Commentary

Commentary: The Great Highway Robbery

By Richard Correia

Government authority in a time of public emergency is quite broad, but not unlimited, either in scope or duration. Such authority is granted so our elected leaders can move the levers of government at a speed needed to assure the public’s well being, such as during the recent pandemic. 

That said, all of us should be vigilant about overreach and abuse of authority, and insist that as an emergency abates, government action be constrained by the authority that the people originally delegated, and that policies implemented in an emergency promptly expire. 

Recently, a number of hastily enacted emergency polices presented challenges and inconveniences to folks citywide. I’ll focus on just one – the closure of the Upper Great Highway – which was single-handedly facilitated by Phil Ginsburg, the general manager of the SF Recreation and Park Department. 

This four-lane Highway closure stands out as being done without lawful authority and through an undemocratic policy overreach by non-elected bureaucrats and commissioners. Moreover, arguments made by some advocacy groups suggest the debate around the closure suffers from a serious case of truth decay. 

Being a fourth-generation San Franciscan, active in my community and a former SF Police Department captain assigned to Richmond Station, I have a fair understanding of San Francisco, and especially of its westside neighborhoods. 

I recently served on a JFK Drive closure working group sponsored by SF County Transportation Authority (SFCTA) and SF Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), so I am well acquainted with the issues and positions of the many stakeholders concerned about road closures. 

Last year, I asked Ginsburg to consider the extreme traffic congestion resulting from some of the closures he created, and the cumulative impact of his closures and those made by the SFMTA. The SFMTA distanced itself from the JFK Drive closure, saying: “The street closures inside Golden Gate Park are not part of the SFMTA Slow Streets program … I hope this helps, have a great day.” This helped a lot; the right hand couldn’t care less about what the left hand was doing, and the west side’s maddening traffic jams were just part the Phil Ginsburg Show. 

The closure of the Great Highway in April of 2020 was justified as a temporary response to the pandemic.

 According to the SFMTA, prior to the pandemic, the four-lane roadway was used by 140,000 motorists each week. 

The Great Highway has been under the jurisdiction of SF Recreation and Park Department since the 1890s; a railway line ran along the Great Highway from what is now Sloat Boulevard to Golden Gate Park and was used to transport material needed for the California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894.

Motor vehicles became popular in the early 20th century and, as the need for roadways grew, efforts were made to improve and widen the Upper Great Highway. Work on the broad boulevard was completed in 1929. 

On April 4, 2020, the Upper Great Highway was closed for sweeping and sand removal and has never fully reopened to motorists. 

On Aug. 15, 2021, Ginsburg issued GM Directive 21-002, which ordered the Upper Great Highway be closed to vehicles on 14 holidays and each Friday at noon until the following Monday at 6 a.m. He specifically based this action on section 3.03 of the Park Code, which in pertinent part states: “In case of an emergency, or when in the judgment of the Recreation and Park Commission or the General Manager the public interest demands it, any portion of any park or park building may be closed to the public ….”

While Ginsburg can exclude the public from park property under certain circumstances, he has no authority to exclude just some of the public, like people in cars. His grant of authority gives him two options – close or open park property – but not the choice to decide what sort of people can enter. By this action, in excess of his authority, he has implemented a policy of systemic discrimination. 

In those cars are folks commuting to work or heading home, shoppers, kids being driven to and from school, veterans and their VA hospital caregivers, elderly people and folks with mobility issues whose needs are not met by the Muni Railway. There are also folks shopping or heading to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Pomeroy Recreation and Rehabilitation Center or other destinations. 

Ginsburg wants to create a future he feels is right for the millions of San Francisco’s residents and visitors. His vision may indeed be the future, but there are guardrails and processes that he needs to follow. And he has to understand that Golden Gate Park divides two major urban areas. To limit traffic crossing the park serves to isolate and trap folks on the west side, who are outraged by his indifference and by the weakness of our elected leaders. 

In a recent letter to SF Supervisor Connie Chan, the Planning Association for the Richmond stated: “The RPD and MTA have not cooperated with the thousands of people who have signed a petition for the Great Highway to be fully reopened. They have shown a callous disregard for the importance of this roadway for residents of the Richmond District. They also fail to appreciate the impact this closure has had on traffic in Golden Gate Park, especially Chain of Lakes Drive.”

In a July 2021 letter to Ginsburg, the SF Bay Area Sierra Club noted the many potential negative consequences from changes to the use of the Great Highway, and concluded: “These are not all of the possible impacts – a Notice of Preparation and a Scoping Session would bring out the various issues that should be covered in an environmental review. Evaluating environmental damage after a pilot project has been in place for two years – or in this case a potential total of more than three years – is a bit like closing the barn door after the horse has escaped. Therefore, the Sierra Club requests that there be an “Environmental Impact Report (EIR) as soon as possible and before a pilot project is selected and implemented.”  

In a recent SF Examiner article about the new closure scheme, SF Supervisor Gordon Mar, called it a “meaningful compromise.” I assert that compromise is indeed important, but shouldn’t be the sole foundation for a decision. Creating good public policy should also require analysis of environmental impacts, best use, greatest good and utility. In this instance, a compromise has cars speeding through the generally quiet streets of the Outer Sunset, spewing exhaust while stuck in traffic and hurting small businesses on the west side. 

Ginsburg has been quite effective in many ways in his stewardship of the parks, but he will exploit a situation to get what he wants. The pandemic created the perfect situation for him to exceed his authority and also build his political capital with groups that couldn’t care less about your quality of life here on the west side. In this matter he has given short shrift to the reasonable needs of westside residents and visitors.

I suggest that it’s time for the SF Board of Supervisors to amend the Park Code and remove the four-lane Upper Great Highway from the control of the Recreation and Park Department. 

As for our elected officials, they will soon be asking for your vote. Remember their in-difference to the needs of the west side, and how traffic congestion created by the Recreation and Park Department’s closures has made north-south transit a nightmare. And that if San Francisco is indeed a transit-first city, ask them where is the public transportation that should precede an unelected bureaucrat from constraining private vehicle traffic. 

Richard Corriea is a Richmond District resident. 

47 replies »

  1. Stale regurgitation of Entitled motorists talking points combining political rhetoric with cherry picked historical points. The bromide ignores the thousands who enjoy and will continue to enjoy The Great Walkway. In a word boring and pedantic

    Liked by 1 person

    • As someone who drove a veteran to and from his dialysis appointments 3 days a week I’d say yes, he is entitled to get home as fast as he possibly can. Hours spent in a cold room, weak, hungry and tired and then to a drive that takes longer because GH is closed. So, through the traffic we drive trying to get this kind, old man home as soon as possible. I’m dripping in sweat with the heat on high so his cold bones can warm up. If this is stale regurgitation, then so be it. Very telling of you though. Tell that to him and all the others that are in this mix. Why does recreation supersede need and precedent?

      Liked by 3 people

      • When the Great Highway was closed to cars, I finally had a safe place to bike my children along the N/S part of our school commute. It was one tiny stretch of <2 miles where I could breathe freely and not worry about a car hitting me or my children. I dont bike to "recreate". I bike to commute. It is my family's means of transportation. There are many people in my same boat – in fact, 30% of San Franciscans don't own a car. Each day, many parents like myself bike our kids to preschool, to school, to the grocery store, etc. We aren't "recreating" – we are commuting. Less than one percent of San Francisco's roads are slow or car free. Meaning parents like myself are at high risk of injury/collision trying to go about our lives, even though we are using the lowest cost, best-for-the-environment means of getting around.

        Does shaving a few minutes off of your commute (or your passenger's commute) justify putting my life and my children's life at risk? Because that is what this comes down to. Drivers wanting to get where they are going a few minutes faster, while those of us who bike, skate, walk or otherwise commute wanting a few routes where we aren't afraid of being injured or killed.

        The more safe routes we create for bicyclists and public transit, the more people will shift to these modes, and the fewer cars there will be on the road — meaning for those people that do have to drive, there will be less traffic. It's a win win for everyone.

        Liked by 1 person

    • And as we always say “the truth hurts”. Unfortunately you couldn’t follow this well written critique of the traffic problems of the west side residents. May I remind you the great “walkway “ is our beautiful ocean beach and the paths along it.
      Phil Ginsburg has proven too many times his interest’s are his own not those of all San Franciscan’s, especially the south western corner of SF. Also closing roads in GG park shows another political sweep of Ginsburg satisfying a small population of the city. GG Park roads are the thoroughfare for all western residents. These power hungry officials need to be replaced, either by voting or pressuring the mayor and supervisors.
      Plus street closures through out the city are still in effect. Why? Mayor Breed needs to open our streets so we can safely drive. Yet not a word from her. Do not vote for her in any capacity.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Respectfully. Mayor Breed, Connie Chan, Gordon Mar and Myrna Melgar have bowed in the most shameful manner to The Entitled spoiled I want it All climate destroying motorists. If they really cared about quality of life in San Francisco these politicians would have already designated The Great Walkway a permanently car free oasis. You’re fortunate to have such weak willed public officials in your driveway.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. What a terrific commentary which outlines the major problems with the decision making that resulted in the closure of the GH, the over-reaching of authority, and the importance of the Great Highway to the community which includes more than just Sunset residents (who actually are divided re permanent closure) but impacts traffic regionally including for Peninsula residents, Richmond residents and all of SF who now see 19th Ave and Chain of Lakes jammed.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. The public has been mislead into believing that the Great Highway closure is the result of an emergency order. As documented here that is a lie: An incredible misinformation campaign by media outlets like the SF Chronicle.

    A group of us has looked at every Emergency Order: None deal with the Great Highway. The Mayor’s Office in their press releases have been careful not to claim responsibility for the closure.

    Ginsburg claims in his August 15 Directive that he closed the GH in March 2020 under the same Park Code 3.03. Ginsburg’s Department has verified that they have no documentation of that order.

    This is an illegal overreach of power using a Park Code intended to close down sections of a park to all citizens. Citizens have been shafted and lied to and most of the local media is spreading the lie

    Liked by 5 people

  4. THANK YOU, Richard Correia. Yet another credible source (beyond credible actually!) steps up and gives full commentary on the closure, again supported by straight facts and numbers. His take on lack of public transit while restricting cars is accurate, and he also paints a clear Ginsburg and the power he has bestowed upon himself. Let’s not forget about the hapless politicians who are doing literally nothing to alleviate the pain felt by thousands of people who live on the westside. Mar is as milktoast as they come, and Chan lacks the experience to deal with the conundrum created by Mar, Ginsburg, and special interest groups who want to keep the GH closed. Voters will be coming for all of you.

    Liked by 3 people

    • The Sunset has multiple bus and light rail lines, it’s absurd to say it’s lacking transit. This is about a small group of selfish drivers who are too stubborn to accept change, period. What the Sunset does lack is a single safe north/south bicycle route. The Great Walkway supplies that. Stop listening to the Open The Great Highway scammers and deadenders, keep it a park!!!

      Liked by 1 person

      • This is non-sense! There is a multi-use path adjacent to the Great Highway that I have been using regularly for the 20 years or so since it was put in. The reasonable and sensible solution that should make everyone happy is too simply widen this path so that there is a 2 way bike lane alongside side a path for pedestrian, skaters, etc. while keeping the Great Highway open 24/7 for PEOPLE that need to drive their vehicles. Of course, the City isn’t known for making reasonable and sensible decisions. There is also a bike path on Sunset Blvd so don’t falsely claim there is not a safe north/south bicycle route. It’s lies like this that show the real issue issue is that people like you and the supporters of a “Great Parkway” just want your playground at the expense of everyone else that needs their vehicles to live their lives.

        Like

  5. Ultimately and inevitably this power grab will be decided by the voters. There is certain to be a referendum in which the voice of the PEOPLE will be heard, not the apologists and opportunists who act in the shadows.

    Like

  6. If you are sick and tired of city agencies and elected officials who took advantage of a pandemic emergency to try and permanently ram thru these street closures, then please join us at http://www.OpenTheGreatHighway.com. We are organizing and fundraising to “Hit Reset,” (as Sup Connie Chan recently said), i.e. return our streets to pre-pandemic levels, and then start a REAL public process to figure out how we can all share the streets. Please visit join us, visit https://www.gofundme.com/openthegreathighway

    Liked by 4 people

  7. First off, the commentary by Mr. Correia is spot on. I live in the Outer Richmond, and between the closing of the UGH (and still on weekends) and the Slow Streets (which no one has mapped out so you have no idea when you will hit one and then have to figure out how to get where you’re going; and they are not “slow”, they are “closed streets.”), I feel like the City is purposely moving me out of my neighborhood and the City. I am 75 years young. I don’t ride a bicycle. I do drive. 19th Ave has been under construction, it seems, since the UGH was closed. So, while I’m still here in the city, it would be nice if it were easier to get around. Perhaps I’m rambling. But, this issue is still angering me. By the way who is responsible for opening the “slow” streets???

    Liked by 4 people

  8. I would contribute to the funding of a legal team dedicated to ending the lawlessness of Mr. Ginsburg’s action. This action is contrary to law in its selective exclusion of a class of the public, and unsupported by the Mayor’s Emergency Order. I can only hope a person or group steps forward to present the legal challenge that’s called for.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. I would contribute to the funding of a legal team pursuing a legal remedy against the lawlessness of Mr. Ginsburg’s action. That action is exclusionary solely to a portion of public, and such selective prejudice has a history of correction by the courts. I am hopeful that a citizen or group of citizens will stand up for enforcement of the law.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Jason. You are a lawyer. I hope The Entitled My Way or No Way spoiled motorists file a lawsuit. The City with its top notch City Attorney team can hand this vexatious litigation the smack down it deserves.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Perfect example of the windshield perspective of most police in this city. Cops who spend their careers driving the city and have no appreciation for the need for car free spaces or the the safety of vulnerable street users. The author can dress his self serving argument in legalese all day long, but as an outer Richmond resident this self serving argument boils down to his personal convenience. He would rather shave a few minutes off of his drive than transform dangerous streets into healthy spaces for all San Franciscans of every age.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Before the people in power move into their VISION of a better world, the residents need to understand what this vision entails and we need to vote for it. What is noble is not always practical and here is the real issue–this is idealism vs realism. Their ideals are truly castles-in-the-sky.

    We are San Francisco. We Recycle. We have an enormous compost program that generates money for our city. Many residents have only one car or no car. Many residents drive EVs and hybrids. We do care about our environment.

    We all woke up one day to find streets closed and CROWDS of people wearing lycra (a textile pollutant) who were not following COVID regulations pile into our neighborhoods, yelling and screaming in front of houses where residents were sheltering in place.

    This is what Lake Street looked like. No warning.

    There’s a group of people HIJACKING our city. They think they are being noble but the fact of the matter is that they wear LYCRA, a textile pollutant. They are hypocrites. Some of them actually attached their bikes to the tops of cars and DROVE a gas guzzling vehicle to their Slow Street destination.

    We all need to understand THEIR vision. They want to close each neighborhood from the other and turn each one into its own village.

    We need to stop fighting Park and Rec AND SFMTA. Their minds are made up AND we need to take the FIGHT to CITY HALL!

    We cannot allow SFMTA and PArk and Rec to use delay tactics of having meetings after meetings, changing the rules of how meetings start (SFMTA posted that it will come to community meetings, know it is saying it will have its own community meetings after Lake St Slow Street had a 200 person meeting).

    WE NEED TO MARCH TO CITY HALL!

    STOP THE CLOWNING AROUND. It is time to GO TO CITY HALL!

    TWO LAKE STREET MEETINGS and the only promise is MORE MEETINGS AND MORE SURVEYS!

    ENOUGH!

    Liked by 3 people

  12. I look forward to the inevitable day in the near future when The Great Promenade is a world class attraction and city “leaders” and so-called “progressives” talk about how great it is. Commentaries like this will be shared as a reminder of a dying antiquated perspective that held us captive in car culture exhaust and noise pollution for far longer than was necessary. A permanent slow street grid with car-free infrastructure is the future! Enjoy it! If you must drive…rejoice! Cars dominate virtually every road in the city! Take your rolling living room over to Sunset or 19th, put on some music, bring a snack, and leave the oceanfront park alone please. I repeat: you can still drive. You can drive everywhere. Just turn on your car and drive. Even on the “slow” streets, you can drive on those too! The Great Highway + JFK = 0.0034% of total SF road miles. So you can drive on 99.9966% of the roads. I’ll do the math. That rounds up to 100%. So you have all the roads! All of the roads are yours, Richard Corriea and friends. Congratulations. The motorist status quo is entrenched and thriving. Please slow down and don’t kill me or your other neighbors, okay? I still love you, but I really don’t understand your perspective. See you at the grocery stores!

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Uggghhhh . . . The classic, “bureaucrat” is the problem argument. I too find the argument pedantic: annoying, narrow in scope, and very 20th century attempting to validate a complex issue by boiling it down to the bogeyman; a public servant. A classic argument pulled out of a NIMBY and Reaganite playbook. Also predictable is Sierra Club SF Groups’ letter and using the Environmental Review Process or EIR as a veil while promulgating it as good policy. As someone has put it plainly “Sierra Club . . . protecting suburban sprawl since 1892”.

    Nonetheless, I agree and – so should Sierra Club – that public transit (and not mentioned in the piece above) sustainable forms of cheaper transit needs to be prioritized on our side of the city. However, what we all don’t understand is that our city – nor prudent managers of any budget – is not going to and has not brought those necessary infrastructure investments because of the loud and influential NIMBY and car culture (as demonstrated by the author) on the west side of the city. There are very few unique things to draw more people from the larger city and justify such an expense. If we want the city to pay attention to us here, then, we also got to show them rather than complain. In spite of all this, thanks to our amazing yet scattered restaurants, diverse food fare, beach, and now Great Highway Park we are beginning to build a community with vibrant and positive resources for us and our fellow San Franciscans to enjoy. “If you build it they will come”.

    Hence, I encourage you to ask yourself two questions: 1) do I want to continue to build a community around cars? 2) Or, do I want to build a community? Choice 1) in the history of urbanism never leads to Choice 2) and proves uncompromising and divides communities. Working towards Choice 2) will allow us to explore a vision without cars and work to a solution that is palpable for most in our community and help reduce rather than induce car demand. Choice 2) is directionally accurate and we owe it to our community and environment to explore in earnest.

    With all this said, climate change via coastal erosion will force our hand. We either encourage the City to be prudent and act now to adapt the road network to a highway sans cars or wait to the 11th hour when SFPUC has decided to close down the South End in 2023 or the ocean decides to completely take it, which ever comes first. Either way, the longer we wait we will find ourselves back here anyway costing us much more than just money.

    Liked by 1 person

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