A Freeway in the Park?

Dozens protest road-widening plans in Golden Gate Park


By Savannah Blackwell
SFProgressive.com Editor

Two dozen protesters gathered at the corner of 9th Avenue and Lincoln Boulevard on the sunny afternoon of Saturday Nov. 20 to sound the alarm about the city’s plan to turn the northern side of the intersection at Golden Gate Park into a four-lane thoroughfare leading to the 800-space underground parking garage currently being constructed under the Music Concourse.


As motorists passing by frequently honked in response to a sign urging: “Honk against widening roads in Golden Gate Park!,” the protesters handed out leaflets to passers by and waved signs such as one saying “Public Process Steamrolled.”


Pinky Kushner, an Inner Sunset resident and one of the protest participants, expressed dismay that wealthy private interests behind the garage appear to be on their way to getting the plan through official city circuits.


“This is the best demonstration of their greed and lack of allegiance to park related issues,” Kushner, who has been active in efforts to keep private interests from expanding in the park for decades, said. “This is not just about a few advocates (expressing opposition). This runs counter to everything San Francisco has always stood for. We tore down a major freeway, and we began by not allowing the panhandle to become a freeway. We’ve blocked freeways from downtown to the ocean, but now they’re talking about building a freeway into the park.”


“This is 1960s thinking, and it’s we’re now in the year 2004.”


For their part, city officials shepherding the new plan through and the representatives of the private interests behind the garage say there will be no impact from the expansion on traffic patterns in the Inner Sunset or its environment. Planning department staffers recently released a report saying the project did not require further environmental review. Had planners found that it warranted a separate environmental impact report, the city would have been required to notify nearby residents and businesses (according to state standards).



“We think this is a good solution,” Carolyn MacMillan, the de Young’s Deputy Director for Marketing and Communications, told newsdesk.org. “We believe this will cause less traffic. We think it will serve the city best to have an entrance and an exit on both sides (of the garage).”


The conflict marks the latest battle in a roughly 8-year struggle over the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum and the Academy of Natural Science’s plan to get around the problem of motorists’ lack of access to the museums during the Saturday closures of JFK Drive by building an underground parking lot, now estimated to cost roughly $50 million, in between the two institutions. The 1998 measure authorizing the garage called for private dollars to fund the construction under city auspices. Its primary purpose was to create a “pedestrian oasis” in the park and reduce the impact of cars.


Meanwhile, proponents of the 4-lane plan acknowledge that it’s a far from ideal solution, but they blame the situation on activists who filed suit over the previous plan.


“If we had not been sued, I believe the project and the city would be in a better position and the design would be in a better position,” MikeEllzey, the Executive Director of the city’s Golden Gate Park Concourse Authority, told newsdesk.org. “Clearly what we’re doing is in direct response to the court order.”


In response to an activists’ lawsuit, Superior Court Judge James Warren ruled last August that the city’s plan for funneling auto traffic to and from the underground parking garage did not comply with the text of the 1998 measure. Activists cited a number of ways in which the project violated that proposition, but Warren discounted those arguments.

Warren decided that the city cannot construct an entrance or exit inside the park (as the previous plan called for on the concourse’s southern side) “without first attempting to design a dedicated access route to that entrance that itself begins at a location outside the Park.”  

So officials with the city’s Golden Gate Concourse Authority (the agency with the most direct jurisdiction over the garage’s construction) and the private Music Concourse Community Partnership, the outfit associated with wealthy financier and Wells Fargo heir Warren Hellman that is funding the garage’s construction and has largely driven the project, came up with the idea of widening the northern side of the 9th Avenue and Lincoln Boulevard into four lanes and declaring it the official dedicated entryway.


Activists content that the plan will not fly with the judge because that intersection comprises an opening into the park and is, therefore, technically in the park. (Ellzey told us the intersection is considered outside of the park.)


“That’s the big banana,” Chris Duderstadt, an activist with the Alliance for Golden Gate Park. “I don’t think the judge is going to buy it.”


Some city officials, including those with the Municipal Transportation Authority, which oversees the MUNI public transportation system, say they cannot support the plan. Supervisor Chris Daly, for one, is opposed – though it is not clear whether the board can reject it.


At this point, the Inner Sunset Merchants, the local chapter of the Sierra Club, Walk SF, and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition (SFBC) have all gone on record as opposed. (“We’re going to fight [them] to the bitter end,” Josh Hart, of the SFBC, has vowed. He told us SFBC members faxed in some 600 letters of protest to the city’s Recreation and Park Department, which will consider the plan but may only reject it by a two-thirds vote.)

Even so, on Nov. 16 (several days before the protest), with member John Rizzo voting against, the concourse authority voted to select one of the designs that authority director Mike Ellzey says will make the city comply with the judge’s order.


Museum officials want the plan moved forward quickly, as delays have occurred already due to the activists’ lawsuit, museum officials say. They are counting on the garage being completed in time for the re-opening of the museum in October, 2005. Ellzey points out that Warren’s decision said the city should come up with a new plan “with exceptional dispatch.”

In a nutshell, the plan the authority selected calls for turning a quarter mile section of Martin Luther King Boulevard, beginning at the intersection of 9th Avenue and Lincoln and continuing to the mouth of the garage, into a four-lane thoroughfare, with one lane to be shared by MUNI and bicyclists.

"We look for creating…a calm (traffic) environment," Joe Speaks, an MTA staffer, said at the meeting. "The MTA cannot support any of these alternatives. (They) will lead to increased motor vehicle speed."

Representatives from the Inner Sunset Merchants Association said they were only recently contacted about the project. Pat Christiansen, a representative of the organization, read a letter penned by the group’s vice president of community relations expressing opposition.

"I personally addressed the EIR for the garage and at that time requested further traffic studies South of the Park. It was stated at the time of the EIR that traffic patterns South of the Park would not be affected by the garage and an inadequate survey of one southern intersection was performed," Craig Dawson wrote. "To think that that the Inner Sunset will not suffer irreparable damage should ANY of the plans for a Southern entrance be approved is FALSE."

At the meeting, it was clear the desire of activists and neighbors to slow the project down to allow more time for input was at odds with the desire of a majority of concourse authority members to move forward.

“We’ve been ordered by the court to do this,” authority chair Nancy Conner said.

On Nov. 16, the planning department issued a report stating that the new plan would not require another environmental review process. That report was not made available to the public and to concourse authority members until after the meeting began. To select an option for a dedicated entranceway, the authority had to first sign off on the planning department’s new report.

Rizzo tried to get his colleagues to take more time to consider the matter. 

"We circulate these things and give the public an opportunity to comment," Rizzo said. "This is a highly unusual practice….We don’t really even know what we’re voting on."

"I believe this is being rushed." 

Activists are hoping they might get a more sympathetic hearing with the Board of Supervisors. The matter is to be heard by the Finance Committee on Nov. 24. Daly, for one, has said he might be willing to hold up the authority’s budget over the issue, but he said activists need to contact other supervisors as well. Supervisor Tom Ammiano, who opposed the 1998 measure, has expressed concern as well.


“I’m against the garage in the park. I’ve asked rec and park to hold up on this,” Daly said. “But I’m going to need back up.”


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