Wednesday, September 23, 2020
Saturday, September 12, 2020
Tuesday, September 1, 2020
New York Times Magazine Article; "A $60 Billion Housing Grab by Wall Street" - Hundreds of thousands of single-family homes are now in the hands of giant companies - squeezing renters for revenue and putting the American dream even further out of reach
Below is another recommended article entitled; "A $60 Billion Housing Grab by Wall Street". It reveals the large numbers of single-family homes snatched up by Wall Street Firms during the Great Recession. (Warning: It is a very long article.)
The article illustrates the appetite that Wallstreet and Big Real Estate have for investing in single-family homes. It brings home the real possibility that the 2020 housing legislation, which we have been opposing, could encourage real estate developers, real estate investment firms, and real estate rental corporations to buy up single-family homes, convert them to multifamily complexes (duplexes, fourplexes, and larger) and turn them into rental properties.
During the current recession, many households are falling behind on their mortgage payments. This could lead to many single-family homes being put on the market or else being foreclosed on and then being bought up by Big Real Estate (a repeat of the Great Recession), resulting in another Wall Street windfall at the expense of homeowner's loss of wealth equity.
Excerpt from CalMatters article by Senator Nancy Skinner entitled "Let's stop another Wall Street takeover of single-family homes":
"The Great Recession sparked a massive transfer of wealth in California and the rest of the nation. It happened on courthouse steps around the country when an estimated 5 million U.S. families lost their homes due to foreclosure. Many of those foreclosed homes were sold in bulk at auctions, and for the first time, large numbers of single-family homes were snatched up by Wall Street firms.
This corporate scheme led to Wall Street establishing a new and wildly profitable asset class, “single-family home rentals.” Today, big corporations own an estimated $60 billion worth of single-family housing in the United States."
Excerpt from the below article entitled "A $60 Billion Housing Grab by Wall Street":
" “Neighborhoods that were formerly ownership neighborhoods that were one of the few ways that working-class families and communities of color could build wealth and gain stability are being slowly, or not so slowly, turned into renter communities, and not renter communities owned by mom-and-pop landlords but by some of the biggest private-equity firms in the world,” says Peter Kuhns, the former Los Angeles director of the activist group Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment."
A $60 Billion Housing Grab by Wall Street - Hundreds of thousands of single-family homes are now in the hands of giant companies - squeezing renters for revenue and putting the American dream even further out of reach
By Francesca Mari
Published March 4, 2020
had Ellingwood wasn’t really in the market for a home in the summer of 2006. But when his best friend came across an intriguing listing in Woodland Hills — a bedroom community in Los Angeles County’s San Fernando Valley — the two men decided to visit on a whim.
Entering the property beneath the canopy of a grand deodar, Ellingwood, a big man with a gentle presence, felt as if he had been transported to a ranch house in Northern California, much like one he often visited as a child, all old growth and overgrown greenery — olive trees, citrus trees, sycamores and redwoods. He and his friend meandered past a pond to an inviting teal house built in 1958, “a whimsical masterpiece,” Ellingwood told me. Inside there was a “captain’s quarters” — a room designed to look like the hull of a boat with a built-in water bed and drawers — and numerous stained-glass windows that the couple who owned it had made themselves. The pièce de résistance depicted a faerie woman with flowing hair whose fingers turned into peacock feathers. Behind the house were a couple of small buildings, one of which was office-size — a meditation “Zen den,” Ellingwood thought. The other was an A-frame, Swiss-chalet-style granny unit above the garage, where the owner displayed a toy train collection.
“The house was not in amazing shape,” Ellingwood said. “It needed some help. But I loved it. I wanted it immediately.”
One of Ellingwood’s goals had always been to buy a house by the time he turned 30 — a birthday that unceremoniously came and went six months earlier. When Ellingwood began speaking to lenders, he realized he could easily get a loan, even two; this was the height of the bubble, when mortgage brokers were keen to generate mortgages, even risky ones, because the debt was being bundled together, securitized and spun into a dizzying array of bonds for a hefty profit. The house was $840,000. He put down $15,000 and sank the rest of his savings into a $250,000 bedroom addition and kitchen remodel, reasoning that this would increase the home’s value.
Suddenly adulthood was upon him. He married on New Year’s Eve, and his wife gave birth to their first child, a son, in April. When his 88-year-old grandfather, an emeritus professor of electrical engineering at the University of Houston, had a bad fall, Ellingwood urged him to move into the house for sale just across his backyard. The grandfather bought the house with his daughter, Ellingwood’s mother, and the first thing they did was tear down the fence between the two properties, creating one big family compound. In 2009, Ellingwood’s older sister bought a house around the corner.
But shortly after the birth of Ellingwood’s second son, in June 2010, his marriage fell apart. He and his wife each sued for sole custody. To pay his lawyer, he planned to refinance his house, and his grandfather advanced him his inheritance. By 2012, Ellingwood had paid his lawyer more than $80,000, and in the chaos of fighting for his children, he stopped making his mortgage payments. He consulted with several professionals, who urged him to file for bankruptcy protection so that he could get an automatic stay preventing the sale of his house.
In May 2012, Ellingwood was driving his two boys to the beach, desperate to make the most of his limited time with them, when he got a call. He pulled over and, with cars whizzing by and his boys babbling excitedly in the back seat, learned that he had lost his house. He had dispatched a friend to stop the auction with a check for $27,000 — the amount he was behind on his mortgage — but there was nothing to be done. Because Ellingwood began to file for bankruptcy and then didn’t go through with it, a lien was put on his house, his “vortex of love” as he called it, that precluded him from settling his debt. The house sold within a couple of minutes for $486,000, which was $325,000 less than what he owed on it.
In the months after, though, Ellingwood was graced with what seemed like a bit of luck. The company that bought his home offered to sell it back to him for $100,000 more than it paid to acquire it. He told the company, Strategic Acquisitions, that he just needed a little time to get together a down payment. In the meantime, the company asked him to sign a two-page rental agreement with a two-page addendum.
It was clear from the beginning that there was something a little unusual about his new landlords. Instead of mailing his rent checks to a management company, men would swing by to pick them up. Within a few months, Ellingwood noticed that one of the checks he had written for $2,000 wasn’t accounted for on his rental ledger, though it had been cashed. He called and emailed and texted to resolve the problem, and finally emailed to say that he wouldn’t pay more rent until the company could explain where his $2,000 went. For more than three months, he withheld rent, waiting for a response. Instead, the company posted an eviction notice to his door.
Ellingwood hired a lawyer and reported to the Santa Monica courthouse on his court date with all of his cashed checks in chronological order. When the judge called his case, the lawyer for Strategic Acquisitions asked to have a moment to review the paperwork. After marking each of Ellingwood’s checks off the accounting ledger, the lawyer concluded that the company had, in fact, erred. Strategic Acquisitions had grown so big so fast that it could barely keep its properties straight.
But it would only get bigger. Strategic Acquisitions was but one of several companies in Los Angeles County, and one of dozens in the United States, that hit on the same idea after the financial crisis: load up on foreclosed properties at a discount of 30 to 50 percent and rent them out. Rather than protecting communities and making it easy for homeowners to restructure bad mortgages or repair their credit after succumbing to predatory loans, the government facilitated the transfer of wealth from people to private-equity firms. By 2016, 95 percent of the distressed mortgages on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s books were auctioned off to Wall Street investors without any meaningful stipulations, and private-equity firms had acquired more than 200,000 homes in desirable cities and middle-class suburban neighborhoods, creating a tantalizing new asset class: the single-family-rental home. The companies would make money on rising home values while tenants covered the mortgages. When Ellingwood reached out to Strategic Acquisitions in the winter of 2013 to buy his house, it was no longer interested in selling. Ellingwood asked again a year later; the company didn’t reply.
Over the next seven years, Strategic Acquisitions would turn over management to Colony Capital, and Colony’s real estate holdings would merge with a series of companies, culminating in the Blackstone subsidiary Invitation Homes, making Invitation Homes the largest single-family-rental company in America, with 82,500 homes at its height — and 79,505 homes after Blackstone sold its shares at the end of last year. Ellingwood, however, could hardly distinguish among the various L.L.C.s he paid rent to: Strategic Property Management, Colony American Homes, Starwood Waypoint, Invitation Homes. The offices changed cities, downsized staff, hiked rents and imposed increasingly punitive fees. Ellingwood was required to submit his rent in different ways — online, certified mail, cashier’s check, in person — with slightly different rules, by the 1st, by the 3rd. The leases grew in length from four pages to 18 to 43 as the companies doubled down on strictures and transferred more responsibilities — mold remediation, landscaping, carbon-monoxide detectors — onto the renter.
Ellingwood didn’t know it at the time, but his story was to be the story of millions of renters around the country, the beginning of a downward spiral into the financial industry’s newest scheme to harvest money from housing.
Wall Street’s latest real estate grab has ballooned to roughly $60 billion, representing hundreds of thousands of properties. In some communities, it has fundamentally altered housing ecosystems in ways we’re only now beginning to understand, fueling a housing recovery without a homeowner recovery. “That’s the big downside,” says Daniel Immergluck, a professor of urban studies at Georgia State University. “During one of the greatest recoveries of land value in the history of the country, from 2010 and 2011 at the bottom of the crisis to now, we’ve seen huge gains in property values, especially in suburbs, and instead of that accruing to many moderate-income and middle-income homeowners, many of whom were pushed out of the homeownership market during the crisis, that land value has accrued to these big companies and their shareholders.”
Before 2010, institutional landlords didn’t exist in the single-family-rental market; now there are 25 to 30 of them, according to Amherst Capital, a real estate investment firm. From 2007 to 2011, 4.7 million households lost homes to foreclosure, and a million more to short sale. Private-equity firms developed new ways to secure credit, enabling them to leverage their equity and acquire an astonishing number of homes. The housing crisis peaked in California first; inventory there promised to be some of the most lucrative. But the Sun Belt and Sand Belt were full of opportunities, too. Homes could be scooped up by the dozen in Phoenix, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Sacramento, Miami, Charlotte, Los Angeles, Denver — places with an abundance of cheap housing stock and high employment and rental demand. “Strike zones,” as Fred Tuomi, the chief executive of Colony Starwood Homes, would later describe them.
Jade Rahmani, one of the first analysts to write about this trend, started going to single-family-rental industry networking events in Phoenix and Miami in 2011 and 2012. “They were these euphoric conferences with all of these individual investors,” he told me — solo entrepreneurs who could afford a house but not an apartment complex, or perhaps a small group of doctors or dentists — “representing small pools of capital that they had put together, loans from regional banks, and they were buying homes as early as 2010, 2011.” But in later years, he said, the balance began to shift: Individual and smaller investor groups still made up, say, 80 percent of the attendees, but the other 20 percent were very visible institutional investors, usually subsidiaries of large private-equity firms. Jonathan D. Gray, the head of real estate at Blackstone, one of the world’s largest private-equity firms and the one with the strongest real estate holdings, thought he could “professionalize” the fragmented single-family-rental market and partnered with a British property-investment firm, Regis Group P.L.C., as well as a local Phoenix company, Treehouse Group. Blackstone “would show up with teams of people and would look for portfolio acquisitions,” recalled Rahmani, who works for the firm Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, known as K.B.W. (K.B.W. sold some shares of Invitation Homes during its public offering.)
Throughout the country, the firms created special real estate investment trusts, or REITs, to pool funds to buy bundles of foreclosed properties. A REIT enables investors to buy shares of real estate in much the same way that they buy shares of corporate stocks. REITs typically target office buildings, warehouses, multifamily apartment buildings and other centralized properties that are easy to manage. But after the crash, the unprecedented supply of cheap housing in good neighborhoods made corporate single-family home management feasible for the first time. The REITs were funded with money from all over the world. An investment company in Qatar, the Korea Exchange Bank on behalf of the country’s national pension, shell companies in California, the Cayman Islands and the British Virgin Islands — all contributed to Colony American Homes. Columbia University and G.I. Partners (on behalf of the California Public Employee’s Retirement System) invested $25 million and $250 million in the REIT Waypoint Homes. By the middle of 2013, private-equity companies had raised or spent nearly $20 billion on single-family real estate, and more than 100,000 homes were in the hands of institutional investors. Blackstone’s Invitation Homes REIT accounted for half of that spending. Today, the number of homes is roughly 260,000, according to Amherst Capital.
“There’s no way of looking at the ownership of properties and understanding who owns them ultimately,” says Christopher Thornberg, a founding partner of the research firm Beacon Economics. While Invitation Homes and American Homes 4 Rent became publicly traded REITs, as far we know “the big money is still in private equity,” he says. (Progress Residential and Main Street Renewal are two such companies.) “They are completely subterranean. They’ve got multiple layers of corporations within corporations within holding companies.”
Colony Capital, the Los Angeles-based private-equity firm run by the Trump megadonor Thomas J. Barrack Jr., didn’t have as much money as Invitation Homes. As a result, it was choosier, says Peter Baer, the founder and chief executive of Strategic Acquisitions, the company Colony contracted to acquire homes. From early 2012 to 2014, Strategic bought nearly 3,000 homes for Colony. Ellingwood’s home was one of the first. Baer told me he was instructed to buy “conventional product” in the price range of $300,000 to $600,000, typically three- or four-bedroom homes in good school districts that would be easy to rent — i.e., the types of homes desirable to first-time home buyers. Invitation Homes sought similar opportunities. (Some REITs developed software to evaluate public
Wednesday, August 26, 2020
Thursday, August 13, 2020
Tuesday, August 11, 2020
Monday, July 27, 2020
Monday, July 20, 2020
Friday, July 17, 2020
On June 2, 2020 a Marinwood man unleashes a profanity filled rant against graffiti in chalk at the corner of Marinwood Blvd and Miller Creek Rd. Violent riots and looting had been happening in the Bay Area after the George Floyd protests. Vandalism had occurred in the neighborhood. Although he does not use racial language, protesters immediately called him racist for insulting Black Lives Matter by saying "All Lives Matter"
Later, the protesters intimidate the man outside his home around the corner. (no sound) Friends and the Sheriff were called to protect his safety. Protesters took to social media and vowed to destroy his business and reputation and claimed all of his supporters as "white supremacists"
At the June 9th, 2020 Marinwood CSD meeting, Board President Jeff Naylor recommends the Marinwood CSD publish a letter of support for Black Lives Matter to counter the bad publicity.
Wednesday, July 15, 2020
Marinwood CSD has allowed an unlimited budget for a new Maintenance Shed designed by former Marinwood CSD Politician Bill Hansell. Hansell hired current Marinwood CSD Manager Eric Dreikosen in 2016 shortly before he left office and Bill has been consulting for Marinwood CSD since that time in various capacities. The Marinwood Maintenance shed project has been on the books for years. The current dilapidated structure should have been replaced decades ago. Previous boards proposed a simple structure that would have cost the district less than $100.000. After Bill Hansell was hired the project ballooned in size and the cost has been hidden. Marinwood CSD resident John Boro asks the board and Bill Hansell, if there are any budget guidelines. Bill Hansell admits that "NO BUDGET LIMITS" have been discussed. This is simply not acceptable. Who gives a blank check to an architect with no budget guidelines? Hansell even claims not to know how much the project will cost until we receive bids. By not doing sufficient due diligence the board is abusing public responsibility, trust and public funds. Izabella confirmed their previous mistake regarding the fire house kitchen project, budgeted 40k, spent 100k. Plus there were management issues regarding project completion, which we read about in the IJ. That could happen again based on what was said by the board and Hansell. This corrupt project must be shut down immediately and an investigation of the CSD finances must be done. As of July 2020, the Marinwood CSD is losing $1.2 million dollars of revenue due to the cancellation of recreational programs. The Marinwood CSD is headed into bankruptcy.
Monday, July 13, 2020
Saturday, June 13, 2020
Thursday, June 11, 2020
The Marinwood CSD REFUSES to tell us how much this major capital expense will cost. It is corruption plan and simple.
|Marinwood CSD director Eric Dreikosen REFUSES to discuss the cost of the project.|
Marinwood CSD throws caution to the wind and continues with massive capital spending on the Bill Hansell's White Elephant aka. Marinwood Maintenance Shed. The necessary major repairs to the Community Pool are being ignored for now, to allow more money to be spent on Hansell's bloated project. This is corruption in real time.
The Marinwood CSD staff has been idle for months while retaining full salary. Unlike other government agencies in Marin who have laid off staff due to declining revenue, Marinwood CSD continues to employ idle staff . The Marinwood CSD board voted 5-0 to INCREASE the pay range for our staff. Jeff Naylor, Leah Green, Izabella Perry, Bill Shea and Sivan Oyserman are clueless and grossly irresponsible with our budgets.
A very limited summer camp is going forward despite concerns over COVID19 community spread and the continued lockdown of businesses and other activities. While some measures for safety, are being implemented, we need to be aware that it will be up to young teen counselors to maintain the health protocol. We think this is very unwise but hope that our children will be safe. I would have rather seen the new health protocol implemented by the schools so that mature adults will be present at all times. I am guardedly optimistic for our children.
Jeff Naylor and Sivan Oyserman want an official statement of support for "Black Lives Matter" despite their previous racist remarks following last year's attempted rape of a juvenile attending a Mexican Sweet 16 party. The Marinwood CSD silently banned all quincenaras, weddings and other events booked primarily by the Hispanic community. Instead of increasing security protocols and guidelines to ensure safety, they simply banned community events. When we pointed out the racist nature of the policy, they quietly reversed themselves upon the advice of their lawyer.
The Marinwood CSD refused to change their alcohol policy and will not install video security cameras in fear that they will offend "community members" who use the Marinwood Community Center for drinking parties and other "non family" events.
It is appalling that the Marinwood CSD ignores the safety of the community.
Jeff Naylor, Izabela Perry and Leah Green is up for reelection and hope you will not notice. We encourage you to consider running for a seat on the Marinwood CSD to help clean up the swampy messy before it is too late. Marinwood CSD insiders are taking unfair advantage of everyone.
This is your community. What future do YOU want? You can make a difference. Contact email@example.com to learn more.
Tuesday, June 9, 2020
Friday, May 29, 2020
The Marinwood CSD is not worried. The parents are assuming the risk. What do you think?
Thursday, May 28, 2020
Saturday, May 23, 2020
|Eric Dreikosen, Marinwood CSD manager was hired in 2015 by Bill Hansell, then CSD politician|
Just when you thought it could not get worse at Marinwood CSD, the district is facing its largest financial crisis in history due to COVID 19. At the helm is the controversial director, Eric Dreikosen, who lacked the managerial skills to navigate the district during this difficult time. He has literally done nothing, while the district's finances are being drained by overhead of cancelled programs.
Marinwood CSD has an overabundance of office staff that in good years no one noticed due to the success of its recreation and summer camp programs. These programs bring in roughly one third of the district budget or $2,000,000. Now all of these programs have been cancelled due to health concerns from COVID19
The Marinwood CSD was warned by Marin County and the public that a terrible financial crisis was about to unfold at the March 8, 2020 meeting. The warnings were ignored and all of the Marinwood CSD Boardmembers hoped it would be a "normal year". It was naive and frankly revealed the lack of business judgement of not only Eric Dreikosen but the entire Marinwood CSD board. (Jeff Naylor. Izabela Perry and Leah Green hoped to be re-elected in November 2020. Be sure to voice your displeasure at the ballot box).
Understandably they did not want to layoff staff needlessly but it has long been clear that both the pool and the Summer Camps will at the very least be money losing propositions in 2020 and staff adjustments are needed. No contingency plans have been made.
For the last three months there has been almost no regular maintenance or office work done. The entire staff appears to be idle, save for emptying trash cans in the park. (They did not want to do this either but were ordered to by the Marin County Health Department). Marin County Parks and Recreation staff has been working for weeks in their parks. County employees who have not been able to return to their normal jobs have been providing extra help for social service needs of the county, getting food and outreach to people in need. Why didn't Marinwood CSD help our community in similar ways?
Marinwood CSD staff has been idle but being paid a full salary, benefits without interruption. A simple request that Marinwood CSD coordinate community volunteers was turned down by Eric Dreikosen, because "they did not have the budget" so the staff has done nothing to help the community.
The Marinwood CSD Community Pool needs major repairs which will require the shut down of the pool for months. It will disrupt a pool season. This year is the IDEAL year to make pool repairs because the disruption is already happening. The Marinwood CSD CANCELLED pool repairs to allow them to have cash for the Bill Hansell designed Maintenance Shed Compound at an astronomical cost.
The Maintenance Shed Project is TEN TIMES the cost of the initial estimates and former Marinwood CSD politician Bill Hansell is the architect. He has been paid $50k just for initial drawings. The original project, a simplified structure suitable for a landscaping operation could have been built for $50k and installed by now. But Bill Hansell could not have made money that way. He increased the size of the project up to include unneeded work areas and a shower for our employees. Hansell, a part time architect, is using the project to restart his troubled architecture practice. Foolishly the Marinwood CSD Board agreed to fund this white elephant with YOUR tax dollars. Instead of an appropriate utilitian structure, Hansell has created an over the top project with expensive unnecessary details like custom steel work, glass and surfaces normally found in multi million dollar custom homes.
But Bill Hansell is not the only former Marinwood CSD politician to benefit. Another former Marinwood CSD politician Irv Schwartz is doing the engineering with his firm ILS Associates. Other locals are involved landscaping and consulting and legal work. These are NO BID contracts given to political insiders and smell to high hell. It reeks of cronyism, and political corruption.
Why should you care?
The Marinwood CSD will be asking for more taxes in the Fall. I expect they will try to vote on a bond issue to make pool repairs. Marinwood CSD citizens have never been watchful of their politicians which has allowed corruption to run rampant. Eric Dreikosen, Marinwood CSD politician was hired to look the other way while the corruption continues. He had no previous government or general management experience. He was allowed to hire an assistant to help with the bookkeeping. ( He now has TWO full time administrative assistants).
The Marinwood CSD will soon be bankrupt unless an outside agency puts an end to this fiasco. If Marinwood CSD goes belly up, Marin County will need to bail them out. A very sad end to the most beautiful neighborhood CSD in Marin.
Wednesday, May 13, 2020
Lawyer for St. Vincents and Marinwood Citizens from "Clean up Marinwood Plaza, Now" committee address the Regional Water Quality Control Board regarding the Marinwood Plaza clean up. Marinwood Plaza, LLC controlled by Hoytt family has violated order for clean up. We have been working diligently for seven years to get the toxic waste removed. During this time the toxic waste has spread over 1/2 mile east on the property of Silveira Ranch and St. Vincents.
This meeting was recorded at two different locations but is the same meeting. The first video was rec recording from my studio,. It contains video from the entire video feed but unfortunately, the audio of me speaking was not picked up. When I joined the ZOOM audio conference room, Eric Dreikosen refused to acknowledge me or unmute my phone to verify a connection. I frantically tried using the chat function which was ignored. Finally after trying twenty times, I typed an obscenity that was seen by Bill Shea. I was unsure why they were ignoring the chat and was not sure that chat was active at all despite the comment that Eric was managing them. I typed away my running commentary for my own notes but low and behold at the end of the call Bill Shea asked that my chat be preserved presumably to play "gotcha" as "evidence of disruptive behavior". I was not kind to their lies and deception in my notes. It is an amusing sidenote to the evening.
The Marinwood CSD is completely out of control. They have cancelled major repairs for the Marinwood CSD pool so they can build Bill Hansell's Maintenance Compound at ten times expense of similar maintenance sheds. Irv Schwartz, former CSD director has done engineering and survey work for the project. These CSD directors are LOOTING the Marinwood CSD and may well plunge it into bankruptcy.
I do not yet know why these two videos do not synch. Is it because, the Marinwood CSD doctored their video or is it due to another technical reason? As all Marinwood CSD watchers know, the Marinwood CSD REGULARLY doctors documents and agendas and minutes to avoid embarrassment.
Tuesday, May 12, 2020
Friday, May 8, 2020
When Parks Were Radical
More than 150 years ago, Frederick Law Olmsted changed how Americans think about public space.NATHANIEL RICHSEPTEMBER 2016 ISSUE
A century and a half ago, city dwellers in search of fresh air and rural pastures visited graveyards. It was a bad arrangement. The processions of tombstones interfered with athletic activity, the gloom with carefree frolicking. Nor did mourners relish having to contend with the crowds of pleasure-seekers. The phenomenon particularly maddened Frederick Law Olmsted. He repeatedly complained of it in his essays and letters, which have been collected by the Library of America in Writings on Landscape, Culture, and Society (a digest of Johns Hopkins University Press’s projected 12-volume set of Olmsted’s papers). A “miserably imperfect form,” Olmsted lamented. “A wretched pretext.” The cemetery problem, he felt, was an expression of a profound, universal desire that cities were neglecting to meet: the desire for public parks.LIBRARY OF AMERICA
That public parks should exist at all was a radical idea. Olmsted’s solutions—Central Park, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, Boston’s Emerald Necklace, among dozens of others, many designed with his longtime collaborator Calvert Vaux—were just as radical. Today we take much of his thinking for granted while rarely acknowledging the fact that, through industrial agricultural practices, resource extraction, and atmospheric monkeying, we have landscaped the entire world to suit our needs. Every square inch of land on Earth has been altered by our presence. Yet in the process we have failed to follow Olmsted’s conclusions to their logical end. If his theories about public greenswards could be applied to towns and cities, why shouldn’t they be applied to the planet as a whole?
He worked as an apprentice seaman on a tea ship sailing to China. He ran a farm purchased by his father on Staten Island. He journeyed through the American South, where he filed a series of influential newspaper reports that were later published, with additional material, as A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States. But it was a trip by foot through England in 1850 that awoke him to the value of public pleasure grounds. In a suburb of Liverpool, he visited Birkenhead Park at the urging of a local baker and was flabbergasted:
Five minutes of admiration, and a few more spent in studying the manner in which art had been employed to obtain from nature so much beauty, and I was ready to admit that in democratic America, there was nothing to be thought of as comparable with this People’s Garden.
Olmsted was especially excited to discover that Birkenhead’s beauty was shared “about equally by all classes”: men, women, children, sheep. This was novel at a time when most parks tended to be located within private estates or, as in the case of New York City’s Gramercy Park, locked behind gates, the keys reserved for wealthy neighbors. Birkenhead, not yet five years old, was the first park in England to be publicly funded.
In an entry on parks written in 1861 for The New American Cyclopaedia, Olmsted explains that the earliest examples were pastures that English noblemen enclosed with fences to create deer pens. Trees were felled to create more open space, and the browsing deer served as lawn mowers, keeping the broad fields tidy. Olmsted goes on to discuss every pleasure ground then known to man, from Nebuchadnezzar’s Hanging Gardens of Babylon to the Tuileries garden in Paris, Florence’s Cascine park, and St. Petersburg’s pristine summer gardens, of which it was said that “a policeman watches every leaf to catch it, if it falls, before it reaches the ground.” The St. Petersburg gardens were the apotheosis of a sensibility that Olmsted, in another essay, dates back to the 15th century, “of which the chief characteristics were trimness, orderliness, framedness, surface fineness.” It was understandable, the compulsion to tame and sterilize nature. Since the dawn of civilization, human beings had viewed the natural world with suspicion, if not terror. In the Bible, the word wilderness connotes dread, danger, bewilderment, chaos.
This view began to change in the early 19th century when Alexander von Humboldt wrote about the natural world with a sense of wonder and delight, influencing such acolytes as George Perkins Marsh, Charles Darwin, and Henry David Thoreau. As cities grew increasingly mechanized, populated, and ordered, residents sought transcendence in rural landscapes.
Wilderness could not be easily dropped into the middle of American cities, however. When Olmsted and Vaux entered a proposal for the design of Central Park, the “Greensward Plan,” their canvas was a desolate, rocky plot of more than 700 acres interrupted by swamps, steep ravines, and clay pits. The plot (later expanded to 840 acres) was occupied by several settlements, most prominently Seneca Village, one of the city’s few middle-class black communities. There were also graveyards, which were never exhumed.
Olmsted recalled that the Birkenhead site had not been in much better condition before that park’s creation—“a flat, sterile, clay farm.” In Central Park, Olmsted applied the lessons he had learned there, re-creating the winding paths, the variety of shrubs and flowers, the vast open meadows, the irregular clustering of trees. He developed a series of rules that he would follow in his subsequent projects, which included not only dozens of municipal parks but college campuses (Stanford, UC Berkeley, Gallaudet, Trinity College); private estates (George Vanderbilt’s Biltmore and John D. Rockefeller’s Kykuit); national sites (the grounds surrounding the U.S. Capitol, and Niagara Reservation, the country’s oldest state park); and Riverside, Illinois, one of the nation’s first planned suburbs. Olmsted’s success helped create not only a profession, but an aesthetic.
his first principle was that a park should complement the city to which it belongs. If a city is cramped, crowded, and rectilinear, its park should be composed of sinuous thoroughfares and a variable topography that includes large open spaces. The “comparative largeness” of Central Park was essential, since a park should “be a ground which invites, encourages & facilitates movement.” The giddy impulse you feel, upon arriving at the Great Lawn or Sheep Meadow, to burst into a full-out sprint—that is by design.
A park should also be faithful to the character of its natural terrain. It was in “bad taste,” for instance, to grow lawns in the arid western United States or palm trees in New England. Beauty was to be found not in decorative plants, as one might expect from a florist’s display window, but in general effects. Trees should be grouped in such a way that “their individual qualities would gradually merge harmoniously.” In one of Olmsted’s earliest memories, he planted a seed from a honey locust tree and, returning to the site a year later, discovered a sprig of leaves. By the time he was 12, it had grown into a sapling. Decades later, he found that his honey locust tree had been chopped down. After a momentary sentimental twinge, Olmsted concluded that he was glad the tree was gone, “for its individual beauty was out of key with the surrounding[s].”
Man-made structures were also out of key. When bridges or buildings were absolutely necessary, they should be built from local stone, heavily camouflaged with shrubbery and vines. One of his most remarkable technical achievements in Central Park was to make its four major crosstown thoroughfares disappear: He sunk them into the ground and hid them with foliage. Much of the park’s charm derives from the alternation of rolling expanses and hidden passages, such as those that thread through the Ramble, which create the illusion of privacy and mystery.
An unmistakable irony creeps vinelike through Olmsted’s landscape theory: It takes a lot of artifice to create convincing “natural” scenery. Everything in Central Park is man-made; the same is true of most of Olmsted’s designs. They are not imitations of nature so much as idealizations, like the landscape paintings of the Hudson River School. Each Olmsted creation was the product of painstaking sleight of hand, requiring enormous amounts of labor and expense. In his notes on Central Park, Olmsted called for thinning forests, creating artificially winding and uneven paths, and clearing away “indifferent plants,” ugly rocks, and inconvenient hillocks and depressions—all in order to “induce the formation … of natural landscape scenery.” He complained to his superintendents when his parks appeared “too gardenlike” and constantly demanded that they “be made more natural.”
Olmsted recognized the contradiction, and struggled with it. If natural beauty was the goal of landscape architecture, then wouldn’t “the best result of all man’s labor … be but a poor counterfeit”? For that matter, why not simply leave nature as it was? Why interfere with organic processes, adding shrubs here, thinning trees there?
Olmsted himself had a good imagination. He foresaw that Central Park, built at what was then the northern end of New York City, would one day lie at the heart of a metropolis of millions. He predicted the expansion and enrichment of Boston, San Francisco, and Chicago, and prioritized the value that unborn generations would gain from his designs over immediate effects. He was one of the earliest preservationists, demanding the protection of the Yosemite Valley, and among the first to explain why rural areas must be defended against the “anxiety to sell out.”GABY D’ALESSANDRO
But Olmsted did not foresee that the entire planet would become a park. Biologists, if not the general public, have understood for decades that the Earth is our canvas. The question is, what kind of artists will we decide to be? What kind of taste will we have? Our recent history isn’t promising. We continue to place lawns and swimming pools in deserts, skyscrapers in swamps, and mansions on beaches. In search of fuel, we decapitate mountains, turn forests into lumberyards, and break our promises to defend the sanctity of public land. We reserve our most beautiful landscapes for the wealthiest, restricting the poor to overcrowded slums or depleted agricultural zones. Unlike Olmsted, we tend to favor temporary effects at the expense of the future.
We have already become landscape architects but we have not used our powers as artfully as we might. We have left too much to chance, too little to design. We remain apprentices. But Olmsted, the master of the form, has left behind a clear instruction manual. From the grave he urges us to use our increasingly sophisticated tools to make our global landscape more beautiful—more “natural.”
Aidin Vaziri May 8, 2020 Updated: May 8, 2020 11:01 a.m.
1of4Camp Galileo runs 70 summer programs in the Bay AreaPhoto: Camp Galileo
Camp Galileo, an Oakland children’s summer camp program with 70 locations in the Bay Area and beyond, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, blaming financial setbacks caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The company sent an email to registered families announcing its decision to voluntarily file for bankruptcy protection on Wednesday.
It is not offering refunds.
“While we had very much hoped to avoid turning to the courts, the severity of the pandemic economic crisis and the complete cancellation of our 2020 in-person camp season has made business as usual impossible,” said Jessica Berg, spokesperson for Galileo Learning LLC, in a statement to The Chronicle.
With 45,000 children enrolled in its camps in California, Colorado and Illinois, the company took in approximately $12 million in tuition this summer, according to bankruptcy documents.
The company claimed that number represents one-third of the expected revenue Galileo had been planning for 2020. The average cost of a weekly program is $400.
Galileo founder and CEO Glen Tripp left many parents angry when he initially announced the decision to pull the plug on the program’s summer season on April 16 without offering registrants compensation for fees paid.
The company, which said it was forced to furlough or lay off 80% of its 140 employees, instead offered families credit to a future session and a free virtual camp.
The decision to reorganize under the Chapter 11 statute came after Galileo said it attempted to make amends with enrolled families through a poll that asked parents whether they would like a full or partial refund or a credit for their 2020 enrollment fees.
“While we had hoped that the number of requests for refunds from families would be manageable — and we were buoyed by the number of families who expressed both compassion and support for Galileo — unfortunately the refund requests far exceed Galileo’s current financial means,” Berg said.
Many families that reached out to The Chronicle said they never received the poll.
Galileo is additionally holding $6,244,000 in other accounts. The bankruptcy documents show that sum includes a $500,000 disaster loan from the Small Business Administration and a $2,539,805 Paycheck Protection Plan loan implemented through the CARES act.
“I am a single mom and run a very small business myself,” said Katie Piro, a parent who had registered for the summer season. “We all feel it. My daughter is enrolled in four summer camps and Galileo is the only one managing it so poorly. Many are reaching out and working with parents, moving dates and working with county regulations. Everything about what Galileo has done is shady. I feel they are using COVID as an excuse for their shady financial dealings.”
According to the documents filed with bankruptcy court, Galileo hopes to offer families a 110% credit toward its online camps this year, or a 50% credit toward for its programs over the next five years.
Tripp declined to comment to The Chronicle, but in a statement he said, “When I think about how far we’ve come over the last 18 years, my heart goes out to our Galileo community. Just like thousands of other small businesses, we are not going to give up and let this pandemic win — we are absolutely resolved to figure out a way to continue bringing joy to families for many more years to come.”
On April 23, a class action lawsuit was filed in United States District Court for the Northern District of California, seeking alleged damages of $20 million against Galileo and Tripp.
Despite the setbacks, Berg said the camp, which began in 2002, hopes to return with a full summer program in 2021.
With the pandemic still raging, Galileo joins a long list of summer camp programs that are struggling to figure out how to move forward.
Girl Scouts of Northern California decided to delay the start of its 2020 camp season to July 19, canceling the first four weeks of its scheduled nine-week program. Camp Edmo has switched to an online model. Both those camps offered families full refunds.
Other regional camps — including those run by the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department, YMCA and the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco — are still weighing their options for the summer.
The latest Bay Area order, effective as of Monday, allows summer camps and other educational or recreational programs to reopen as long as they serve a stable group of 12 or fewer children. The caveat is that they can only serve families of essential workers, those who perform outdoor jobs or minimum basic operations.
“In the coming days, as more employees are allowed to go back to work, family eligibility guidelines for childcare and summer camps will change accordingly,” a spokesperson from Children’s Council of San Francisco told The Chronicle.
Aidin Vaziri is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org