August 2011

Synthetic Turf Threatens San Francisco’s Natural Fields

By Bailey deBruynkops

In San Francisco, where foggy dew is plentiful, fields of glistening grass blades are increasingly being replaced with shiny synthetic turf.  More than 30 acres of City fields have already been synthetically turfed, with grass areas located at the Potrero Hill Recreation Center, Mission Playground, Ocean View Playground, and Golden Gate Park’s Beach Chalet fields being eyed as the next synthetic frontier.  This fall the Planning Department will publish an environmental impact report (EIR) examining the potential consequences from trading grass for rubbery plastic on San Francisco playgrounds.

The proposed Beach Chalet renovation is particularly controversial because of the area’s size, history, and wildlife that make their home nearby.  Golden Gate Park’s west end has long been regarded as the green space’s natural side, compared to the more developed east end.  Potential stadium lights in a remodeled Beach Chalet area would create light pollution, impact driving conditions on the Great Highway, and notably affect existing habitats.  

According to Golden Gate Audubon Society’s conservation director Michael Lynes, “During migration, these lights pull the birds off course, especially tall stadium lights. Lights effect how birds nest, breed and forage at night, and make it easier for predators to find the birds. Next, it will throw off their timing for breeding and behavior.  Most of the City is lit up, but this park is dark, and one of the last refuges for birds, and they want to take that away; it will undoubtedly change breeding and behaviors.”  Under the renovation 55 trees would be cut-down; paved sidewalks and parking – and traffic – would be added.  

In addition, under the plan Golden Gate Park’s natural grass would be replaced with synthetic turf.  The material isn’t akin to the Astroturf of the olden days, but consists of two to three inches of pulverized tire crumbs.  According to a preliminary report questioning synthetic turf issued by Charles Vadair, a staff toxicologist at the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, and Chris Geiger, the San Francisco Department of the Environment’s municipal toxics reduction coordinator, “To date, San Francisco has introduced over 16 billion pounds of pulverized tire crumb into its public spaces; the equivalent of 4,392 barrels of oil…Artificial fields have been found to be 8 to 10 decibels noisier than natural grass.”  Tire crumb contains 15 metals which are listed as oral carcinogens.   Synthetic turf is vulnerable to vandalism, as well as bacterial build up – associated with gum, food, and bodily fluids – that adhere to the obliterated tire rubber.  The report also criticizes the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department (RPD) and City Fields Foundation for ignoring previous EIRs that identified adverse outcomes from synthetic turf.

“The ideal situation is for them to do a renovation out there with natural growing grass the way it is in the polo fields; considerably less money without having to install synthetic turf that requires replacement every eight to 10 years,” said San Francisco Beautiful’s Milo Hanke.  “They want to put lights in so people can play late at night, what they want to build there is an athletic complex that can be used throughout the day and well into the night, 365 days a year. We acknowledge that the City needs that, but Golden Gate Park is the wrong place to do it. There’s a long history of people intending to make money on the western end of the park, there’s always a desire to take away open space and turn it into a money making venture.”

City Fields Foundation, a 501(c)(3) organization, is leading the effort to install synthetic fields throughout San Francisco.  According to the nonprofit’s website, the Playfields Initiative, under which grass fields are being replaced, is a partnership between City Fields and RPD, with $45 million in funds; $20 million from the City and County of San Francisco and a $25 million “gift” from the City Fields Foundation.  City Fields’ leadership includes John J. Fisher, president of Pisces Inc., an investment management company, and Matt Lockary, of Baycor Builders, a construction firm which at one time listed on its website a business arrangement with City Fields and the City and County of San Francisco worth more than $50 million.

According to City Fields’ director of communications, “The Beach Chalet as it is now is a failed site, the fields cannot accommodate the level of play needed. What we’ve proposed with Rec and Park will provide a greater capacity.  Synthetic fields will save 1.5 million gallons of water per field each year.”  

“We’re evaluating the environmental impacts of the turf projects as they are proposed, evaluating the impacts of the projects and looking at alternatives for this fall’s EIR,” said San Francisco Planning Department senior environmental planner Sarah Jones.

“The Golden Gate Park master plan is very clear about the original intent of the park designer’s, and the intent in that plan is that the eastern end of the park is the developed end and the western end of the park should be as natural as possible, and that would suggest that the meadow where the soccer fields are remain a meadow, and should be striped for soccer games but can be used for ecological values and wildlife purposes,” said Lynes.   “We believe the Rec and Park Department should follow their own master plan, that this should be a natural meadow. The Beach Chalet is in great shape; it doesn’t need renovation. The soccer fields should be renovated as a natural meadow – re-graded, re-drained and grass replaced – and so on that occurs in any artificial park, but it shouldn’t be developed for a single use and any use that conflicts with a natural process.”


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