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De Young Museum tries to slam brakes on making Golden Gate Park car-free Saturdays year-round

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In 2007, along with car-free Sundays, the park implemented Saturday car-free closures from April through September. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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For half a century, John F. Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park has been car-free on Sundays to the enjoyment of walkers, cyclists, disco-dancing roller-skaters and more — but similar Saturday closures, enacted a decade ago, only span the summer.

Now, an effort is underway to make the popular thoroughfare car-free on Saturdays year-round, the San Francisco Examiner has learned.

Opposition, however, may kill that effort before it’s even officially proposed to the public.

Mark Hollein, director of the de Young Museum that’s located near John F. Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park, laid out the museum’s opposition in a Sept. 7 email to San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department General Manager Phil Ginsburg, which was obtained by the Examiner.

“I received your message regarding exploring the potential of extending the current six-month closure of JFK to a year-round closure,” Hollein wrote. “I cannot lend my support to additional road closures in the immediate vicinity of the de Young.”

Hollein cited the loss of 25 percent of the parking spots when cycle tracks were laid down on John F. Kennedy Drive in 2012 and a fear of losing out-of-town visitors as reasons to oppose the street closure, as well as concern for people with disabilities and families who may travel by car.

Sources speaking to the Examiner on background were concerned the political weight of the de Young Museum could defeat the plan before it is publicly proposed, perhaps bolstered by Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco President Dede Wilsey, a philanthropist and major financial backer of San Francisco politicians.

The California Academy of Sciences, also located in Golden Gate Park, is listed as opposed to expanding the Saturday closures, according to Rec and Park documents obtained by the Examiner.

Ike Kwon, chief operating officer of the Academy of Sciences, said the academy is “not opposing it,” but asking for dialogue.

“We’ve been asking, very vocally, for more discussion,” he said.

Kwon said the academy is surveying its members and volunteers now to see how they get to the museum, and added that “we’re always big supporters of not driving fossil fuel machines, but unfortunately people do so to get here.”

In 2007, along with car-free Sundays, Saturday car-free closures from April through September were instated and dubbed “Healthy Saturdays,” partially in an effort to encourage more exercise.

But making Golden Gate Park streets car-free became more imperative in the minds of advocates and city planners after the death of bicyclist Heather Miller, 41, who was struck and killed on John F. Kennedy Drive in June 2016.

Following her death and the death on the same day of another cyclist, 26-year-old Kate Slattery, Mayor Ed Lee issued an executive directive aimed at cyclist safety — with some directives legally binding Rec and Park to slow down vehicle speeds in Golden Gate Park.

“We should be doing everything we can to open up more accessible space [so] people are safe to enjoy without worry,” said Brian Wiedenmeier, executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. “Making Healthy Saturdays in Golden Gate Park year-round would be one easy, low-impact way to achieve that goal.”

Rec and Park officials told the Examiner they’ve been working with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency to make Golden Gate Park’s streets safer since December 2016, and included expanding car-free Saturdays during their recent outreach efforts.

In online surveys Rec and Park conducted with Golden Gate Park goers, 311 said they got there by walking, 327 by bicycling, 155 by driving, 48 by transit or park shuttle, 18 by taxi and ride-hails and 20 in “other” ways.

Supervisors Sandra Fewer and Katy Tang both told the Examiner they were concerned for families, people with disabilities and seniors who may lose access to museums without the ability to park.

“I used to ride my bike on Crossover Drive,” said Tang, who is a native San Franciscan. But, she added, not everyone is able-bodied enough to ride a bike.

Fewer said she’d like to see data specifically on how people arrive at the museums of Golden Gate Park.

Still, advocates noted that without a major upswell from the public in support of expanding Healthy Saturdays, museum opposition may knock it out before it’s even proposed.

Editor’s note: The photo caption of this story has been corrected to reflect that car-free Saturdays began in Golden Gate Park from April through September in 2007.

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