Chronicle story about failed 2007 proposal to commercialize Coit Tower

Makeover may be Coit Tower’s gift for 75th birthday
Sunday, February 25, 2007
Plans are in the works to spruce up Coit Tower and turn t...

A plan to spiff up Coit Tower — complete with a new outdoor cafe and reopened viewing deck — is at the heart of negotiations between San Francisco officials and a team of investors seeking to take over management of the 1930s landmark from the city.

The idea is to turn one of San Francisco’s most photographed and beloved attractions into a moneymaker that yields profits for the city’s cash-starved Recreation and Park Department.

The backers, who have formed as Coit Tower Partners, hope to nearly triple the 175,000 annual paid visits to the Telegraph Hill tourist attraction within five years.

What you won’t find in any of the documents that Coit Tower Partners has filed with the city, however, is a scheme the backers are floating to close the Columbus Plaza parking lot to cars and buses to make way for an enclosed cafe with a panoramic view.

Asked about that idea, Rec and Park spokeswoman Rose Marie Dennis said, “The possibilities are endless. … But what’s there on paper is what’s being negotiated.”

In other words, any ideas that come up in the talks have to go through careful study because, as Dennis put it, “We don’t want to upset the applecart of people out there.”

Over the years, ideas for improving Coit Tower have come and gone like the fog — someone even proposed shuttling tourists from the bottom of Telegraph Hill in a ski-style gondola.

This time, city officials would like to get Coit Tower spruced up and ready for a load of new visitors next year when the landmark celebrates its 75th anniversary.

Among the ideas that Coit Tower Partners has put in writing:

– Bring in a vintage fire truck selling sandwiches, salads and the like in Columbus Plaza, along with tables, chairs and umbrellas. Install a separate, historic “steam pumper” coffee stand on the opposite lawn.

– Open the tower’s balustrade viewing level to visitors.

– Reopen the tower’s long-closed stairwell, which might eliminate long waits for the elevator.

– Remodel the gift shop on the ground floor and sell pricier souvenirs there that connect to the tower’s history.

But the biggest challenge of all may be dealing with the traffic jams getting to Coit Tower, which will certainly worsen if more people pay visits.

Backers propose working with Citipark to provide validated parking at nearby garages and possibly even run shuttles to the tower. They also talk about encouraging more visitors to take the bus or walk.

“I don’t know what kind of drugs they’re smoking,” was the first reaction of Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin, whose district includes Coit Tower, when asked about the prospects of closing the Columbus Plaza lot.

“It’s the only place for the No. 39 bus to turn around,” Peskin said.

Then again, Peskin said, the tower certainly could use some spiffing up to get rid of its “ticky-tacky tourist trap” image.

Coit Tower Partners includes an assortment of well-connected business and civic types. Among them: architect Rod Freebairn-Smith, a former arts commissioner and onetime president of the Telegraph Hill Dwellers Association; business consultant Alexander Leff, who operates Malibu Pier in Southern California; Mark Zuckerman, the founder of Pasqua’s Coffee; and Howard Wright III, whose family owns and operates the Seattle Space Needle.

We contacted Freebairn-Smith, but he declined to comment — saying the city advised his team not to talk publicly while the negotiations were under way.

This article appeared on page D – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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