Noe Valley Voice March 2009

Upper Noe Rec Center: Pay to Play?

By Andrea Aranda

The sparkling new Upper Noe Valley Recreation Center has seismically fit indoor facilities, a dog run with a water fountain, and an outdoor playground that would make any child's eyes grow as big as saucers. It also has a few weeds of controversy that have tempered some residents' enjoyment of the renovated facility at Day and Sanchez streets.

Parents complain that they and their children have only limited access to the center, which reopened in September following a two-year $11.6 million renovation. At the old center, neighbors could bring their kids into the indoor play area during the center's open hours without having to register or pay a fee.

The current operations are different. The center's hours have been cut back and casual drop-ins are no longer permitted in the multipurpose playroom, called the auditorium. Drop-ins are allowed only if there is no class or meeting in progress, and as long as a staff member is available to actively supervise.

But even if those criteria are met, parents and guardians say they are being turned away more often than not--and the lack of access is aggravating.

"Part of the frustration of the community is the need to register for a class before joining, and the hours that it's open," said Alexandra Torre, who chairs the stewardship group Friends of Noe Valley Recreation Center.

Additionally, the city has been increasing the number of programs that require a fee. It's only in the last year or two that the Recreation and Park Commission has enacted more fee structures and instituted the need for patrons to create a "family account" in order to register for programs and courses.

However, the registration process is far from user-friendly. It requires a resident to visit a registration site in person with proof of address, identification, and proof of age for each child.

"We waited two years for [the center] to open, and now we're restricted," said lifelong Noe Valley resident Anne McFadden, who was surprised when she had been told that she had to register and pay in advance in order to bring her toddler into the indoor play area.

In the recreation center's previous incarnation, she said, the center was open for casual use during unfavorable weather as long as there was a staff person on site.

Gym Offered as an Option

San Francisco Recreation and Park area manager Gilberto Rocha acknowledged that drop-in rec center patrons could use the auditorium "only at certain times."

(Those times, according to the center's winter schedule, are 10 to 11:30 a.m. on Monday, 3 to 5 p.m. on Tuesday, and 3:30 to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Friday.)

However, Rocha said that if there is a class in session in the auditorium, the indoor basketball court is available for parents wanting respite from the rain or heat.

"Parents who haven't paid for the Tiny Tot class can go to the gym as long as there isn't a basketball game or practice. A lot of people bring their kids into the gym if it's wet or cold. They bring their own toys and the kids play there," Rocha said, adding, "It's not fair to the other parents who paid that we allow people to drop in and use the facility without registering or paying."

But "anyone who has young children understands that kids do not abide by schedules," said Mary McFadden, Anne's sister and another dissatisfied rec center patron. "The park is supposed to be free. Our taxes and donations pay for it."

These days, taxes and donations aren't enough to offset the expense of operating rec centers, said Rocha. "In the old days, we had the staff to run the center. I don't have the staff I used to have to afford the luxury" of opening the center to casual use like before.

He continued, "We have liability issues. If a director isn't watching, kids can go out the back doors or on the stage where we can't see them. There are a lot of problems if we don't supervise the room," he said.

Rocha cited past troubles, such as dirty diapers left in the playroom and broken toys and furniture, as deterrents to allowing free access to the new facility. Also, the new stage, kitchen, and back door require supervision to ensure the safety of wandering toddlers.

"I'm open to whatever the community wants. But there are other issues involved. There are staffing and liability issues," Rocha said.

Park Goers Ask for More Hours

Anne McFadden and several other local residents have offered suggestions to improve the situation.

"It would be more convenient to have paid sessions in the afternoon or stagger more free time in the morning during the week, not just on Monday," McFadden said.

Friends of Noe Valley Recreation Center, which serves as a conduit between the community and the block-long park, has taken up the cause of ensuring that the rec center meet the needs of the community.

"They did open the center up in the afternoon, based on our requests," said Torre. "We encourage them to try giving us the benefit of the doubt. Open [the center] up, believe people will respect the space. If things start to get broken, then start reeling back the hours. Give us a chance to set an example."

Upper Noe Rec Center and its neighbors may have to come up with even more creative ways to dialogue in the wake of new citywide budget cuts the San Francisco Recreation and Park Commission proposed last month.

While the city has promised that "all parks, playgrounds, recreation centers, pools, golf courses, gyms, art centers, senior centers, and clubhouses will remain open," it doesn't guarantee that programs, hours, and fees will be untouched.

In late February, the center was awaiting final word on staff and program cuts. The spring schedule of hours, class offerings, and fees was scheduled to be released on March 6.

For more information on classes and hours at Upper Noe Recreation Center, visit or call the center directly at 415-970-8061. To open a family account or enroll in Recreation and Park Department programs and courses, register at McLaren Lodge, located at 501 Stanyan Street. It is open during regular hours Mondays through Fridays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., excluding holidays. Certain recreation centers also serve as registration sites during a brief period at the start of each season. To find out which rec centers are available, visit or call 415-831-6800.