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Could the Great Highway become a great city park?

Calls to make the Upper Great Highway permanently car-free are growing as San Francisco settles into a new normal nearly eight months into the coronavirus pandemic.

Though a number of these requests, some more formal than others, have circulated, one in particular has generated buzz among community members and non-neighborhood residents alike.

The Great Highway Park Initiative sports a splashy landing page, couples its plan for closure to vehicles with a traffic management plan to mitigate impacts in the surrounding neighborhoods and has garnered more than 2,000 signatures since its launch in June.

“Since the closure began in March 2020, this safe open recreation space has been used in so many diverse ways — imagine how we can use it in the future,” the website says.

The initiative centers around strategies to make the Upper Great Highway between Lincoln Way and Sloat Boulevard permanently car-free, create a “world-class” park with trash cans, water fountains, signage and public art and implement traffic calming and pedestrian safety measures on Lower Great Highway and the outer avenues to mitigate and discourage vehicle spillover.

Though the creators have chosen to remain anonymous, they’ve galvanized a number of longtime Outer Sunset residents as public surrogates for the idea.

Grace Kennedy was raised on the Lower Great Highway, and her family runs a neighborhood solar company. She says the closure has brought more many more people to the neighborhood and, if made permanent, could increase foot traffic at local businesses and enhance the care of Ocean Beach.

“My community loves and is passionate about Ocean Beach. We love watching people go by on Upper Great Highway as opposed to the endless traffic,” she said.

When Supervisor Gordon Mar asked the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency to temporarily close the road to cars in April as part of The City’s coronavirus response, his intent was to create a “unique community space” for people to recreate safely outdoors.

Almost immediately, the iconic Ocean Beach-adjacent road became a haven for many San Francisco residents.

Mar said the temporary closure has clearly been “successful” in achieving his goal of creating socially distant space for his district and a place for public expression, such as multiple Black Lives Matter marches and community art installations.

According to a study commissioned by the supervisor’s office and executed by the Recreation and Park Department, the combined daily average number of pedestrian and bike trips on the Upper Great Highway during the week is 3,615 ,while on the weekend it jumps to 6,839.

The study was conducted from Sept. 18 to Oct. 15, and only looked at travelers on the Upper Great Highway from Lincoln to Judah Street.

The SFMTA hasn’t responded to the Great Highway Park initiative, but it is supportive of the “current use of the roadway between Lincoln and Sloat that prioritizes bicycles and walking.”

“This unprecedented and exciting temporary use of the roadway presents significant new opportunities for recreation, bicycling and walking and for safely gathering during the pandemic,” SFMTA spokesperson Kristen Holland said.

The Outer Sunset residents the Examiner spoke to seemed to share the view that closing the Upper Great Highway has been transformative for the neighborhood. They described it as a boon for local business, a “remarkable” asset for The City and a way to make open space more approachable for communities without accessible places of their own.

“The highway has always hovered between being part of the beach and part of The City, and its establishment as a park would mean a clearer direction as far as city planning, better maintenance and less disruption to established traffic routines during inclement weather or when sand removal becomes necessary,” Lana Porcello, co-owner of Outer Sunset restaurant Outerlands, said of the petition to make the Great Highway a park.

Safety first

Making it permanent, though, is not so simple.

The pilot has faced pushback from Outer Sunset residents who report increased traffic and dangerous driving on the Lower Great Highway and the outer avenues, specifically between 46th and 48th avenues, since the road was closed to vehicles.

Mar’s office has observed, anecdotally, more cars traveling at high speeds detouring through residential areas as opposed to on Sunset Boulevard, a six-lane north-south road designed to handle thru-traffic.

“To do that, we have really have to address the traffic impacts that have resulted through more effective diversion and calming of vehicle traffic,” the supervisor said of his conditional support of the idea of making some version of the Upper Great Highway closure permanent.

Legislative aide Edward Wright said an ongoing car count study should provide a more quantitative understanding of the true impact on traffic trends, and underscored his boss’ stance that the consideration of any kind of permanent car-free initiative would hinge on guaranteeing safety.

Wright said the supervisor’s office has been working with SFMTA to install more signage and turn restrictions in and around the Lower Great Highway to discourage drivers from using it as a cut-through, but that these mitigation measures are “clearly not enough” and no permanent closure could be tenable without a more comprehensive “design solution” to the problem.

Even supporters of the Great Highway Park Initiative, such as 20-year-Outer Sunset resident Wynne Bamberg, have noticed changes in traffic patterns and parking availability, though she says it could be caused by a number of other shelter-in-place-related factors in addition to the closure.

“Initially, closing the Great Highway probably rerouted the traffic through the neighborhood, but I think that will change when drivers become more aware,” she said, adding her belief that the influx of people in the neighborhood “is a wonderful thing” because “it is The City’s beach and a healthy way to spend the day.”

Kennedy said it’s been more difficult to park her work truck, and suggested more clearly posted speed limits for cars and bikes.

Though Mar said he hasn’t spoken directly with the creators of the Great Highway Park Initiative, he “appreciates that it has a dual focus on pedestrian and cyclist access as well as addressing street safety concerns made worse by the closure.”

The initiative is clear that a car-free Great Highway can’t be successful without traffic safety improvements. It suggests a number of measures including additional daylighting, stop signs, crosswalks and turn restrictions to reduce speeds and discourage thru-traffic.

SFMTA says it plans to implement a number of these ideas through its already-approved Lower Great Highway Improvement Project by the end of this year, but supporters of the Great Highway Park petition say the transit agency needs to go further to create a truly safe space.

“Every intersection deserves to be a place for park and beach-goers to safely cross,” it says.

Kennedy said the Great Highway Park petition’s emphasis on dedicating increased city resources such as trash pick-up, street signage and other amenities toward the Ocean Beach area is also key to maintaining resident buy-in and ensuring a future park doesn’t get trashed by swells of visitors.

“As long as visitors and residents are respectful to each other and the area, I see the neighborhood thriving,” she said. “We will need ongoing city support to maintain the public restrooms and trash cans […] it is a great time to take better care of the neighborhood and Ocean Beach.”

Jigsaw governance

Any permanent traffic changes would have to be made in concert with a network of agencies.

No one agency controls the Great Highway and neighboring Ocean Beach. Rather, it’s governed by a jigsaw puzzle of agencies at the city, state and federal level.

Locally, the SFMTA, Rec and Park and the Department of Public Works largely run the show, with significant input from the District Four supervisor, who is responsible for advocating on behalf of neighborhood residents.

The San Francisco Zoo, County Transportation Authority, California State Coastal Conservancy, National Park Service and Golden Gate National Recreation Area, among others, are also involved.

Together, they form the Ocean Beach Coordination Team, responsible for taking action to combat climate change and erosion. In 2012, it developed the Ocean Beach Master Plan, which includes a series of strategies to be implemented over the coming decades in order to mitigate the impacts of rising sea levels to The City’s coastal gem.

Great Highway road improvements are a key part to that plan.

Mar emphasized any next steps would need to be grounded in deep community engagement.

His office is working closely with SFMTA and the SFCTA on the District 4 Mobility Study, which although it was commissioned prior to the pandemic, has now been revamped to include questions specifically about the future of the Upper Great Highway and Ocean Beach area.

Results from the study are expected to come out by the end of the year, and it will inform cross-agency conversations about the impact of any potential modifications.

Carly Graf

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Carly Graf

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