SF Chronicle: Stow Lake vendor Bruce McLellan to close Monday

San Francisco — The longtime vendor of the Stow Lake boat rental and snack bar concession said Thursday he will end operations at the close of the busy Labor Day weekend, handing the city a victory in a protracted legal and public relations battle.

“Monday’s it. We’re shutting down,” said concessionaire Bruce McLellan, 54, whose grandfather started the Stow Lake food and boat business 68 years ago.

McLellan is expected to completely be cleared out of the premises by Sept. 15 to make way for a new operator.

The showdown over Stow Lake has turned into one of the most contentious clashes over use of park property since the Recreation and Park Department ramped up its initiative more than a year ago to look for more commerce opportunities in the parks to make up for dwindling public resources and to revamp long-term leases.

The fight over Stow Lake involved lawyers and lobbyists, protests and petitions, with passion running strong on both sides.

The decision by McLellan to leave before the city called in sheriff’s deputies to drag him out comes after the court ruled last month that the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department had every right to evict him because his lease for the city-owned waterfront property had expired.

That ruling was the latest in a string of legal defeats for Stow Lake Corp., the legal name of the family business.

McLellan has other business interests as well, but he described the Stow Lake concession as the sentimental centerpiece. Losing it, he said, “is really painful.”

Even though another vendor is set to take over, Stow Lake Corp. still has one more legal tack pending to get the business back someday: a lawsuit filed in March that asks the court to award it the concession, arguing that the competitive bid process was flawed and corrupt. That case has yet to go to trial.

But a San Francisco Superior Court judge – in rejecting McLellan’s request for a preliminary injunction to block the city from awarding the lease to a new vendor – already has agreed with the assertion by city officials that the new contract was awarded fairly and above-board.

Appeal rejected

An appellate court also rejected the request for a preliminary injunction.

“Five judges have ruled that Bruce McLellan’s bogus claims were nothing but a desperate attempt to thwart a lawful process for personal gain,” said Nicholas Kinsey, assistant director of property and concession management for the Recreation and Park Department.

“We are pleased to be able to move forward with improving the Boat House without the distraction of these fabrications,” he added.

If McLellan leaves by Sept. 15, as he promised, Ortega Family Enterprises will take over the property the next day, Kinsey said.

The goal is to have the new operation – which has the strong backing of the Recreation and Park Commission and the Board of Supervisors – running no later than the end of the month.

Ortega, a New Mexico company that already runs the cafe in Muir Woods, will pay the Recreation and Park Department at least $160,000 a year in rent and spend at least $233,000 in capital improvements to the dilapidated Stow Lake Boat House.

New fleet of boats

The plan calls for turning the boat-repair shop that fronts the lake into a cafe and upgrading the snack bar. The company also will provide a new fleet of rowboats and paddle boats and has permission to sell park-related merchandise.

Boat-maintenance operations will be moved to the backside of the property near the parking lot.

Critics of the plan fear that the proposed changes to the 1940s-era lakeside property will lead to a more commercial feel in the park. City officials and representatives from Ortega have pledged to retain its historic essence.

E-mail Rachel Gordon at rgordon@sfchronicle.com.