Park Road Closures
Westside neighbors need access to both JFK Drive and the Great Highway
T The actions of one city department head are further fraying the nerves of westside residents already battered by almost two years of COVID-19 pandemic; people who are just trying to shop, get to medical appointments, get their kids to school and visit friends and loved ones.
Phil Ginsburg, the general manager of the SF Recreation and Park Department, closed the Upper Great Highway (April 28, 2020), and a portion of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and the eastern end of John F. Kennedy Dr. in Golden Gate Park to allow San Franciscans more space to recreate while our restaurants and almost everything else were closed. He has exclusive responsibility for the decision per the City Charter. (The Upper Great Highway was made a part of Golden Gate Park in 1870.)
Ginsburg has been working closely with two city non-profit organizations, the SF Bicycle Coalition and Walk SF, to develop and implement a strategy to ban cars on JFK Drive and the Upper Great Highway during the pandemic. Plans are being made make the bans permanent after the pandemic ends.
The Bicycle Coalition and Walk SF get city funding every year through the SF Municipal Transit Agency’s budget (Muni). The two organizations have sole source contracts, meaning no one else can bid for the City’s business.
Upper Great Highway Debacle
There has been very little discussion of the Upper Great Highway with the SF Recreation and Park Commissioners, which set policy and have oversight of the Rec. and Park Department. The commissioners have either been kept in the dark about the deleterious effects for westside residents or they are indifferent to the problems their department is causing. (The commissioners are familiar with the JFK Drive closure, however, as they are often bombarded at public meetings with public comments calling for the roadway to remain closed in an obviously concerted effort.)
At the outbreak of the pandemic in early 2020, Ginsburg shut down the Upper Great Highway (UGH) seven days a week.
On Aug. 5, 2021, as the City was starting to reopen, SF Mayor London Breed, with the support of supervisors Connie Chan and Gordon Mar, announced a “compromise” reopening of the roadway from Monday morning to Friday at noon.
According to a confidential source directly involved in discussions about the UGH, the reason the roadway was closed at noon on Friday was because Ginsburg couldn’t get anyone from Rec. and Park to lock the gate after that time.
Frustration for westside residents has been brewing, with a small group of bicyclists blocking traffic on the UGH during Thursday night commutes and the recent addition of food trucks on the highway on weekends.
Ginsburg has been working closely with two city non-profit organizations, the SF Bicycle Coalition and Walk SF, to develop and implement a strategy to ban cars on JFK Drive and the Upper Great Highway during the pandemic. Plans are being made make the bans permanent after the pandemic ends.”
Because of the continuing park road closures, a group of Sunset residents formed the Open the Great Highway Alliance to raise money for an attorney. On Dec. 15, 2021, the organization, on behalf of six plaintiffs, filed a lawsuit in California Superior Court claiming Ginsburg overstepped his authority. They are demanding the UGH, parts of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and the closed portion of JFK Drive be fully reopened.
Banning Vehicles in Golden Gate Park
The closure of the eastern end of JFK Drive is a hardship for families, seniors and people with disabilities trying to get to the de Young Museum, Academy of Sciences, Conservatory of Flowers and other park attractions. Attendance at the de Young and Academy of Sciences is about half of what it was pre-pandemic.
During the evening, the Conservatory of Flowers’ Winter Lights and nearby “neon trees” exhibits are on display. These are wonderful exhibits, but with JFK dark and mostly empty of people, it is a situation the police warn against – an “un-activated space” that is off limits to thousands of San Franciscans.
The Rec. and Park Department is working in tandem with the SF Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) to explore a permanent closure of JFK Drive. On Sept. 22, 2021, the departments issued a joint press release.
“Public feedback is critical to determining the post-pandemic future of JFK Drive and we are eager to hear your thoughts and experiences,” Ginsburg said. “Golden Gate Park belongs to everyone, so neither safety nor access can be an afterthought.”
On the SF Rec. and Park Department’s website, “diversity” is touted as one of the great virtues of the current JFK Drive road closure.
I urge westside residents to visit JFK Drive to see how much diversity is on display. You won’t see many seniors, people with disabilities or people of color.
The closure of JFK Drive led SF Supervisor Shaman Walton to chime in, saying it was a “racist” plan that discriminates against African and Latinx Americans, who have few options to get to the park except by driving.
Rec. and Park claims, due to the closure of JFK Drive, that bus service has been improved to accommodate people of color.
“Transit service on the 44 O’Shaughnessy Muni line, which travels through the Music Concourse and serves the Bayview and Excelsior neighborhoods, was made faster and more efficient.”
According to Rec. and Park, attendance on JFK Drive has increased during the pandemic, saying: “Nearly seven million people walked, biked and rolled on car-free JFK Drive, a 36 percent increase over pre-pandemic usage.”
If the information was posted in November, that’s about 400,000 people a month using the roadway, or about 13,000 per day.
I have requested information from Rec. and Park concerning the department’s development and implementation of studies and polls and to identify those who conducted the independent and unbiased research. There was no response as of press time.
Fortunately for San Franciscans, Ginsburg and the parks commission do not make a final decision on closing park roads. Once an end to the pandemic is declared, a vote by the SF Board of Supervisors and approval by the mayor would be required to change the City Charter. Or, a ballot measure could be put forth so city voters could once again decide the contentious issue.
Over the years, city voters have rejected three ballot measures calling for a change to the City Charter to close JFK Drive. City residents realize limiting access to the park’s cultural institutions is not just; they realize you shouldn't have to walk or ride a bike to enjoy the park; and they know when they are being manipulated.
Ginsburg needs to fully reopen the park roadways as they were before the pandemic struck, and to respect the process by which change is created. He also needs to direct his department to be transparent and honest in its dealings with city residents.
For Ginsburg and his allies to exploit the people of the city of San Francisco during a pandemic to further their vision of a car-free utopia on the Upper Great Highway and in Golden Gate Park is indefensible.
Paul Kozakiewicz is an editor, and the former publisher, of the Richmond Review and Sunset Beacon newspapers.