Nearly three months ago, Mayor Gavin Newsom vetoed the Healthy Saturdays legislation, which would have mandated car-free access to the East End of Golden Gate Park on Saturdays. The legislation, premised on the success of car-free Sundays, passed the Board of Supervisors with only seven votes in May, one vote shy of the veto-proof majority. Looking to protect his big money interests intertwined with the park’s institutions, the Mayor took the opportunity to wield his executive sword. But after a constituency consisting of the SF Bike Coalition, the Senior Action Network, and SF Tomorrow threatened to take the measure to the ballot, Newsom was willing to talk. If negotiations were not successful, the coalition assured the Mayor of their intent to take the proposal to the ballot.But the list of submitted ballot measures, finalized as of August 9th, revealed the absence of the Healthy Saturday measure despite the Mayor’s snail-paced approach to seeing the negotiations through. This has led supporters to question the state of the coalition’s struggle.
In an interview with BeyondChron.org, SF Bike Coalition Program Director Andy Thornley insisted the push for Healthy Saturday legislation is far from over. According to Thornley, the Bike Coalition is “still optimistic that the Mayor will be willing to go forward with something”. In the coming weeks, the Mayor’s Office in conjunction with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is planning on leading evaluations on the area in question, the portion east of the 19th Avenue park crossing.
The MTA is hoping to quantify several different impacts of interest to the Mayor. These measurements will include shifts in traffic resulting from the closure JFK drive, fluctuations in vehicle volumes, and certain socio-cultural aspects, specifically determining who is passing through the park and how many of those people are on foot or in cars on Saturdays.
The irony is that the Mayor’s office is essentially asking questions that have already been answered. The city is enlisting transportation authorities city and countywide to gather data that could be gathered from common sense. The proof is in the pudding: car-free access on Sundays. As Thornley noted, not only is there a huge amount of participation among non-car using residents on Sundays, but also institutions like the De Young maintain or increase their average attendance rates.
But even still, as a compromise to opponents of the legislation, the coalition wrote into the proposal a 6-month trial, allowing all critics to observe the effects of the proposal first hand. In fact the proposal IS the 6-month trial. After the trial’s completion, the Department of Parking and Traffic along with the Recreation and Park Department are mandated to weigh in with data on traffic patterns and the socio-cultural impacts of the trial.
Nonetheless, this doesn’t sit well with the cultural institutions who will be most effected if the legislation is passed. Specifically, the de Young Museum and the Conservatory insist access to their institutions will be significantly compromised if parking and passage via JFK drive is eliminated. The Concourse Authority, driven by the interests of the de Young and other local institutions, have reflected these concerns, further citing the 2008 completion of the Academy of Sciences as a factor given too little weight in evaluating the Healthy Saturday legislation.
As Thornley sees it, a “heritage of big money” has “put control of the park into the hands of [the de Young]”. He further commented the mayor would be “dishonest” if he didn’t admit the institutions around the concourse held a substantial amount of political sway. Nonetheless, Thornley predicts once the MTA goes through with their trials, the mayor will be able “take cover” behind numbers he expects to be favorable to the coalition’s cause and extend his support to the legislation.
Unfortunately, for now the Bike Coalition has been forced into a more passive stance due to circumstance. The coalition has had their hands full fighting an injunction against the city’s bike plan. According to Thornley, the ballot effort seemed like too much of a “stretch of energy and resources” given their current projects, but if some meaningful effort is not conveyed on behalf of the mayor’s office by next summer the coalition is “very serious” about going to the ballot.
Member organizations, however, have expressed less patience and optimism regarding the mayor’s involvement. Ted Strawser, one of the founding members of San Francisco’s Party Party, described the entire negotiation process with the mayor as “very, very discouraging”.
Strawser has been fighting to open up public space for recreational park users ever since Proposition J passed nearly seven years ago. The parking garage that came out of that legislation was intended to maintain attendance to the institutions surrounding the Concourse while combating traffic and parking congestion. The de Young contends Healthy Saturdays will reduce the efficacy of that garage, however, and lower museum attendance.
Their concerns are directed towards those who cannot afford the cost of the garage if free parking on JFK is eliminated, as well as seniors and persons with disabilities who benefit most from front-door access via automobile transportation. As Strawser pointed out, however, the parking garage, which is located directly underneath the institutions and has entrances outside the pedestrian restricted areas, will continue to offer disabled parking.
Furthermore, vehicles will still be allowed front door access through MLK Drive on the south side of the park. Visitors have the option of dropping off seniors or individuals with disabilities and parking at anyone of the free parking spaces located outside the car-free zone, which will only comprise a 1 _ mile stretch of JFK drive. Nearly 15 additional miles of roadway throughout the park will continue to allow free parking.
The Concourse Authority, de Young, and Conservatory will be forced to face the harsh realities of construction and changing park dynamics in coming years. But it is a burden they can most certainly bear. Those institutions are cultural staples of San Francisco. People will continue to come from across the bay to see what they have to offer, even if faced with minor inconvenience.
The Healthy Saturdays legislation places emphasis on the qualities of Golden Gate Park that make it a park, rather than the raceway it has become. Strawser insists, the “city has the power to make this work…it is just not Newsom’s priority”. Rather than leading the initiative, he has placed himself in the background. As his re-election year approaches, however, his ambiguous stance will not fly. In the coming year, Newsom will have the opportunity to prove to the coalition and all other skeptics that he can lead even against the will of the almighty dollar.