"Opponents face major setbacks as misinformation campaign backfires"


Park advocates won a key step Friday toward the long awaited goal of creating Saturday car free space on JFK drive in Golden Gate Park. The SF Board of Supervisors' Land Use Committee – comprised of Jake McGoldrick, Ross Mirkarimi, and Sophie Maxwell -- unanimously supported “Healthy Saturdays” legislation, which would extend the Sunday car free space to Saturdays for a six month trial period. The legislation is endorsed by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, Senior Action Network , SF Tomorrow, the SF Party Party, the Youth Commission, the Small Business Commission, WalkSF, and the SF Green Party, among others. Supporters outnumbered opponents by an estimated margin of 4 to 1 at the sometimes raucous hearing last Friday.

The meetings most charged moment occurred when Leah Shahum, Executive Director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, presented de Young attendance statistics to the committee. Museum Director John Buchanan and Trustee Dede Wilsey have repeated asserted that the current Sunday car free space on JFK hurts the museum. However, the museum has steadfastly refused to release it's attendance information, even ignoring requests from the Supervisors and the Mayor's office. The first time anyone saw these attendance figures was in the public hearing. Contradicting their claims, the figures for the de Young attendance since the museum reopened shows that Sundays (which have been car-free for 39 years) actually have higher attendance than Saturdays, even with the car free space.

“We knew there was something fishy there,” says Shahum, of the SFBC. “The de Young leadership repeatedly claimed that Sunday car free space hurt the de Young, but they have refused for weeks to give the attendance figures. Considering that these figures are public information and considering that the alleged impact on attendance is their key argument for opposing Healthy Saturdays, it was suspicious, to say the least. Our understanding is that it took the threat of a reporter's Freedom of Information Act request to force the de Young to finally release this information.”


Indeed, Shahum's intuition was right on. The contrast between de Young actual attendance and the Buchanan/Wilsey lies are startling:

Actual De Young attendance since the museum reopened shows that Sunday's are actually higher than Saturdays, even with the car free space

1) Average attendance since the de Young reopened
(beginning Oct 22 when daily stats became available):
Saturday: 6,334
Sunday: 6,416

2)Average attendance in 2006, though April 9 (most
recent data):
Saturday: 7,077
Sunday: 7,186

These facts are not keeping the de Young's brass from continuing to spread misinformation. Just last week, Senior Media Relations Officer, Barbara Traisman, told the San Jose Mercury News that the Sunday Car Free space hurts museum attendance: “Generally speaking, museums have much higher attendance on Sunday than they do on Saturday,'' she said. “The de Young is one of the only museums in the country that experiences fewer visitors on Sunday. Indeed, 15 to 20 percent more visitors walk through the doors on Saturdays than on Sundays.” Perhaps Traisman should check her facts....
So, why then, are de Young Trustees so adamantly opposed to Healthy Saturdays, if they know that car free space doesn't hurt their business? “Good question” said Paul Dorn, a long time park advocate who has spent may years as a marketing professional in the public arts. “It really appears that the de Young leadership is out of touch.... with the community, their membership, and even their Museum”.

Dorn pointed to the letter that the de Young recently sent to its 20,000 members opposing the car free space. The letter omitted key facts and included a lot of misinformation, including false representations about attendance levels on Sundays. The letter was widely regarded as a PR disaster for opponents after it angered members and drew criticism in the press. “Maybe the question should be 'Isn't it time for new leadership at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco?',” said Dorn. “Full weekends of healthy recreation on JFK Drive is coming sooner or later. The de Young needs a leadership that will accept that reality and move on. They should focus on the mission, product, programming, and marketing of their institution”.


On the bright side, supporters and opponents of the proposal did agree on one major point: disabled access to the Park and its institutions has long been neglected by the Dept. of Parks and Recreation. Supervisor McGoldrick reminded last week's hearing attendees that the legislation always required full disabled access to the park and its institutions and ADA compliance is the first priority. Supporters of Healthy Saturdays worked with the Supervisor to use the initiative to create additional disabled parking which will help address this situation in the park seven days a week. Disabled vehicles are permitted access to JFK Dr. at all times, even during the car free hours, and there will be additional disabled parking spaces created if the legislation passes the full board. These facts, also, directly contradict misinformation provided by the de Young to its members in the April 7th letter, which claimed that the car free space would “severely compromise access to the museum, particularly for..... persons with disabilities”.

Testimony at the hearing from the disability community, indicated that there is still room for improvement, especially in the parking garage under the de Young. It is expected that park advocates will team up with the disability community to push for improvements in the garage which should include more disabled spaces and free parking for disabled visitors to the de Young.


A variety of speakers on both sides attempted to decipher the will of the voters, based on the 2000 ballot results of Props F and G. Mike Smith, from WalkSF, reminded the supervisors that the de Young and Academy Leadership mislead voters in the 2000 election, when they promised to support Saturday Closure once a garage was built under the de Young. Smith called out a number of inaccuracies in a recent letter sent by the de Young to its members. The letter has received much criticism in the media and has drawn angry responses from de Young members. Among the inaccuracies that Smith highlighted is the letter's assertion that Saturday car free space has “been shown to be unpopular in the polls”. Smith produced actual polling results from David Binder at the time of Prop F. The results indicated that voters favored extending the car free space to Saturdays by a margin of 2 to 1..

Dave Snyder from Transportation for a Livable City referred to the back room deal between the de Young Trustees and then Supervisor Michael Yaki, which split the issue (and the vote) into two propositions: Prop F - calling for a car free space immediately; and Prop G - calling for a car free JFK only after a garage was built under the park. As Synder put it “....46% of the people said 'we want car free Saturdays now and 36% of the people said we want car free Saturdays oncel the garage is built”. Snyder pointed out that creating this closure today - now that the garage exists, satisfies the will of both sets of voters: those that wanted the car free space with or without a garage and those that only wanted car free space with a garage. The message was clear through the testimony of an estimated 100 supporters of Healthy Saturdays: voters always wanted a car free JFK on Saturdays.... they showed in in polls, they showed it in their vote, and now they will have a six trial period to show it a third time when this legislation passes.


At the hearing, Supervisors seemed surprised by some of the testimony from people with disabilities regarding the service provided by the city's Department of Rec and Park. After several disabled speakers described an untrained staff which is unaware of disabled access requirements and is openly hostile at times, Mc Goldrick called Dennis Kern, the Department's Director of Operations to the podium to ensure that complaints would be addressed.

The supervisor also questioned the Department's surprising recommendation that the car free space be pushed out to the west end of the park. This area of the park is far less accessible by transit, has few amenities, and users do not benefit from the parking garage.

The suggestion angered advocates who believe that the Department is not doing its job as steward of the parks. “Look at their web site, there is no focus at all on the Sunday car free space, even though that is the biggest attraction in the Park... they treat it like a nuisance rather than an important park program”, said Chris Gramly, an SF artist and founding member of the SF Party Party. “Now they have the nerve to recommend the opinion of an influential opponent without any study or serious consideration of the implications.” Indeed, it appears that the Department spent very little time working with Healthy Saturday's proponents who wonder whether Director Yomi Agunbiade misunderstands his role to be 'Director of Parking Lots and Recreation'.

Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, one of the co-sponsors of the legislation, summed up the feeling of many people who attended last week's hearing when he called out the opponents' arguments against Healthy Saturdays as disingenuous and “Karl Rove-esque.”

Next step for the Healthy Saturdays legislation: A full Board of Supervisors' vote on April 25th, where supporters are aiming for unanimous support.