Golden Gate Park

GG Park’s Road Closures Having Negative Impact on Dahlia Society’s Efforts

By Thomas K. Pendergast

While plans to overhaul the Dahlia Dell in Golden Gate Park normally might be welcome and supported, the closure of John F. Kennedy Drive has raised questions about equity and access for the Dahlia Society members who traditionally take care of the plants there. 

The dahlia is San Francisco’s official flower.

A private donation for an undisclosed amount by one of the society’s members has made the revitalization of part of the hill next to the Dahlia Dell and the area next to the Conservatory of Flowers possible, although senior members of that society might have to struggle to care for it. 

The essential problem is that direct access to the dell is provided by Pompei Circle, the roadway that surrounds the garden on the east side of the Conservatory of Flowers. The roadway comes off of JFK Drive, which is closed to motor vehicle traffic. 

The Dahlia Dell in Golden Gate Park is located just east of the Conservatory of Flowers. The Dahlia Society members who care for the plants have had their access restricted since JFK Drive was closed to traffic during the pandemic. The dahlia is San Francisco’s official flower. Photos by Michael Durand.

Before the roadway’s closure – a measure taken during the COVID-19 pandemic to give community members a chance to exercise outdoors while maintaining social distance – the members could drive up right next to the dell. Now, they have to either park up above on the hill on Conservatory Drive or find parking somewhere along Nancy Pelosi Drive and cart little red wagons over to the dell. 

That might sound easy enough until one considers that a core group of people with the society are in their 70s and 80s. Plus, the JFK Drive closure also forces disabled people with mobility issues to walk there, instead of driving right up. 

“Everybody had to go out and buy little wagons, and we find parking clear out by the AIDS grove or someplace and have to hike in,” said Dahlia Society member Deborah Dietz. “That’s problematic. 

“All we really requested was a pass for six seconds, that’s all it would take in a vehicle to cross JFK Drive to get onto Pompei Drive, but no one is willing to even entertain that.”

Dietz said the restrictions have put a strain on the society’s efforts. 

“It just became overbearing for one of the six people who donate everything and she dropped out this year. We do thousands of dollars-worth of donations of plants, hundreds of hours of work; we’ve made it a world-famous destination and the (Recreation and Park Department), the government and the mayor don’t appreciate it at all.”

A department spokesperson, Tamara Aparton, said they are making efforts to accommodate the society. 

“Conservatory Drive West, which runs directly behind the Conservatory of Flowers and next to the Dahlia Dell, has been reopened since Oct. 1 for deliveries and drop-off,” Aparton said. “We are also creating a storage facility on the grounds of the Conservatory for the volunteers’ supplies.

“We have also offered the Society the following:

• Valet service for people and supplies with 24 hours notice;

• A storage shed and staff parking space at the lawn bowling building;

• Two parking passes to park anywhere along Conservatory Drive, and;

• Usage of an electric vehicle they could use onsite.”

What is not being offered, however, is moving the barriers to cars along JFK Drive from where they are now, east of Conservatory Drive, to just west of Pompei Circle, which would allow anyone, including society members, easy access to the dell. 

“That would solve the problem for the dell,” society member Sarah Smith said. “It would help the conservatory quite a bit. I’ve suggested that numerous times, but the comment about that (from a city planner) is they’re afraid people are going to use JFK to Nancy Pelosi Drive to get to the Sunset, to get to Ninth Avenue and Irving Street. They are very afraid of people using that as a cut through. But I don’t think that would be a big deal or a real issue.       

“If (the core group of elderly Dahlia Society members) were kidnapped by aliens tomorrow and the rest of us had to be in charge, the dell would never be the same. Those people are vital and their knowledge is vital and their energy is vital. We have to keep their morale up,” Smith said.

“If you can imagine having to take things out one little wagon load at a time to transfer to your car … it’s crazy,” Dietz said. “So they have basically said that we could be servants if we choose to walk in with our little wagons or not.”

Aside from the society’s gardening challenges, there is also the problem of access for disabled people with mobility issues, like Bonnie Honniball, who used to visit the dell regularly by just driving up next to it. 

“We’ve been restricted in so many different ways, and one of the things I really enjoyed was to go there and just drive, because I can’t walk very well,” Honniball said. “So, I would just go in there and drive around it and be able to see the dell. And some of the other people who work there with their section of the dell are thinking of not coming back for the next year because it’s just been too hard on them.”  

She also suggested that the easy solution is to simply move the traffic barriers west of Pompei Circle.

“If they could just move that, instead of starting right at the beginning of the park, if they just moved it past the entrance to the dell, which is not that far, then it would make it easier for people to get to the dell,” Honniball said. 

“I used to go by, go around it on my way home from lots of things and I used to take my friend who lived across the street,” she said. “She also could not walk. We would go check it out on our way home from lots of different things, which she really enjoyed. 

“I know that there are other people who are handicapped as I am, and it’s just really limited. Now I’m not able to go see it. I will not park way far away, like over by the tennis courts, and walk. I can walk with a walker but it’s just too far and I just am not able to do that. So I can’t see it,” Honniball said. 

5 replies »

  1. Another nonsensical-beyond logic reason that the Rec & Park, etc. have lost there way. I guess the next great idea is to pave a bike path paved right through the Dahlia Garden so they can bike and see up close how their short sighted efforts have created an environmental compost heap rather than the beautiful Dahlia Garden without any maintenance and TLC from the incredible and passionate volunteers…..

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  2. What everyone seems to have forgotten here was how much it took away from enjoying the dahlias to have cars driving and parking RIGHT next to it. It was unsafe and unpleasant. It seems like Rec and Park are proposing a lot of good solutions. With the closure, the area and Dahlia Garden has enjoyed much higher numbers of visitors. I often see crowds around the Dahlia Garden; this wouldn’t have even been possible before due to vehicles.

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  3. If the volunteers who “stock”, feed and weed the Dahlia Garden can’t continue their good works you won’t have to worry about visitors not seeing the dahlias due to parked cars because the dahlias won’t be there. Access to the museum loading dock and Summer Day Camps using meadows west of the Rose Garden are allow auto, van & truck pick ups and deliveries. Open the GGP on weekdays as it was before, we need to accommodate our volunteers and disabled residents. Don’t discriminate.

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  4. I never visited the dahlia dell when there were cars in the circle. Now that there are no cars, it’s become one of my favorite places in the city to visit and bring my family. It’s safe, quiet, and free from pollution, and bringing vehicles back would ruin this treasure. It sounds like Rec Park has offered a lot of great solutions here. Let’s keep the dahlias open to everyone without sacrificing the safe and peaceful atmosphere we have now.

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  5. Since most of the dahlia society members are in their 70’s and 80’s, the dahlia society has the much bigger problem of sustaining itself than having access to drive right up to the garden. I’m also thrilled at the prospect of very elderly people driving along a street filled with joggers, walkers, and cyclists. RPD has more than bent over backward to accommodate their needs. Seems to me, the problem here isn’t lack of access. It’s desire to to demonstrate power to set their own terms and extract homage and deference from RPD..

    This Summer, I actually met some young dahlia society members who were tending their plot on the hill. I learned that the plots in the middle were coveted and allocated by those elder members for their use only. Younger members were allowed only less desirable hill plots. Perhaps being treated shabbily is the reason young people are avoiding the dahlia society.

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