Stow Lake Boathouse needs TLC — but alas, we’re in SF 

San Franciscans like to think of themselves as all-embracing, forward-thinking, experimental souls, open to new trends and fresh ideas.

So, it remains a mystery why forces exist that resist calls for change, even when the facts are undeniable, the local landscape is improved and the results are clearly brighter.

I say this as a native son who still misses Playland, but who understands why rusting roller coasters and kitschy haunted houses don’t stand the test of time.

Neither do aging and antiquated museums, such as the ones that small but voracious groups of opponents fought to keep in Golden Gate Park when they were battling against designs for the new de Young Museum and an underground parking garage to serve the adjacent California Academy of Sciences. The City survived that tempest — thankfully — and we now have two highly popular modern attractions in our civic greenbelt.

This brings us to the latest public pother over another rundown structure in dire need of repair. That would be the Stow Lake Boathouse, which on Thursday will be the subject of a public hearing before the Recreation and Park Commission, which is poised to award the contract to a new operator.

The only thing standing in the way of that transition is the forces of nostalgia that have gripped a fervent band of supporters who seemingly object to a series of improvements that will transform the boathouse into a far more attractive, family-oriented place.

They are clinging to a concept “as is,” apparently viewing a structure that hasn’t seen paint, a new boat or any significant upgrades in decades as a good thing.

But a selection panel recently peered through the mist and selected a new operator from the concessions bidders — Ortega Family Enterprises, which has a solid history of renovating and running historic structures in national parks. The group plans to add $250,000 in capital improvements to the aging boathouse, invest more than $100,000 for a new fleet of boats and move the unsightly repair shop and replace it with an indoor cafe using locally grown produce.

The current operator offered $23,000 in upgrades. That will tell you almost everything you need to know about why the boats and the boathouse look the way they do.

Yet, if you listened to the rhetoric buzz stirred by a group that calls itself the Save Stow Lake Boathouse Coalition, you might think restoring the building, upgrading the food and replacing the rusty fleet at Golden Gate Park’s largest lake was an attack on city culture.

The coalition’s members have ripped the new concessions plan on a host of fronts, including claiming greed on the part of Recreation and Park Department officials and suggesting that noise from machinery will upset the delicate wildlife and delivery trucks will generate more pollution.

“Why would you want change something that’s already perfect?” the group’s website says.

The reason is that it’s not perfect — unless perfection is a tired, dilapidated, outmoded structure that we can all agree is quaint. The boathouse has been run by Bruce McLellan and his family for 67 years, and while I’m all for tradition, it’s one trait that hasn’t served the place particularly well. The site is in desperate need of money, new ideas and a major overhaul, which the Ortega family group has repeatedly shown it can deliver at national parks across the nation.

I will make the bold prediction that if the change is adopted by the parks commission, life will go on — for the McLellans, the blue herons and all the other vested parties that want to call Stow Lake home. Just like we somehow survived the construction of the new museums and lived to see a downtown ballpark. For those who may get misty-eyed at the thought of Candlestick Park being bulldozed, remember that those tears will likely freeze if they fall in the surrounding wind tunnel.

“This is a place that needs love and attention and it hasn’t gotten it,” Rec and Park General Manager Phil Ginsburg said.

Progress and preservation aren’t mutually exclusive. The Doggie Diner head was worth saving, but the chain’s food not so much.

Addition is not subtraction. Too bad in San Francisco, it’s almost always about division.

Ken Garcia appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Examiner. E-mail him at

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Staff Report

Staff Report

A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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