Change is Afoot at the Lake Merced Boathouse
The Lake Merced Boathouse, which has been closed and in disrepair since 2003, is poised for potentially substantial changes.
On Thursday, Oct. 21, the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department will seek approval from the Recreation and Park Commission to issue a request for proposals from businesses interested in possibly operating out of the vacant building. The primary possibility discussed so far is to renovate the boathouse as a restaurant.
“The Lake Merced Boathouse is a fantastic facility with loads of potential,” said Elton Pon, a communications officer with the department.
“We are confident a suitable tenant will respond to this opportunity, someone with the vision to transform the boathouse into a citywide destination, but who also understands the importance of maintaining it as a community asset.”
The boathouse, which had been occupied by varied businesses for decades, was left vacant in 2003 after the final tenants closed their doors. The water levels at the lake had been steadily declining for many years, and 2003 found the water at record lows, which further emphasized the noticeably decreased recreational activity at the Lake. In 2002, an agreement to restore the lake to higher water levels was reached by the City, nearby golf courses and other municipalities that drew water from the aquifer that feeds the lake. The restoration of the levels has been a slow process, slower than originally believed. It was not until 2004, after the low levels of 2003, that progress was becoming obvious. Now, in the fall of 2010, and more than 7 years after the agreement, enough steady progress has been made to encourage Rec and Park that it’s time to put the boathouse back into operations.
As for community members, most agree that the boathouse should be put to use, but they are mindful of the past decades of confusion and stalled action over the management of Lake Merced’s water levels, water quality and recreation. As a result, many Lake Merced advocates express concern over the implications of the RFP.
In early 2000, the Lake Merced Task Force formed to address the concerns of users of the lake. Its primary goal: “to address the deterioration and the lake’s sustainability as one of San Francisco’s most valuable natural and recreational areas.”
Dick Morton, a retired member of the Lake Merced Task Force, is worried that the “primary goal of the RFP is to generate revenue, and that the overall plan for the lake as a whole may not be taken into concern.”
The Recreation and Park Department’s budget hasn’t kept up with costs, and a concession at the boathouse could bring in badly needed funds.
Meanwhile, Isabel Wade, founder and former executive director of the Neighborhood Parks Council, is also concerned by what she interprets to be the narrow scope of the department’s focus.
“I think the RFP could and should be more comprehensive than just proposing a concession,” especially since there is already a community of rowers and boaters that use the boathouse on a regular basis, she said.
“A restaurant would be a great addition, but as many folks have mentioned, the building is a boathouse, not just a restaurant building. It would be ideal if we could come up with a plan for the facility that would improve boating and fishing programs at the lake, as well as provide a good restaurant for city residents and visitors,” Wade said.
Pon is quick to assert the willingness of the Recreation and Park Department to take all of the lake users into consideration.
“We have zero intention of making boaters’ lives more difficult. We will communicate and work with potential proposals to make sure construction plans take into account the need of other tenants,” he said.
Dick Allen, a rower and a founding member of the Lake Merced Task Force, is cautiously optimistic about the RFP.
“My primary concern is that none of the rowing programs at Lake Merced are interrupted,” Allen said. “I’m hopeful, and I’ve made it clear that [the rowers] have collective experience at Lake Merced that is an asset to the city, and we want to help.”
After the 90-day period during which the City will be accepting proposals, there will be three opportunities for the public to engage in the process before a tenant is selected.
“We all want the lights turned on at the boathouse,” said Allen. “We want to see something good happen there, for the entire lake community, with everyone working together.”
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