Editorial: Brief trial best for park closure

This afternoon, a committee of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors is scheduled to consider an issue that has been the subject of a years-long tug-of-war much like the one that swung The City back and forth between conflicting plans for the Central Freeway.

The supervisors’ Land Use and Economic Development Committee will hold a hearing on a plan to conduct a six-month test of closing portions of Golden Gate Park on Saturdays. John F. Kennedy Drive, at the park’s eastern end, would be closed every Saturday starting on Memorial Day weekend, much like the existing Sunday closure.

The question of a Saturday closure has been debated for a number of years. The Board of Supervisors declined to approve one plan, and voters have rejected two others. There is a persuasive argument to be made that the people have already voiced their opinion, and that they don’t want park roads closed on Saturdays.

For roller skaters, bicyclists, stroller-pushers and others, the Sunday closure is a welcome break from the constant vigilance they usually need just to make their way down the street. There’s no doubt the Sunday closure is popular, with the closed roads frequently crowded with park-goers.

But officials of the two world-class museums that depend on open roads to provide easy access for visitors say that a Saturday closure would keep too many people away. This is true even if cars can access the new parking garage under the Music Concourse, they say.

Representatives of the de Young Museum have said that although most museums have higher attendance on Sundays than on Saturdays, the de Young is one of the few to see the reverse — an effect attributed to the existing Sunday JFK Drive closure. Representatives of the California Academy of Sciences, which is rebuilding its facility across the concourse from the de Young, say they have observed a similar attendance pattern.

These two institutions are unique to The City andprovide unmatched cultural benefits for every San Franciscan. The City should exercise great care to refrain from harming them. What if the Saturday closure harmed their ability to support themselves? Would closure advocates suggest The City make up the loss with taxpayer funds? Where would that money come from — more taxes? Cuts to other programs?

Still, advocates seem determined to keep pushing, so perhaps a trial run is the best way to see what the impact really would be.

However, six months is probably too long, particularly if the closure has a negative effect on museum attendance and neighborhood traffic. A four-month trial would be better, particularly if it covers summer months when school is out and tourists are most abundant, as well as months when school is in session and field trips are common.

In addition, it is crucial that the opportunity to observe the impacts of a Saturday closure is not wasted. Besides the counts of pedestrians and tallies of museum visitors that interested parties no doubt will collect, it would be prudent to select an independent observer — perhaps the Controller’s Office, in its auditing capacity — to gather information and analyze its effect. After the trial closure, The City should make a final decision on whether to continue the closure or abandon it. It is imperative that this decision be based on facts, not rhetoric.

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