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After months of hot debate, supes approve permanent car-free JFK Drive proposal

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors have decided to keep the eastern portion of John F. Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park permanently car-free. The decision was not unanimous or without contention.

Supervisors late Tuesday evening voted 7-4 in favor of closing the park to private vehicles between Kezar and Crossover drives — a proposal backed by staff of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, Recreation and Parks Department and Mayor London Breed. The 12-hour meeting was mostly dedicated to public comments delivered in-person and by phone.

Earlier Tuesday morning, people gathered ahead of the board meeting to rally in support of the permanent JFK Drive closure. 

The board also approved amendments to the mayor’s proposal introduced by supervisors Catherine Stefani and Gordon Mar, which will require city departments to report to the board quarterly on the status of the Golden Gate Park Access and Safety Program.

The 1.5-mile stretch of JFK Drive was closed to private vehicles at the pandemic onset, and has since grown in popularity for bicyclists, families and pedestrians who recreate in Golden Gate Park. But the road closure, and its potential permanency, has also been at the center of months-long debate that played out in rallies, postcards and social media ads. 

The mayor’s proposal leaves the portion of JFK Drive near Eighth Avenue closed to private vehicles, but doing so also eliminates several ADA parking spots near two visitor attractions.

The de Young Museum and Academy of Sciences have lobbied against Breed’s closure plan, citing access issues for people with disabilities to attractions inside the Music Concourse. Megan Bourne, chief of staff at the de Young, said at the meeting that attendance has been down by 48 percent since reopening to full capacity in June 2021. 

Supervisor Chan and President Shamann Walton offered the board a modified proposal that would allow private vehicle access in the westbound direction. Chan and Walton were joined by supervisors Aaron Peskin and Ahsha Safai as the four dissenting votes to Breed’s plan.

Part of the mayor’s proposal includes working with the Music Concourse Community Partnership, which operates the underground garage at the concourse, to allow flexible pricing. Parking rates would be lowered during low-demand hours, and another initiative in the works would permit three hours of free parking for visitors who receive government food assistance.

Jerold Chinn/SFBay The intersection of John F. Kennedy and Kezar drives in San Francisco, Calif., on Thursday, October 16, 2016. (Jerold Chinn/SFBay)

The garage will offer parking spot reservations for people with accessibility needs and will extend the free pick-up and drop-off time from 15 to 30 minutes.

The Recreation and Parks Department is currently constructing 20 new ADA parking spots behind the bandshell, just across from the Japanese Tea Garden. There have also been recent improvements to the Golden Gate Park free shuttle.

Sitting as the San Francisco County Transportation Authority Board in a joint session, supervisors approved an equity study Walton requested. The study focused on and surveyed residents in District 1, 3 and 10, which are furthest from Golden Gate Park. A total of 310 people responded through phone and email surveys.

Results showed a slight decrease of visitors from each district to the eastern portion of the park after JFK Drive was closed. More than 50 percent of respondents in each district said they would like to visit the eastern portion more often, but cited barriers like limited parking and expensive garage rates.

Walton said at the meeting that closing a portion of the park roadway leaves behind residents who live in southeast part of The City, and only benefits residents already nearest the park.

He said:

“This space is not reflective of San Francisco’s diversity that was even evident in the testimony in this chamber today. It is only enjoyed by a certain class of people. People in close proximity to the park. People of one or two demographics.”

Chan took issue with a survey conducted by Rec and Parks that indicated 70 percent of people are in favor of closing the roadway. The supervisor claims the survey was not conducted in a way that effectively reached out to people of color, seniors and people with disabilities, resulting in a lack of diversity.

Chan asked: 

“​​Who are we prioritizing and who are we willing to leave behind?”

Ching Wong/SFBay Bicyclist Mike Kramer, of San Francisco, wearing a cap, takes part in a rally in support of a car-free Market Street project at City Hall in San Francisco, Calif., on Tuesday, October 15, 2019. (Ching Wong/SFBay.ca)

Still, Supervisor Dean Preston, who voted to keep JFK Drive closed, said The City lags behind in efforts to create car-free spaces, adding:

“We are in a climate crisis. We are in a street safety crisis. I think we need to be acting boldly to address the threats of climate change and our unsafe streets and I think car-free JFK is one important step in this direction.”

Chan’s proposal still needs to go through the environmental review process and has been sent to the board’s Land Use and Transportation Committee. Supervisors still have the option to consider the alternate proposition if they find the mayor’s proposal does not work out as planned.

Ching Wong/SFBay Jodie Medeiros, executive director of Walk SF, speaks during a rally in support of car-free JFK at City Hall in San Francisco, Calif., on Tuesday, April 26, 2022. (Ching Wong/SFBay)

In statement made after the vote, Jodie Medeiros, executive director of Walk San Francisco, wrote:

“We live in a city where an average of three pedestrians are hit every day. We need safe space, it’s that simple. Now we have 1.5-miles of it in our biggest park.”

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