs of all 38 million Californians.” He said the project in Golden Gate Park is the “antithesis” of what the Local Coastal Plan calls for.
The opposition to the soccer fields centers on two main issues: the possible public health impacts of the synthetic turf, and the impacts to wildlife from the large lighting display.
Richard Drury, an attorney who worked with San Francisco Coalition for Children's Outdoor Play, Education and the Environment and the Sierra Club to file a lawsuit against the plan (which has since been dismissed by a judge and is now in the appeals process), says the fake turf poses a toxic risk. “SBR presents numerous environmental risks – heavy metals, such as lead, dioxin, carbon black, styrene, butadiene, and other known carcinogens,” he told me. Especially of concern to Drury, a San Francisco resident whose children play soccer, were “head space vapors,” or off-gassing, on the fields. As he argued in court, the inhalation of these toxic fumes pose a cancer risk of 20 per million to those who use the fields 30 times per year. Some players “use the fields four times a week,” he said, and would be especially at risk. By comparison, Drury said, “the numbers in the neighborhood around the Chevron plant [a large-scale oil refinery in Richmond, CA] are 8.5 per million.”
Drury said he was “shocked that the city would consider this alternative,” especially when other cities have sought to avoid SBR Field Turf. For example, the Bay Area cities of Piedmont and San Carlos use other infill materials such as “cork-o-nut,” a mix of cork and coconut coir. Los Angeles prefers to use colored sand for many recreation fields. And New York City has a de facto moratorium in place on artificial turf with waste tire infill.
“We feel that it could [be] done with naturally-growing turf that could be properly irrigated and drained, without needing replacement and disposal as hazardous materials in eight to 10 years, as the project will require,” Mike Lynes of the Audubon Society says about this aspect of the proposed renovation. “It seems crazy to us that San Francisco, which purports to be a ‘green’ city that adheres to the Precautionary Principle, would so strongly embrace artificial fields while other cities, like New York and Los Angeles, are showing more caution.”
Jean Barish, an activist who lives near the northwest edge of Golden Gate Park and who collaborated with Drury on the lawsuit, says she feels that “the majority of the people are ahead of city leadership” and that the continued conversions of grass fields to SBR FieldTurf are “a bad omen for San Francisco … [which is] making a big mistake by falling behind other municipalities.” Barish also points out that disposal of intact rubber tires is strictly regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency due to the accumulation of toxins that accompany their disposal. However, by means of what she calls the “Abracadabra Effect,” there is no regulation of the disposal of ground-up tires.
The fake turf makers, naturally, deny that there is any risk from the tire crumbs used to install artificial grass. The industry complains that “hysteria and wild claims of imminent danger are a lot easier to make headlines with.”
The Audubon Society, Sierra Club, and neighborhood groups have also expressed concern about the impact on wildlife, especially birds. Replacing grass with plastic and tire crumbs will destroy habitat. The night lighting could impact avian reproduction, navigation, and lifecycles. “The project represents that in San Francisco, nature, habitat, and wildlife will consistently lose out to money and political power, even when there are viable alternatives to a project,” Lynes says. “That is a disappointing, but consistent, reality in San Francisco.”
Golden Gate Park was constructed in an era of competing philosophies. The City Beautiful Movement of the late nineteenth century conceived of the commons as a series of connected open spaces or linked destinations. William Hammond Hall, the first superintendent of Golden Gate Park, had a different vision. In constructing Golden Gate Park out of sand dunes, the idea was to create a journey away from the stress of urban life to places of recreation and leisure (the eastern end of the park), to less structured and wilder places (the western end), to the ultimate wilderness – the Pacific Ocean. This journey would be utterly destroyed by an arrival at “a suburban style stadium with a couple of trees,” as San Francisco landscape architect Kathy Howard puts it. Howard says the construction of an artificial turf and massively lighted sports complex would ruin “140 years of the effective feeling that one is in nature” on a trip through the park. “We need places to get lost, places for hawks to nest, places for children to walk down a path and have the direct experience of nature.”
“It was a fight that picked me,” Howard says of her involvement in the movement to save the meadow. “I felt a connection to the place and I want to protect it.”
Arthur Feinstein, executive director of the Sierra Club’s Bay Chapter, agrees. “People don’t get out into nature that much anymore,” he says, and there is a “longing for a deep connection to nature.”
The fight to save this one meadow is part of that longing. The new chain link fence is a potent reminder that the meadow, and the original vision of Golden Gate Park, is under siege.
Kathy Howard quips: “It’s not over ‘til it’s over. And, in San Francisco, even then, it’s not over.” Such could be said of just about anywhere – forest, beach, meadow, or ballfield. Ultimately, it is nature that bats last.