Friday March 12, 2004    Volume 4    Issue 219

Hellman v. the Hellraisers
A scrappy band of park activists force famous financier into high-pitched court battle

by savannah blackwell

Friday, March 12, 2004, 1:00 p.m.

Warren Hellman isn't someone you'd think would have much to worry about. The fabulously wealthy heir to the Wells Fargo fortune, Hellman is well regarded in the world of high finance and savors the prestige of his behind-the-scenes political power in San Francisco's established, downtown-friendly circles.

But judging from the flurry of documents filed in court this week by Hellman and his allies, it appears that a scrappy band of park activists has gotten the guy's goat -- enough that he's seen fit to bring in legal eagle offices of Keker and Van Nest. Keker is one of the Bay Area's most powerful criminal defense attorneys.

Here's what's up: On March 8, Superior Court Judge Kevin McCarthy issued a temporary restraining order immediately halting efforts to construct a massive, underground parking garage in Golden Gate Park -- at the request of Katherine Roberts.

Roberts, of Trees not Cars, has long fought Hellman's push to dig up the Music Concourse, which lies between the site of the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum and the California Academy of Sciences, to provide parking for visitors.

Judge Kevin McCarthy's decision has sent Hellman and the Music Concourse Community Partnership (MCCP), a private non profit he created to raise funds for the garage's construction, into a legal tizzy. Indeed, the garage gang is demanding that McCarthy force Roberts to put up a more than $6 million bond up front -- to pay for losses in revenues if the court case delays construction.

The stakes are high: Representatives of the de Young say they won't be able to open the newly constructed museum as planned in 2005 if the garage isn't open for business as well, and if activists succeed in court the financing plan would not be feasible.

"It will be a tragedy if the museum is ready to open and we can't because this group that uses every avenue possible to delay a garage that voters have already approved succeeds," Carolyn Macmillan, who handles press for the de Young, told the Sentinel. `"We would hate for San Francisco to look foolish because we've got a brand new $200 million museum that we can't open to the public."

Hellman's plan to build the 800-space garage was part of a compromise forged in 1998 between the museum's backers (which include the Wells Fargo heir) and children's advocates who wanted the museum to stay in the park. (see Blackwell's "Hellman's Hole" published by the San Francisco Bay Guardian on February 5, 2003).

>Dubbed by proponents the "Golden Park Revitalization Act," the 1998 garage measure stipulated that its main purpose was "to create a pedestrian oasis in the Music Concourse ... and to take steps to reduce the impact of automobiles in the park, while still providing long-term assurance of safe, reliable and convenient access for visitors to the Park, including its cultural institutions." It did not mandate construction of a garage. Rather, it "authorized" one.

The measure, called Proposition J, also stated that no public funds would be used to build the facility, and that all decisions regarding the garage's construction and management would be made by a public authority (known today as the Golden Gate Concourse Authority). Hellman himself pledged to raise $40 million from private donors.

Because Hellman was unwilling or unable to raise more than $36 million to pay for construction, he and the MCCP, in effect, forced the Concourse Authority to scrap its plans for a roughly $50 million, state-of-the-art garage and go with a lower budget design. Current plans do not provide for traffic to be removed from the top of the concourse -- in direct contradiction to campaign promises made in 1998 by Prop. J's backers. A thorough study of the minutes of Concourse Authority meetings from early 2001 to early last year reveals that the public body did not drive the design process. Rather, those who held the purse strings did so.

The city's decision to cede oversight of the garage to a private outfit -- in contradiction to Prop. J -- formed part of the basis of Roberts' legal complaint, which she filed in January.

Roberts' lawyer, Thomas N. Lippe, discovered that the current financing scheme for the garage appears to violate San Francisco's City Charter. Late last year, the MCCP succeeded in getting the Concourse Authority and the Board of Supervisors to approve a 35-year lease with the private non profit granting it control of the garage. The lease also provided for the MCCP to use a $54 million revenue bond to foot the cost of construction. Revenues from garage users would go to paying down the bond. (Supervisors Tom Ammiano, Chris Daly and Matt Gonzalez voted "no.")

The City Charter says that any funds generated by a parking garage built in the park should go to the city's Recreation and Park Department.

"We're basically saying it's an illegal garage," Roberts told the Sentinel. "It violates the city charter. It flies in the face of what Prop. J intended. And it's an obscene waste of public resources, both in terms of public land and public money."

Roberts' isn't the only court action against the garage. Activists with Save Golden Gate Park and the Alliance for Golden Gate Park filed a complaint last December saying that planners did not adequately review the environmental impact of the project before city officials signed off on their report last year.

One of the two groups' main arguments is that planners neglected to study the cumulative impact of three major projects (the garage, the reconstruction of the Academy of Sciences and the construction of the new de Young) slated for the concourse area. The institutions argued and City Attorney Dennis Herrera agreed, that the three are all separate endeavors.

Ironically, part of the garage backers' court arguments seems to support the activists' environmental suit. In statement after statement filed with the court, they say that the garage's construction and the de Young's plans are inextricably entwined.

"I understand that the New [sic] de Young Museum cannot open until the Project [sic] is constructed," say the declarations of at least five individuals in support of the garage.

Indeed, fire safety officials have determined that the museum will not pass code unless the garage is up and running, Macmillan told the Sentinel. In addition, it appears that the garage and the museum will share a wall.

"For the purposes of environmental review, they insist these are completely separate projects. But for the purposes of convincing the judge that stopping the garage will stop the museum as well, they say [the projects] are connected," Roberts told us. "What they're doing is the legal equivalent of having your cake and eating it too."

Despite the March 8 issuance of the temporary restraining order, work continued at the concourse as late as Tuesday afternoon March 9, when officials fenced off the historic pedestrian tunnel located at the southwest of the concourse. Preservation activists had argued against the garage's approval last year because the design calls for demolition of three, more than 100-year-old tunnels linking pedestrian pathways to the concourse.

"They're marking [what they see as] their territory," Roberts told the Sentinel.

The showdown continues at 3:00 p.m. in room 301 at the Superior Court building.

Savannah Blackwell is a political writer for
Email Savannah Blackwell at

© 2004      Used with permission.