Leslie Rodd, 71, has lived at Fulton Street and 10th Avenue for over 20 years. Many mornings started with a bike ride through Golden Gate Park, until a 2013 stroke forced her to swap her two wheels for her two feet.
Since John F. Kennedy Drive was closed to cars back in April of 2020, Rodd says she’s much less fearful for her safety during her walks.
“It really is a dream,” she said of the car-free roadway.
Under a forthcoming proposal obtained by The Examiner, Supervisor Connie Chan wants to keep JFK Drive closed to cars permanently, save for a two-block stretch intended to facilitate access to museums. But the idea of closing JFK to cars has been hotly contested for over a decade, and any permanent solution will have to reconcile fiercely differing opinions.
The two-block segment in question would be between Eighth and 10th avenues. Cars could enter the park from the Eighth Avenue gate on Fulton Street, creating access to the Museum Concourse along the same route as the 44 O’Shaughnessy bus line.
During the pandemic, thousands of people have used the 1.5 mile-stretch of street as an outdoor escape. Its popularity led to the idea of permanent closure. But not everyone is in agreement.
Some elected policymakers have raised concerns about how the closure might further isolate low income neighborhoods. Supervisor Shamann Walton, who represents the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhoods, went as far as to label it “recreational redlining.” He argued many of his constituents must drive to the park to avoid a cumbersome, often unreliable trip on Muni.
The M.H. de Young Memorial Museum and California Academy of Sciences have been staunch opponents to the closure as it’s currently implemented. Though they’ve said repeatedly they support improving pedestrian and cyclist access, they worry that a 24/7 closure to vehicles makes it harder for visitors to reach their institutions, especially those unfamiliar with Muni.
“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,” Miriam Newcomer, a spokeswoman for the de Young Museum, told The Examiner last year.
Some neighborhood residents have complained of increased traffic on surrounding streets. About 75 percent of vehicles on JFK Drive before the pandemic were simply using it as a cut-through, according to Recreation and Parks Department data. So it stands to reason at least some of that traffic has possibly spilled over to areas nearby.
Chan, who represents the Richmond District, thinks she’s found a solution.
“I do believe in creating safe recreation inside of the park as well as creating equitable access,” she said. “Those two truths can exist at the same time. I think that just requires us to be a bit more creative and do the hard work to problem solve.”
Dubbed “Beach to Bay,” Chan envisions a version of San Francisco in which a person can travel on a nearly car-free route from The City’s westernmost coast to its eastern border.
It’s a vision that puts JFK Drive at the center, but doesn’t necessarily include closing the Great Highway to cars. (The Great Highway will reopen to vehicles on weekdays starting Aug. 16.)
“Golden Gate Park has always been designed as a park and an open space, while Great Highway has been designed as a utility corridor for vehicle traffic,” she said. “I also see what we’re trying to do as creating east-west connectivity inside the park while the Great Highway runs north-south.”
The plan would restore about 10 parking spots along JFK Drive between Eighth and 10th avenues designated for individuals with limited mobility. When it closed to cars, visitors lost access to roughly 549 parking spaces in the area, 26 of which solely were for Americans with Disabilities Act access. That’s in a park with over 5,000 total spots available to the public for free. City agencies have replaced 18 of the ADA spots on the other side of the Museum Concourse.
“When an individual is able-bodied and mobile, a block or two seems very simple,” she said. “But when you’re not, even 10 or 20 steps can be very far away.”
Chan’s resolution also calls for expanded Muni service to the park and urges the Concourse Authority, which manages the nearby 800-spot underground parking garage, to provide four hours of free parking for low income visitors.
Advocates in favor of closing JFK to cars permanently say they appreciate the desire to find a long-term solution, but would reserve judgment on the specifics of the plan until they know more details.
“We’ve been working on making Golden Gate Park, and especially JFK, the people-first park space that it should be for over a decade,” said Jodie Medeiros, executive director of street safety group Walk SF. “Now is the time for our city’s leaders to realize this goal because it should be the safest place for families, older adults, people with disabilities and everyone in between.”
The supervisor plans to introduce her resolution at the Sept. 7 board meeting.
While this type of project requires extensive analysis, input from technical experts and robust public outreach, Chan’s proposal doesn’t yet have such feedback, and it largely leapfrogged the process that gave city agencies their marching orders earlier this year.
Chan hopes that her introduction of a resolution would move the process forward more quickly and start dialogue around creating a formal legislative proposal.
Meanwhile, city agencies tasked with executing the outreach, analysis and an equity study prior to crafting a formal proposal for the supervisors’ approval, are continuing that work.
“We are pleased to see Supervisor Chan’s support for keeping JFK open to bikes, scooters, skaters and more; it has been a boon to families and kids,” said Rec and Park spokesperson Tamara Aparton. “We will continue to explore with the public, stakeholders and policymakers the best configuration to keep the park safe, healthy and fun.