By Jonathan Farrell
To allow plenty of space for people to socially distance and get some outdoor exercise during the COVID-19 pandemic, Upper Great Highway from Sloat Boulevard to Lincoln Way has been closed for months to vehicular traffic.
The Upper Great Highway has been closed to motor vehicles for months to allow space for people to get outdoor exercise during the pandemic, with room for social distancing. Sunset District residents are debating whether to keep it closed or reopen the roadway to car traffic. Photo by Emily Huston.
When an online petition was posted on Facebook in November to permanently close Upper Great Highway and turn it into a park and open space, threads of comments went back and forth on the social media platform.
Many opposed the idea, noting that traffic issues on nearby neighborhood streets would only increase if Upper Great Highway were to be closed permanently. Supporters saw a new opportunity for a car-free area for pedestrians, bicyclists, strollers, wheelchairs and more.
To address the issue, District 4 Supervisor Gordon Mar scheduled a virtual town hall meeting on the topic on Nov. 21. More than 500 people took part in the meeting.
Most of what was presented highlighted the complexity of the Upper Great Highway issue and the various entities involved.
Zach Snow, a resident who lives near the Upper Great Highway, issued a statement before the meeting on behalf of The Great Highway Park Initiative/District 4 Residents for a Great Highway Park.
“To be clear, this petition reflects that many neighbors and San Francisco residents support the idea of a park, along with traffic and safety improvements,” Snow stated. “We hope it encourages the necessary research and outreach process by the City to implement it.”
“This initiative did not motivate for the initial closure of the highway to cars; it was closed to cars in late February/early March 2020 for sand removal,” Snow continued. “And it remains closed to cars due to COVID at the City’s behest.” Mar and his office confirmed this.
In fact, Upper Great Highway is frequently closed to remove sand that accumulates along the roadway and, as all of Ocean Beach is vulnerable to erosion, wind and coastal weather conditions.
It was noted by officials at the Saturday Zoom meeting that, on average, Upper Great Highway is closed at least 27 times during the year for removal of sand, flooding during rains and trash clean up.
Upper Great Highway has been a north/south thoroughfare along Ocean Beach for decades. Some long-standing residents and natives of the area see the idea of making it a park as absurd. Sunset resident Bonnie McGregor responded to news of the idea via Facebook by calling it “simply ridiculous” and “stunningly foolish.”
Benjamin Grant is a planning expert. He addressed the complexity of the issue. Over the past 10 years, Grant has worked with San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), a local nonprofit think tank and planning advisory organization, to put together an extensive study as part of The Ocean Beach Master Plan.
“The Great Highway is under many jurisdictions,” Grant said. “People sometimes have the impression that the Great Highway is part of Caltrans and the California State Highway system. It is not. Actually, the land is owned by the City through the Rec. and Park Department. The road and any traffic issues are operated by San Francisco Municipal Transit Authority (SFMTA) and maintained by the Department of Public Works (SFDPW).”
Other entities concerned with Upper Great Highway are the San Francisco County Transit Authority (SFCTA) and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC). The SFPUC oversees the maintenance of a sewage treatment facility at the south end of Ocean Beach.
At the meeting, Senior Transportation Planner Camille Guiriba gave a sense of how much Great Highway is utilized.
“Based on data collection from Sept. 19 to Nov. 17, the average usage by bicyclists and pedestrians is about 6,600 per weekend day, “Guiriba said. Our colleagues at the Rec. and Park Department are continuing these counts during the temporary closure and monitoring how the usage is impacted by factors such as weather, air quality, etcetera. We do not have recreation usage counts prior to COVID.”
According to Guiriba, prior to the pandemic. there were about 18,800 daily vehicle trips on the Upper Great Highway. Residents on the Lower Great Highway have reported increased volumes on their street,” she said.
Guiriba was not able to say how many complaints were received from residents about increased traffic and speeding in the area. “That’s a question for SFMTA,” she noted.
SFMTA did not reply to a request for details about the complaints.
“As of now, the petition-proposal calls for very modest changes to the actual infrastructure, in the interest of simplicity and keeping capital expenses associated with the park low,” Snow said. “It would also call for Rec. and Park to maintain it. Rec. and Park already maintains the path next to the Great Highway, so this would not seem to be a tremendous change.”
While Mar initially sees the positive potentials in utilizing Upper Great Highway as a park/open space, he also has reservations. On Nov. 10, in a two-page letter to SFMTA officials, he expressed the need for “an urgent and comprehensive plan to mitigate the traffic impacts upon the Outer-Sunset.”
He also wrote in the letter, “the pace of our bureaucracy is failing … over seven months of conversations with SFMTA staff, as well as community meetings … none have proven successful.
Mar calls for a traffic mitigation plan in writing, with clear timetables for implementation.
“If steps are not achieved, then we cannot reasonably keep this closure in place until we have effectively planned in way that keeps our neighborhood safe,” he said.
Sunset residents like Brian Lee see permanent closure as irresponsible urban management. As he posted at length on Facebook.
“The issue at hand is the coming construction on 19th Avenue,” Lee said. “The ensuing congestion will put more pressure on surrounding roads.”
Even with the complexities involved, some supporters like Snow see it as win/win.
“There’s definitely something special about the Great Highway that is drawing so many people to it, both from the neighborhood and from the wider city,” he said.
Categories: Upper Great Highway