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The Beach Chalet Turf Wars Will Never End

Amid record usage, the Beach Chalet fields at Golden Gate Park remain a polarized battleground.

 

Editor’s Note: This is one of many stories about Golden Gate Park that San Francisco is publishing over the next month as part of the June 2017 issue. To read stories as they become available online, click here.


The sun is
just beginning to set above Ocean Beach, casting a sharp glare over the hundreds of kids darting like schools of fish around the soccer fields just south of the Beach Chalet restaurant. Over here, a high school girls’ lacrosse team slings shots at the goalkeeper. Over there, a mother and daughter toss a Frisbee back and forth. Overhead, a large black bird glides lazily toward the shore.

There’s not much here to remind you that the Beach Chalet fields were among San Francisco’s fiercest political battlegrounds not long ago. The only outward hint of the unrest these fields once caused is a sticker, nearly peeled off but still faintly visible, on a sign at their eastern end, warning of cancer-causing toxins in the turf.

The sign was put there by Kathleen McCowin, a lawyer and anti-turf crusader who played a key role in the effort to oppose the installation of the fields, which opened in December 2015 after a battle of at least 10 years. That fight involved dueling ballot initiatives, a lawsuit and subsequent appeal, and McCowin’s arrest for blocking construction vehicles. It pitted neighbors against neighbors and kids against the environment. It also raised deeper questions about Golden Gate Park itself, ones that don’t have easy answers: Who, exactly, is it for? Who is it meant to serve? How can you reconcile its inherent artificiality—its park-iness—with its idealized role as a natural habitat?

Though the guerrilla-style “turf war” over the Beach Chalet fields is largely resolved, the larger fight lives on, smoldering like an ember in the ashes of a nearly extinguished fire. As Katherine Howard, one of the leading opponents of the project, says, repeating an old chestnut, “In San Francisco, it’s not over till it’s over. And even then, it’s not over.”

For a small band of opponents, the fight, as before 2014—when 55 percent of voters elected to green-light construction of the 482,700-square-foot facility—is being waged on multiple fronts, mainly centered on three arguments: first, that the stadium lighting, which stays on until 10 p.m. six nights a week, causes a nuisance for neighbors and interferes with migratory birds’ flight path; second, that the pulverized-rubber pellets used to fill in the turf allegedly expose children to cancer-causing toxins and risk polluting the city’s groundwater; and finally, that the loss of the former grassy meadow violates the park’s master plan.

Last November, Howard was among a crowd of 50 or so that filed into a Recreation and Parks Department meeting to complain about the impact of the field lighting. (The meeting had been called for in 2012.) Around the same time, McCowin and a small group of allies formed a group called Healthy Soccer San Francisco to gather and distribute information about—and advocate against—recycled-tire styrene-butadiene rubber (SBR) turf infill, which they contend causes cancer in small children. “I really think if the voters had known about the potential link, they would not have voted for this project,” she says. (There are several ongoing studies on the issue both locally and nationally, including a large-scale EPA investigation. Some municipalities, including the Los Angeles Unified School District and New York City’s Department of Parks and Recreation, have placed de facto bans on the installation of such turf fields.)

Still, those concerns can be a tough sell compared with a shiny new field. I ask Wil Dere, who’s waiting for his daughter’s 13-and-under club soccer team to wrap up practice, whether he’s moved by opponents’ concerns over the field. “Absolutely not,” he says. “Having been born and raised in San Francisco, having a field where kids can play rain or shine, day or night, is so important. There’s limited space already.”

Courtney Norris, sitting beside the opposite field, is watching her son’s high school lacrosse team. She also has a sixth grader who plays soccer and lacrosse, meaning she finds herself at the Beach Chalet fields three or four times a week. “Before the drought, [the fields] were nonfunctional,” she says. “If it rained, you couldn’t play.” I ask what she’d change about the fields if she could. “Coffee,” she says.

All of which seems to suggest that the cadre of turf-field opponents face an uphill battle in fighting what’s now the status quo. According to Rec and Park, in 2016, Beach Chalet hosted 17,265 hours of play, compared with 3,213 hours in 2013. That equates to hosting 165 teams each week on the turf, rather than 31 per week on the grass.

That doesn’t mean the fight is over, though. And realistically, there are reasons to think that some half measures might succeed—if not in razing the field, then in squeezing a few concessions out of it: Could the lighting curfew be adjusted by an hour or two a few times a week? Perhaps. Then there’s the fact that most turf fields have a life span of around 10 years. Given that the Beach Chalet fields host a staggeringly high number of players, it’s not unreasonable to assume that within a few years, when they’re up for repairs, the city might ditch the SBR infill for an organic one. (Two other city fields have recently done exactly that.)

I ask Howard whether she’d be satisfied with that kind of outcome. She doesn’t have to think very long about it. In the turf wars, there is only absolute victory or absolute defeat. “In terms of the SBR, they need to do it now,” she says. 

So the battle wages on. Sue Vaughan, another outspoken critic of the fields and a member of the Sierra Club’s local board, tells me where the city’s next Beach Chalet–style fight is going to go down. “We’re always keeping an eye on everything,” she says. “On the Warriors [their new arena], on transportation issues—on a personal level, I photograph Lyft and Uber drivers using our public bus stops.”

She pauses for a moment, thinking, then resumes. “There’s climate change, income inequality, the tech shuttle buses…”

 

Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco 

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