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.