Ferris wheel showdown: Critics say San Francisco attraction causes light pollution

The future of the gigantic Ferris wheel in Golden Gate Park remains up in the air - at least until Wednesday.

San Francisco's Historic Preservation Commission was supposed to decide whether it would extend the wheel's contract for four years, but the meeting was postponed until next month. 

"People love it, they love it," Rec and Parks Director Phil Ginsburg has said. "Great cities do great things, and we want to keep this here."

The Skystar Observation Wheel was erected to commemorate the park's 150th anniversary.

The 150-foot attraction took two years to construct.

It was to operate for one year, but that coincided with the pandemic, so it did not open as planned.

During a six-week window in October, it ran at one-quarter capacity.

With gondolas rising above the tree-line for panoramic city views, riders raved about the 12-minute, $18 experience. But COVID surges shut it down again, and instead of carrying 500,000 riders as projected, it has had just 50,000 total.

"I don't think the Historic Preservation Commission should be butting in on this," said State Senator Scott Wiener, a former San Francisco supervisor. "It's really about nimby-ism and people not wanting to see any change in the park."

The hearing is expected to be contentious, with environmental interests and some neighborhood groups lining up against the bold structure.

The Sierra Club is calling for the wheel to be closed to protect wildlife, concerned that its bright lights infringe on natural habitat. 

"If there's data to show we're hurting animals, bring it to the table and let's see it, we don't want to do anything bad," said Sachin Agarwal, founder of the group Grow SF.

His organization and another, Grow the Richmond, are sponsoring a petition in support of the ride.

Headlined "Ferris Wheels are Fun!" it had collected almost 1,000 signers by the eve of the hearing.

The petition calls opponents "anti-fun scolds."

"This is one of those absurd things we shouldn't have to protest or petition, it's just something fun we should always say yes to," said Agarwal.  

In arguing for a longer lease, the city aims to give more people a chance to ride.

"It's really inspirational to rise above and see downtown, the neighborhoods, the ocean," said Ginsburg, who expressed hope every child in San Francisco might experience it. 

A lease extension would also make it feasible to replace the current diesel generator with electric power to run the wheel.

"We're hopeful and I think everybody understands the wheel has become very popular, it's become a symbol of our recovery," said Ginsburg. 

Opposing groups were contacted for comment, but did not respond.

Wiener sees it as a park management decision, not political. 

"It's a great thing to have for kids and families to enjoy and yet it has to be a fight," he lamented. "There's a whole cottage industry in San Francisco set up to keep anything from changing in Golden Gate Park."