This week, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency released its proposal for how to handle traffic on Twin Peaks Boulevard, which has been largely closed to vehicles since early in the pandemic.
It recommends opening the Portola Drive gate to vehicles, including tour buses, at all times while maintaining the closure of the Burnett Avenue entrance to preserve dedicated space for people traveling by foot, bike or other mobility options. Half of the figure-eight road that runs between the peaks would remain person-only, while the other half would be shared between vehicles and other travelers.
The plan attempts to balance the “diverse needs” of the community, perhaps a euphemistic way to describe the conflict that has emerged between those who wish to see Twin Peaks stay car-free and those who wish to see vehicle access restored.
Many Twin Peaks residents say they’ve seen a dramatic uptick in trash, late-night partying and crime such as car theft on their residential streets since all of Twin Peaks Boulevard went car-free in late March. However, other residents say closing the street has created a safe place for people to recreate, socially distance outdoors and access one of San Francisco’s iconic vistas.
At first glance, the new proposal seems to have left many parties underwhelmed.
“I know it’s not completely satisfactory,” said Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, whose district includes areas directly adjacent to Twin Peaks. “In some ways, they’ve made nobody happy. But it may be the right Solomonic kind of balance of interests.”
Gary Russ, a 34-year resident in the Twin Peaks neighborhood, said the Burnett Avenue side is where much of the problematic partying is happening, so he and his neighbors are skeptical that simply opening the Portola Avenue gate will actually mitigate those concerns.
“We’re concerned that with the continued closure of the Burnett Gate that the likelihood for this persisting is not insignificant. We think it’s going to happen again,” he said. Russ said many of his neighbors were open to the inverse idea, keeping the Portola gate closed and Burnett open, free from tour buses.
Kristen Leckie, senior community organizer for the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, also expressed disappointment at SFMTA’s recommendation.
“Since early last year, Twin Peaks has served as an exceptional open space in the heart of The City for residents to enjoy during the current public health orders,” they said over email. She said the advocacy group hopes “that the SFMTA will continue to find ways to prioritize open space atop Twin Peaks.”
Twin Peaks Boulevard was closed entirely to cars in late March by the Recreation and Parks Department in conjunction with SFMTA. Officials said it would create additional opportunities for people to get out of their homes safely without worrying about cars on the roads or violating public health orders.
In many ways, it did. SFMTA counts show an average of more than 800 people visiting Twin Peaks each weekday and more than 1,100 on weekend days.
But neighbors promptly reported the once-regular partying and boozing at Christmas Tree Point overlook had descended into lower residential streets. They tell stories of alcohol bottles piling up, kids being woken by loud music and regular theft from cars left at the bottom of the hill during daylight.
“Clearly, there are a lot of folks who have really loved it, and it’s been one of the bright spots of the pandemic,” Mandelman said of the closure. “But I have heard a fair amount of harrowing, upsetting stories from immediate neighbors who have been pretty unfairly impacted by all this.”
Mandelman, then-supervisor Norman Yee and the SFMTA received a flood of complaints, eventually spurring the opening of the Portola Gate to vehicles from 6 p.m. to midnight for access to the overlook as well as a public outreach process to figure out a more permanent proposal, which SFMTA Director Jeffrey Tumlin first announced at the agency’s Jan. 19 board meeting.
SFMTA’s “overwhelming recommendation” came after a roughly three-week long electronic survey period that received over 1,700 respondents. It proposed five roadway options for Twin Peaks Boulevard, ranging from total closure to vehicles to the pre-pandemic reality of both access points being entirely open to them.
The option SFTMA decided to move forward with, though, was just the third most favored option. The two most popular choice were, first, keeping the Burnett Avenue gate open 24 hours with a vehicle turnaround point at the overlook and, second, restoring the pre-COVID arrangement whereby both the north and south gates are open at all times and there’s no vehicle-free space.
“We’re disappointed to now see that the SFMTA’s proposal for this open space moving forward doesn’t reflect the preferred option of survey respondents and significantly cuts the open space those walking and biking have come to love,” Leckie said.
According to the staff report, the agency recommended its preferred alternative because it provides car-free space, mitigates congestion along Burnett Avenue, avoids street modifications to handle tour buses or traffic changes and restores accessibility to individuals with disabilities.
Various stakeholders said there’s need for better coordination between agencies to curb some of the partying, littering and general late-night activity that’s long been happening on or around Twin Peaks.
The San Francisco Police Department says it’s on the case, literally.
“We have conducted almost 3,000 passing calls in the area from July to Dec. 21, 2020. In that same timeframe we have made 20 arrests for numerous crimes such as aggravated assault, robbery and auto burglary,” SFPD spokesperson Officer Robert Rueca said.
Supervisor Myrna Melgar, who just took over leadership in a district that also backs into Twin Peaks, supports the proposal but acknowledges that “more can be done, particularly on issues of safety and crime prevention” and suggested “greatly improved infrastructure” as a goal.
“Twin Peaks has so much potential, so we should dream big, develop adequate access and security measures and make it a place San Franciscans can be proud of,” she said.
The latest proposal must be approved by the SFMTA Board of Directors. It’s expected to be up for a vote in March.