Neighbors look toward ballot to protect Coit Tower 

A treasured piece of San Francisco history faces daily threats to its well-being, according to a group of neighbors who want voters to approve a new upkeep policy at Coit Tower.

The Protect Coit Tower Committee submitted more than 16,000 signatures Monday seeking a ballot measure to encourage The City to “prioritize” money raised at the landmark for maintenance of the building, its murals and the surrounding Pioneer Park.

The proposed measure — the result of long-standing concern about the concrete structure built in 1933 — also seeks to “strictly limit” private events at the tower, which the Recreation and Park Department occasionally allows. The initiative does not lay out specifics about the percentage of revenue to keep within the tower’s confines, or exactly how many private events should be permitted.

Committee leader Jon Golinger of the influential Telegraph Hill Dwellers group said it’s not uncommon to hear complaints about people touching the Depression-era leftist murals, or even workers leaving gashes and chips in the works with machinery.

According to Rec and Park, the popular tourist attraction generates an average of $633,000 annually from concessions and a $7 elevator fee. But The City’s Arts Commission is technically in charge of the murals and only budgets $75,000 per year to maintain all public art in San Francisco.

“This is a problem that can’t wait to be solved,” Golinger said, noting that Rec and Park has spent an annual average of only $44,000 on maintenance of the tower.

In response to concerns about the landmark, Rec and Park has pledged 1 percent of Coit Tower’s annual revenue toward mural restoration, plus a onetime $250,000 sum for the Arts Commission to seek fixes.

Agency General Manager Phil Ginsburg said the proposed initiative serves to highlight the need for greater investment in The City’s park system, but the ballot language is “poorly conceived.”

For instance, he cautioned against setting a precedent for self-contained budgets at the department’s other revenue-generating facilities, like Golden Gate Park and Candlestick Park.

“If all of the revenue generated by those locations were kept at those locations, we’d have trouble keeping our parks and playgrounds open in the communities that need them most,” Ginsburg said.

Kate Patterson, a spokeswoman for the Arts Commission, said it won’t be known if $250,000 will be enough to fix the murals until a conservator completes a report on how to go about restoration.

“It is certainly a generous amount, but I can’t say how much of the project it will cover,” Patterson said, adding that the murals were last serviced in 1990. “It will be a substantial contribution towards the project.”

The Department of Elections has 30 days to certify the signatures submitted on Monday, although officials said they hope to have results sooner. To qualify for the June ballot, the initiative needs about 9,700 of the signatures to be validated.

Coit Tower by the numbers

- 210 feet tall

- Constructed in 1933 with money from Lillie Hitchcock Coit

- Murals painted in 1934 with funding from a New Deal program for artists

- Most of the murals are done in fresco

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