Closed streets have polarized San Francisco

Neighborhoods divided, residents frustrated and city supervisors trepidatious

Some issues in The City are just too hot to touch.

Such is the case with the future of San Francisco streets that have been partially or entirely closed during the pandemic. Their fate remains as uncertain as ever, despite months of calls from residents to chart a path forward.

Whether to keep iconic corridors such as Golden Gate Park’s JFK Drive and the Upper Great Highway permanently reserved for people over cars has become one of the most contentious and divisive issues of San Francisco’s COVID-19 experience.

As neighborhoods have become severely polarized, residents progressively more frustrated and supervisors increasingly trepidatious about wading into the debate-turned-political-minefield, Mayor London Breed has remained largely silent on the matter.

She finally weighed in Tuesday at the Board of Supervisors meeting. But if anyone was hoping for Breed’s appearance to shed light on how this ongoing saga will end, they were left disappointed.

“I want to wait and see what the data says and what the feedback is before we make any of these decisions,” Breed said. “Some people will be happy and others won’t, but that is what we experience as policymakers every day when we make tough decisions.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic first struck, The City moved quickly to create additional outdoor space to support socially distanced recreation, as well as promote alternative travel by bike, foot or other modes to essential destinations.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) and the Recreation and Parks Department collaborated to close a 1.5-mile stretch of JFK Drive plus the Upper Great Highway to vehicles. The transit agency also rolled out Slow Streets, a program that limited portions of 30 residential streets to thru-traffic only.

Some herald the moves as a visionary use of public space that promotes healthy activity, a better environment and safety. Others were irate at how the changes affected navigation of The City by car.

These issues have become a political flashpoint.

There have been unannounced private meetings between stakeholders and city officials, an expensive lobbying campaign by the museums in Golden Gate Park to allow cars back on JFK Drive and a mass mobilization of street safety and pedestrian advocacy groups with savvy communication strategies.

All this and nearly two years have come to pass and permanent plans for the future of JFK Drive, Upper Great Highway or many of the Slow Streets still are nowhere to be found.

Supervisor Connie Chan, who represents the Richmond and requested the mayoral appearance at the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, said the process has been rife with inconsistencies, lacked transparency and has yet to yield tangible proposals for the future.

“Do you think city departments are actually being held accountable and displaying in good faith a transparent process with honest data-driven decision-making?” she said.

Under the authority of the local emergency pandemic order, officials have been able to make many decisions, including those around streets, without having to go through the same rigorous and time-consuming public process that would ordinarily be required. It’s not until their permanent use is up for discussion that these same rules around public process apply.

Some of the decisions made by officials without traditional public process have clearly benefited the camp in favor of restoring vehicle access. Chief among them was reopening the Great Highway on weekends and the overnight removal of Slow Street signs in the Outer Sunset. Others such as allowing Muni access into Golden Gate Park at 8th Avenue have demonstrated efforts from The City to prioritize transit, safe open space and alternative mobility options.

“I acknowledge that there wasn’t adequate community input and transparency around the decisions,” Supervisor Gordon Mar told The Examiner. “But looking ahead I really feel like the most important thing at this point, given the history of this and how contentious it’s been, is that The City commits to conducting a transparent, inclusive and equitable process.”

City agencies say they’ve committed to those same goals when it comes to finding a permanent solution as the dialogue has remained steadfastly vitriolic.

“The problem with the Great Highway and JFK Drive and even Slow Street is that the debate is so polarized,” Mar said. “When we do get input, it’s that someone strongly supports it or strongly opposes it. There’s very little opportunity for consideration of how it doesn’t have to be a binary decision.”

SFMTA and Rec and Park has convened a working group of stakeholders to gather input on JFK Drive, and officials have issued resident surveys and continue to host community meetings and collect reams of data on Golden Gate Park and the Great Highway.

The SFMTA voted to make Lake Street a permanent Slow Street in August, one of four at the time, but is now seeking more public comment on the matter. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

The SFMTA voted to make Lake Street a permanent Slow Street in August, one of four at the time, but is now seeking more public comment on the matter. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

The transit agency has taken an incremental approach to Slow Streets. It first determines which of the corridors have enough community support to warrant permanence and then conducts another round of outreach to determine the exact design of the newly minted Slow Street moving forward. So far, four Slow Streets have been approved for permanence: Lake, Shotwell, Sanchez and Golden Gate.

“As far as I’m concerned, these departments are doing everything they can to get the data they need, to solicit feedback and to make the best decision,” Breed said. “To imply it hasn’t been a fair and open process is not a responsible way to gather what we need to make the best decision for San Francisco.”

All this outreach aside, most people still don’t know how things will turn out.

SFMTA told The Examiner it’s holding off on approving additional permanent Slow Streets until the summer, when it plans to bring a full program proposal to the board.

Rec and Park said public outreach has concluded for JFK Drive and technical analysis is ongoing to determine how the road configuration would impact transit, city budget and more. It plans to present recommendations early this year.

And the Great Highway’s future remains a mystery, though Mar suggested aligning the outreach and decision process with plans to close the roadway south of Sloat Boulevard in 2023 as part of an Ocean Beach climate resiliency project.

“Right now, I’m not committing to any of the options,” he said of San Francisco street closures. “But process is important and hopefully we can draw on some of the better practices.”

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