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Stow Lake Boathouse Fight: A Battle For the Soul Of Golden Gate Park

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The first thing you notice about the Stow Lake Boathouse is that it could really use a fresh coat of paint.

The light green trim framing the boat rental facility and its attendant snack bar is chipping. White spots from a decade of bird poop speckle the wooden roof under a flock of cooing pigeons. The fleet of boats bobbing in the lake's still, green water are in similar shape, with paint cracking under a light film of dirt.

The effect on a visitor, however, isn't revulsion—the boathouse's state of disrepair isn't yet at that point—but instead a curious sense of transportation. The lake, and the boathouse perched on its northwestern edge, feel like a world in and of themselves. While only a few short steps away from the newly remodeled de Young Museum and the California Academy of Sciences, Stow Lake seems miles removed from the sleek luxury of those multi-million dollar attractions and the jostling city that frames them. It feels infinitely closer to something one would stumble across on a hike along a path in the Sierra foothills or on a drive down a dusty country road in the Adirondacks.

What it certainly doesn't feel like is the type of place beholden to the political machinations and legal battles that mark San Francisco politics at its most passionately bitter. It doesn't feel like the type of place that could bring down one of the city's most powerful lobbyists and upend a family-owned small business that's operated here for well over half a century.

The events that unfolded over the past five years culminated in Bruce McLellan, whose family has run the boathouse for more than 68 years, packing up shop for good on Monday, marking the end of an era at Stow Lake. And while San Francisco just won a major battle against McLellan, the legal war over the boathouse will surely rage for a long time to come.

Out For Bid

McLellan's grandfather first proposed the Stow Lake Boathouse's construction in 1948. In the more than half a century since then, San Fransicsco's Recreation and Parks Department has, without fail, renewed its contract with the family's Stow Lake Corporation in uninterrupted, 15-year installments.

Five years ago, when McLellan's lease with the city last came up for renewal, the department decided it was time for a change. Parks officials were fed up with what they saw as the boathouse's deteriorating condition and wanted to give the facility a major renovation. But they didn't think they would be able to sell the public or the Board of Supervisors on issuing a bond to pay for improvements to a privately-operated concession stand, nor did they think they'd be able to create the type of groundswell of public support socialite Dede Wilsey tapped into when she famously raised $200 million to finance the reconstruction of the adjacent de Young.

When the department initially put the contract to run the boathouse up for bid, officials changed the terms of McLellan's lease to month-to-month. While it's standard policy to put private operators on month-to-month leases when their agreements with the city expire, the uncertainty of his situation disincentivized McLellan from sinking any more money into the boathouse's upkeep—causing the structure to crumble even faster.

Check out this slideshow of photos from the Stow Lake Boathouse (story continues below):

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A laminated flyer posted on the wall of the boathouse explains the situation to visitors:

The Stow Lake Corporation has unfortunately been on a month to month lease since December 1, 2006...and could be required to vacate the premises on 30 days notice.

We are ready and willing to purchase new boats once we get a lease and we will also refurbish the boathouse.

Without a lease, there is no way we can spend in excess of of $200,000 for upgrading the Concession. We are not proud of the appearance of the boathouse or our boats. Although the boats are seaworthy and safe, we agree they look tired. For that we apologize.

Thank you for your support, understanding and patience. We are ready to take immediate action if and when we secure a new lease

Sincerely,
Stow Lake Corporation

Department officials were very specific in precisely what they were looking for in a new boathouse operator, and it took them five rounds of bidding over a four-year period before they found a company offering exactly what they wanted. The New Mexico-based Ortega Family Enterprises specializes in taking over "struggling" concessions in national and state parks and overhauling them; Ortega told the selection committee exactly what they wanted to hear.

Ortega representatives proposed over $200,000 in renovations to the boathouse, including the construction of a commercial kitchen and the conversion of the current boat repair shop into an indoor dining facility. By contrast, McLellan (whose bid had been rejected by the department in the four previous rounds) offered to spend $20,000 on improvements to the structure's interior and $20,000 on its exterior.

"The Ortega family is a great match for Stow Lake on a number of levels," said Recreation and Parks Department Director Phil Ginsburg in a press release announcing the new partnership with Ortega, who also recently won Marin Conservation Council’s Green Business Award for their renovation of a cafe and gift shop in Muir Woods. "They have the business expertise to revitalize the boathouse, are sensitive to the site’s historic preservation needs, are environmentally conscientious, are committed to providing healthy, affordable and locally produced foods, and they understand the importance of maintaining the traditional charm and feel of Stow Lake that San Franciscans love."

Then things started to get messy.

Enter The Tourk

McLellan wasn't about to allow just anyone, let alone a bunch of out-of-towners with no connection to his beloved lake, swoop in and snatch his business out from under him. To keep Ortega far away from his boathouse, he hired a lobbyist to argue on his behalf and helped cultivate a grassroots public campaign.

That campaign was largely organized by Suzanne Dumont, a longtime visitor to Stow Lake drawn into the fight after happening to chat with boathouse employees. In the years since she started working on McLellan's behalf, Dumont has gone to numerous hearings, petitioned for the boathouse to receive landmark status, and demanded meetings with virtually everyone who would listen.

"Someone at Rec and Parks hates Bruce McLellan and wants him out at any cost," Dumont told The Huffington Post. "Come hell or high water."

Department officials, meanwhile, insist ditching McLellan was nothing personal. "The Recreation and Parks Commission approved [Ortega's] proposal because we honestly believe it will improve the visitor experience of everyone who visits the boathouse," said Public Affairs Director Sarah Ballard.

But the department soon realized that McLellan's opposition, combined with San Francisco's reflexive antipathy to out-of-town chains, meant that if they wanted Ortega to take over the boathouse, they were going to need some help shepherding its bid though the approval process.

Enter the infamous Alex Tourk.

A top aide to former Mayor Gavin Newsom (until the mayor was very publicly revealed to have had an affair with his wife), Tourk is a fixture in San Francisco politics. He was instrumental in the creation of Project Homeless Connect, the passage of the Sit-Lie ordinance and the redevelopment of the Hunter's Point Shipyard. At the same time Recreation and Park officials recommended that Ortega enlist Tourk's help in overcoming McLellan's opposition, the lobbyist was also employed as a consultant for both Dennis Herrera's and Geroge Gascón's respective campaigns for Mayor and District Attorney.

As clearly demonstrated by the batch of emails between Tourk and Ortega released as part of a suit filed by McLellan against the city, Tourk knows exactly how the sausage of San Francisco politics is made.

Tourk managed media outreach for Ortega's campaign and personally lobbied members of the Recreation and Parks Commission to support Ortega. "We won because of our back channeling with commissioners," Tourk wrote to Ortega after their approval cleared the commission. Tourk was paid to assemble supporters to public meetings in favor of Ortega's bid; however, none of the supporters were ever paid by Ortega directly.

The release of these emails sparked a media firestorm around Tourk and his unseemly, if not technically illegal, lobbying campaign. Further scrutiny revealed a whole host of improprieties surrounding Tourk's lobbying activities. For example, since 2004, every registered lobbyist in San Francisco is required to report every lobbying conversation they have with a public official on behalf of one of their clients. Tourk met with three Recreation and Parks Department Commissioners while pushing Ortega's bid, but neglected to log any of them.

The emails also raised doubts about how good of a deal the city was getting in handing Ortega the keys to the boathouse. In an email to Tourk, Ortega co-owner Shane Ortega wrote, "I think the City thinks this is a huge money maker, and it's not. At most for us, it's a foot in the door for contracts that will pay better. It's a stepping stone and not one that we can spend a lot of $ on."

When asked about that particular email, company spokesperson Tanya Ortega shrugged it off. "My personal opinion is that while it might help us get other contracts with the city," she told The Huffington Post, "our real goal with the boathouse is to make the experience more enjoyable for visitors and bring the boathouse back to what it used to be."

Boats And Suits

In the middle of Stow Lake sits the island of Strawberry Hill. Its peak, the highest point in Golden Gate Park, offers stunning 360 degree views of the city and, if visitors are lucky, a fleeting glimpse of the family of Great Horned Owls living in a tree near the hill's crest.

Down below, Bruce McLellan is packing the remnants of decades of work into boxes. Last week was supposed to mark a start of a trial to determine whether the city of San Francisco could legally evict the Stow Lake Corporation from the premises, but a pre-trial ruling by the judge demolished McLellan's defense before it could even be mounted.

A second case, this one a lawsuit filed by McLellan against the city in March, is still winding its way though the courts. It may take over a year to be sorted out but, if McLellan wins, he will be returned to the boathouse as its rightful operator. "I am confident we will prevail [in that suit] and I'll be reinstated as the operator of the boathouse," McLellan said. "I'm going to come back in a year and all the improvements they're making, they will have made for me."

The city and Ortega, who was forced to keep a quarter of a million dollars of equipment in storage for six months while McLellan was being evicted, will doubtlessly flight tooth and nail keep the boathouse under new ownership. "Five judges have ruled that Bruce McLellan's bogus claims were nothing but a desperate attempt to thwart a lawful process for personal gain," Parks Department Spokesman Nick Kinsey told the San Francisco Chronicle.

For a many, a fresh coat of paint on the boathouse may never be able to wipe clean the bad blood left here.

But, no matter what happens, there will still be the boats, paddling in slow rings around the small, man-made lake that will always feel somehow beautifully out of step with the bustling metropolis just a few steps away.