Traffic

Voters to Decide Fate of Car-Free Spaces in November

By Thomas K. Pendergast

The question of whether John F. Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park and the Upper Great Highway at Ocean Beach will go back to car traffic, as they were before the pandemic, is going to the voters this November. 

Three related ballot measures may finally resolve the ongoing controversy about how much access people driving cars should get to these roadways. 

In April of 2020, when the City responded to the pandemic with shelter-in-place orders, automobile traffic throughout the City seemed to disappear.          

In response, the City shut down JFK Drive east of Transverse Drive and the Upper Great Highway between Lincoln Way and Sloat Boulevard, opening them up to pedestrians, bicycle riders and skateboarders so that people could get out and walk around while still maintaining social distancing. 

About two years later, after pandemic fears had eased and people started going back to work and school, some people wanted those streets opened up to cars again, while others, including organizations like the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and Walk SF, wanted to keep them “car free” and rename them as promenades. 

After a highly contentious public debate, several petitions both for and against, and a lot of acrimonious social media exchanges, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, in their role as the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, voted to permanently ban cars from the eastern section of JFK Drive with a 7-4 vote.   

Meanwhile, the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department opened the Upper Great Highway to cars during the week, but kept the ban on them from Fridays at noon through the weekends until Mondays in the morning. 

Complicating matters is the underground parking garage beneath the de Young Museum, which often has parking available but at a cost that some find too expensive and which, because of the initial agreement authorized by 1998’s Proposition J, cannot be changed until the bond money used to construct it is paid off exclusively from the revenues generated by the garage.

One ballot measure, a voter-initiated measure called the Access for All Ordinance, would reset the City’s policies by returning the roadways to what they were before the pandemic, thus opening JFK Drive to cars again, except on Sundays, holidays and – for half the year – Saturdays. It would also transfer the jurisdiction governing the Upper Great Highway from Rec. and Park to the San Francisco Water and Power Department. 

Opposing this is another measure put on the ballot by San Francisco Supervisors Rafael Mandelman, Matt Dorsey, Myrna Melgar and Hillary Ronen. It would amend the Park Code to keep JFK Drive car free, or “codifying” the current Board policies regarding that roadway. 

Yet another ballot measure, this one from the office of Mayor London Breed, would effectively dissolve the Golden Gate Park Concourse Authority, the present governing body for the parking garage, transfer that authority to Rec. and Park, and amend 1998’s Proposition J to state that the City may use public funds to subsidize the parking garage, thus making it possible to charge lower parking fees. 

“There are over 1,200 miles of street space in San Francisco – most of which are devoted to car traffic and vehicle parking,” San Francisco Bicycle Coalition Executive Director Janell Wong said. “Car-free JFK Promenade and the weekend closure on the Upper Great Highway are some of the few spaces in San Francisco where people biking, walking and rolling can feel safe while getting around. We are against the Access for All Ordinance and fully support the Supervisors’ opposing measure to codify the protections of these joyful and safe street spaces.”

“The mayor’s proposal to transfer jurisdiction of the concourse parking garage is a huge piece of this puzzle,” Wong said. “This transfer of jurisdiction will allow for the City to better manage parking fees to this garage and will lift a huge barrier for folks being able to visit the park.”

Jean Barish is a Richmond District resident and has served on the Board of Directors for the Planning Association for the Richmond. Although she plans on supporting the Access for All Ordinance ballot measure, at present she is speaking only for herself. 

She has misgivings about transferring the underground parking garage over to Rec. and Park. 

“I do have concerns about the Rec. and Park Department being responsible for the management of the parking garage in view of some of the other issues regarding its management of Golden Gate Park, in particular the closure of JFK Drive, the installation of artificial turf on the Beach Chalet soccer fields and the most recent installation of concrete at the western end of the Polo Ffield in order to create a permanent stage for outdoor events (like) Another Planet,” Barish said. 

She also thinks the Supervisors’ initiative to codify the current situation is a deliberate attempt to “sabotage” the Access for All Ordinance. 

Richard Lyons Corriea, a former SFPD police commander and a co-author of that initiative, also opposes the mayor’s initiative.

“The voters agreed to have that parking lot installed there so long as it paid for itself,” Correia said. “That parking lot merely replaced parking spaces that were eliminated in the concourse redesign, so there was no net increase in parking. It doesn’t get any more access for disabled folks, seniors and people wanting to get to amenities other than the museum and the Academy of Sciences. There are a lot of areas they still won’t be able to get to.

“The question to the voters is: ‘Do you want to start paying for something that pays for itself?’ I think it’s a trick,” he said.

But the communications director for Walk SF, Marta Lindsey, sees it the other way around and opposes Correia’s initiative. 

“We obviously fought very hard for the JFK Promenade so that people have safe space in our city and we don’t want to lose that safe space,” Lindsey said. “It’s really valuable to everybody and we know that hundreds of thousands of people are using it every month and it’s beloved already,” she said. “I think these ballot measures are about what kind of city we want to be, what kind of future our city wants to have.”

“The closures, both of the Great Highway and JFK, that were instituted at the beginning of the pandemic, when there was shelter-in-place, when the whole world was in a new and unknown situation, it made some sense for the mayor to do some emergency measures but that has gone,” said Howard Chabner, who co-authored the Access for All Ordinance measure. “There’s no shelter-in-place anymore. A measure that was put in place to deal with an unprecedented pandemic should not be continued. That’s just not a good way to make public policy.”

Richmond Resident David Alexander is also organizing for the big ballot showdown, but in the opposite direction. Because of climate change and the severe erosion at the southern end of the Great Highway, he sees any efforts at returning it to cars as ultimately doomed anyway. 

“The Great Highway will be closed at some point, whether it’s 2025 or 2024, because a lot of that traffic is going to use Sunset, which can handle the volume,” Alexander said. “So, in essence, they’re spending all this money doing all this work to buy a couple of years. 

I have two kids and that definitely drives my opinion of ‘hey, we need to start changing how we’re living,’ especially on the west side of San Francisco,” Alexander said. “If we’re not going to change now, when are we going to change?”

“I think that all the stakeholders that have been involved in this process and have different perspectives, all of them have decided to go to the voters and so in my opinion then it is time for the voters of San Francisco to decide,” District 1 Supervisor Connie Chan said. “We’ll see where the voters land.”

On July 27, District 4 Supervisor Gordon Mar presnted his own proposal in a press release.

“Mar introduced legislation that would maintain the Great Highway between Lincoln Way and Sloat Boulevard as a car-free promenade on weekends and holidays under a three-year pilot study.

“If approved by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the ordinance would codify the Great Highway’s current configuration until Dec. 31, 2025. 

Read the release HERE.

2 replies »

  1. An important point not mentioned in the article, for voters who are trying to make a decision about the jurisdiction that Park&Rec should have – their director was found by the city’s ethics arm to have violated city law by refusing to turn over public documents. This is a fact, not an opinion. Let that fact settle in before you decide how to vote. This is your employee, do you want them having more or less power . . . ?

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  2. Leave the roads open for All!!! Cars on the streets, bikes on the bike paths and walkers on the walking path as it has been for decades!!!
    Harmony.
    Our beautiful city has plenty of safe space for everyone without closing streets or worse a highway which is a main artery for cars to stay off residential neighborhoods.
    We have the space let’s share.
    These closures are not being used in cold rainy weather or night by pedestrians or bikes. Very selfish to put out so many for a handful occasional users.
    Would like verification on hundreds of thousands using the jfk or ugh, who’s numbers?
    Let’s vote to open All roads back for everyone!

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