Mark today down on your calendar as the official time when the democratic process in San Francisco got carjacked. Consider it thestart of something new — when citizens make their wishes clear yet their votes no longer count.
Barring an unexpected turn, the Board of Supervisors is poised to approve a Saturday ban on cars in the east end of Golden Gate Park today — the latest political end run on an issue that has been zigzagging through City Hall for more than a decade.
This current scheme has been pitched as a six-month trial period so that city officials can study traffic patterns, museum attendance, whether people are really happier without cars and other vague notions. But it’s a ruse, just like all the other attempts to seal off the most popular section of the park from visitors at the behest of the bike-and-skateboard brigade. And if the supervisors approve it, it will set a precedent whereby any clear mandate of the voters can be ridden over if officials have the gumption to try.
In the latest spin cycle, it’s perfectly fine to limit access to the park now because there is an underground parking garage. That assumes, of course, that everybody who visits the park can find a space there or afford the $10 or so to park there — a pretty funny idea coming from Board of Supervisors members who objected to a 25-cent fare increase for Muni out of a crying need for “social justice.”
The fact that numerous seniors, parents and disabled groups have objected to the proposed ban has been discounted by supporters of the closure — simply because some park advocates are created more equal than others, or certainly have greater access at City Hall.
Yet, no matter what argument you believe, certain facts are undeniable. In 2000, San Francisco voters by a considerable margin rejected Saturday closure not once, but twice. Proponents of a car ban now contend that because there were two similar measures on the same ballot that the voters were confused — residents in The City apparently are too dumb to properly express their wishes at election time.
So ever since, members of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and other one-issue special interest groups have been lobbying to close off the park, even while the new de Young Museum, the California Academy of Sciences and the majestic Conservatory of Flowers were being rebuilt.
One of the more troubling aspects of the whole park debate is that the determined group of anti-car activists simply don’t want to share. There are 15 miles of available road space outside of the area that houses most of the cultural institutions, but closure advocates insist that none of it is adequate — even if it just means moving the proposed car-free section eight blocks. And that is why neighborhood groups in the Inner Richmond and Inner Sunset must feel so special when the added traffic is pushed onto their streets while vast stretches of Golden Gate Park go unused.
Rather than do an end run around voters, I’ve suggested that the idea of closing the park on Saturdays — which, including Sundays and holidays, would mean no car access about one-third of the year — be placed before voters. That is the proper vehicle for an issue that affects so many people and institutions. But those in favor of a ban have resisted that, since they fear another thumping at the polls.
As it is, even the euphemistic “healthy Saturdays” initiative, as the latest closure attempt is dressed up, fails to register on the logic meter. The initiative allegedly would allow city officials to gauge traffic patterns and attendance in the park over the next six months. But how could they accurately do that if the new Academy of Sciences — the single most popular attraction in Golden Gate Park — isn’t even scheduled to reopen until the fall of 2008? I realize that public policy in The City is often set long before all the facts are in, but even by that sorry standard, this idea has all the worth of a flat tire. The fact that the acad-
emy’s annual attendance is expected to double to 1.6 million visitors when it opens isn’t even being taken into account.
“The timing is bizarre,” said Pat Kilduff, spokeswoman for the academy.
But no matter how you peddle it, this latest spin on the park debate is the same as all the rest. It’s not about working families, or popular ways to exercise or the environment or the best use of public spaces.
It’s about power and who wields it. Call it a test drive for a brave new form of democracy.