As museums re-open, cars return to the Music Concourse

City tries to find middle ground, while institutions ask for more vehicle access

After a months-long closure initiated as part of The City’s COVID-19 response, a steady stream of cars has returned to Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, the street that provides access to the de Young Museum, California Academy of Sciences and Music Concourse in Golden Gate Park.

Though the roadway has technically been open since August, when Muni service was restored to the area, it has seen a further uptick in traffic over the last few weeks that can be attributed to the reopening of the nearby museums on Sept. 25, according to Tamara Aparton, spokesperson for the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department, which oversees road closures within Golden Gate Park.

John F. Kennedy and Hagiwara Tea Garden drives were closed to cars in April to create more space for people to recreate outdoors and travel through the park by foot, bicycle or other modes of alternative transit safe from potentially dangerous encounters with vehicles.

At the same time, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency had to dramatically suspend service across The City — including the 44 O’Shaughnessy — to cut costs and direct limited resources towards the routes most needed by essential workers and transit-dependent riders.

In an effort to “devote as much of the park to car-free recreation as possible during the pandemic,” Rec and Parks closed Tea Garden Drive — but it did so knowing it would eventually need to re-open the curbs to allow access for “those with mobility issues,” according to Aparton.

Now, that time has come.

SFMTA has also restored a modified version of the 44 O’Shaughnessy, so it now runs directly through the heart of the Music Concourse and brings riders to both the West and East sides of Golden Gate Park as well as the de Young and California Academy of Sciences.

But officials say Muni isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for everyone seeking to enjoy this part of the park, so vehicles are now permitted to enter the concourse from Martin Luther King Drive, drop off or pick up visitors and then circle to exit the same way.

The reopening bucks the current trend for street closures across The City. As the pandemic has persisted, more car-free roads have followed.

Rec and Parks and the SFMTA worked jointly to shut down parts of MLK Drive, Middle Drive West and Overlook Drive elsewhere in Golden Gate Park to create a “virtually” car-free route from Ocean Beach to the Panhandle.

Aparton said the protected passageway from Ocean Beach to the Panhandle is unaffected by opening the curbs up to cars in the Music Concourse, and added it was critical to ensuring access to the museums to those with mobility challenges or fewer choices for transit.

Access to park roads, however, has been the subject of conflict in San Francisco in the past.

Supporters heralded the recent closures to vehicular traffic as part of a long overdue prioritization of people over cars, and created a coalition of community groups, safe street advocates and neighbors in favor of making car-free JFK Drive permanent. Others raised concerns over accessibility and traffic overflow into surrounding neighborhoods.

The de Young Museum and the California Academy of Sciences, both located prominently in the Music Concourse, have historically expressed opposition to full-fledged road closures in the past, fearing they would affect their visitors, especially those who can’t easily access the park by other means. They also objected to their exclusion from the decision-making process in the most recent closure, in remarks made to the Recreation and Parks Commission earlier this year.

“We serve many constituents, including those that live outside of San Francisco (for whom Muni is not an option), families with small children, those with disabilities and mobility challenges, our labor force, and others who are not comfortable using Muni due to concerns around COVID-19. The ability to walk or bike to the museum is a privilege that is very simply not enjoyed by all our visitors,” said Miriam Newcomer, a spokeswoman for the de Young Museum.

Though bringing Muni service back will reduce those accessibility concerns to some degree, the SFMTA has supported its counterpart agency’s “accessibility improvements in Golden Gate Park,” an agency spokesperson said.

Kristen Leckie from the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition said the group recognizes curbside car access within the concourse as essential to guaranteeing equal opportunity for all to enjoy the museums and open space, and commended The City for its partnership on installing concrete barriers and protected lanes for cyclists and pedestrians continuing to use the car-free JFK Drive.

Jodie Medeiros of Walk SF, on the other hand, firmly agrees the concourse needs to become more accessible to those with limited mobility or other concerns, but remains fearful the concourse will now be used as a cut-through and become a “danger zone.”

For the de Young, Newcomer said just opening Tea Garden Drive on a limited basis is not enough, as the road isn’t accessible from the Fulton entrance on Eighth Avenue while JFK Drive remains closed.

In addition, parameters that limit access to pick-up and drop-off make it difficult for certain populations to enjoy the facility and force visitors and employees alike to pay for expensive parking at the underground garage or park prohibitively far away, she said.

Newcomer said the de Young has sold 53,000 tickets for entry since it opened its reservation system on Sept. 14, but emphasized it remains compromised in its ability to serve those customers, even with the Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive open for pick-up and drop-off, as long as JFK Drive continues to be closed to cars.

“The community is returning to the de Young. It has been a joy to see people back in the museum […],” she said. “The specific section of JFK that is currently closed to vehicular traffic severely limits our visitors ability to access the de Young and therefore limits our ability to serve them.”

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