SAN FRANCISCO (KRON) – The debate about whether or how much two westside thoroughfares should be open to cars or not has become a major fault line in San Francisco’s politics after years of planning, wrangling and backlash. Now, with two propositions on Tuesday’s ballot, the city’s voters will get to decide.
Proposition I would allow cars on John F. Kennedy Drive and connector streets in Golden Gate Park again (except from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sundays and holidays), and re-open the Great Highway to cars 24/7.
Proposition J would do the opposite as far as JFK Drive is concerned, ratifying the San Francisco Board of Supervisors’ decision to keep the roadway closed.
If both pass, Prop I would pre-empt Prop J.
Prop I got on the ballot via a signature-writing campaign led by a group called Access For All, which according to city campaign disclosures, was sponsored by the Open the Great Highway Alliance and the Corporation of the Fine Arts Museums, which is in charge of the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park and the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park.
Prop I would revert the status of vehicle traffic on the street to the status quo before the COVID-19 pandemic. The city closed JFK Drive to traffic on Monday to Saturday, and the Great Highway 24/7, to allow for social distancing in 2020.
The debate over the thoroughfares has become a flashpoint in arguments over COVID-19 policy, urban planning, the role of cars in San Francisco, the city’s responsibilities to the elderly and the disabled, and climate change, which threatens the future of the Great Highway.
Urbanists and bicycle advocates sought to keep the closures permanent. Nesrine Majzoub, the communications and marketing director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, told KRON4 News that the organization is a No on I and a Yes on J.
“What is most important and valuable as an organization that seeks to reduce barriers to bicycling for people is to protect the beautiful, car-free promenades the city and the local community have created,” Majzoub said. “It’s becoming a destination for many people in San Francisco and in the Bay. I see people utilizing the space in ways that were never before possible.”
But in 2021, neighborhood groups such as the Open the Great Highway Alliance pushed back, saying it made traffic in the surrounding Sunset neighborhood more dangerous, and hurt accessibility for seniors and the disabled.
In the case of the Great Highway, which runs 3.5 miles along the Pacific coast, this led to a compromise brokered by Mayor London Breed and supervisors Gordon Mar and Connie Chan, whereby the highway would be open to cars on weekdays, but closed Friday at noon to Monday at 6 a.m., which is the current status quo.
In the case of JFK Drive, which was already closed Sundays and holidays before COVID-19, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted in May to make the roadway car-free permanently. Prop J was put on the ballot to keep JFK Drive closed to traffic by four supervisors, three of whom represent eastside or central districts, and one of whom is District 7 Supervisor Myrna Melgar, whose district’s northern border is JFK Drive from 19th Avenue to Kezar Drive.
Howard Chabner, who has muscular dystrophy, is listed as an advocate for Prop I and against Prop J in the city’s voter information pamphlet.
He told KRON4 News that “the 24/7 closure of JFK Drive has made it next-to-impossible to visit the attractions on JFK Drive,” such as the Conservatory of Flowers and Stow Lake. He said that removing 550 potential parking spaces on the street involves the removal of 30 blue zones used by drivers with disabilities.
“It makes it difficult-to-impossible not just for disabled people, but for seniors, people in far neighborhoods, people from outside San Francisco who don’t have or can’t use public transit,” he said. “The closure has made Fell, Stanyon [streets] and Lincoln [way] much more congested, and I’ve lived on Fell since 1988.”
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Much of the traffic that was on the Great Highway has been diverted to Skyline, Sunset and Sloat boulevards, and 19th Avenue, which is currently seeing construction work.
Prop I proponents charge that the street closures, “turned residential streets into high-traffic roads and put people at risk,” according to a ballot statement signed by State Treasurer Fiona Ma, a former Sunset neighborhood city supervisor.
Majzoub said that the accessibility issue is real and is something that can be worked on. A separate ballot initiative, Prop N, would subsidize a parking garage under Golden Gate Park, and that proposition is supported by the bicycle coalition.
“It’s been really valuable for our organization to discuss the concerns of some people with disabilities,” Majzoub said. “Let’s talk about increasing shuttle service, adding more blue spaces in other parking spaces. We absolutely believe that and that we can address those concerns.”
Majzoub said that if Prop I passes, the city will have to reverse course on the Ocean Beach Climate Change Adaption Plan. Opponents, such as the the city’s Democratic Party central committee, claim that taxpayers would have to foot the bill for an $80 million wall along Ocean Beach to protect the roadway if threatened by sea level rise.
Passing Prop J could also lead to additional government costs of its own, according to the voter information pamphlet, which stated that “while not required by the ordinance, future capital improvements may include access improvements, long term planning and traffic engineering improvements that may moderately increase the cost of government, starting at approximately $400,000 in one-time costs. Since the program was established, the frequency of the Golden Gate Park Free Shuttle was increased to 7 days a week, costing approximately $250,000 annually, which would continue under the ordinance.”