San Francisco cyclists encourage a road less traveled. Museums mourn him.
SAN FRANCISCO – From the top of the Hamon Observation Tower at the de Young Museum, with its panoramic views of San Francisco, John F. Kennedy Drive cuts a gentle curve through Golden Gate Park below. It is, nowadays, a road without cars, reserved for pedestrians and cyclists since the start of the pandemic, which forced the museum to close for nearly a year.
But as the de Young slowly comes back to life, this six-lane road has become a flashpoint, pitting two historically influential constituencies – cultural institutions and park-goers – against each other in a debate. controversial over public space, the arts and priorities. of a city that is rethinking its future after the pandemic.
For park enthusiasts, the road closure to cars showed what can and should be: a wide boulevard that runs through the city’s first park, transformed into a safe and quiet refuge for people to enjoy on foot. , on rollerblades, skateboard and bicycle.
For the museum, the closed road has become an additional obstacle as it tries to bring people back to an institution that is a little off the beaten track. The road closure cut off vehicle access to the north side of the park, made truck deliveries more difficult, and removed free parking spaces, some reserved for people with disabilities.
“This is the last thing we need as we try to reopen and get museums back to working order,” said Thomas P. Campbell, director of the San Francisco Art Museums, who oversees the de Young.
The de Young, who is known for his collection of American, African and Oceanic art and art from the Americas, in addition to his extensive collections of costume and textile work, lobbied to overturn the ban on vehicles on the 1.5 mile stretch which run by the museum. His objections were echoed by the California Academy of Sciences, a natural history museum across the street. Museums want to revert to the pre-pandemic policy of closing the road only on Sundays and certain Saturdays.
But park enthusiasts have said the explosion of bikers, joggers, runners and scooters during the pandemic is proof of the need to ban cars from the road for good. Jodie Medeiros, executive director of Walk San Francisco, a pedestrian advocacy group, called it a “silver lining for a truly difficult pandemic” that far outweighed the inconvenience suffered by the museum.
“We have seen the benefits of this through the pandemic and we want it to stay that way,” Medeiros said. “It’s a little bit where people can let their guard down, be more relaxed.”
The debate presents itself as a test for the arts community as it grapples with declining revenues, competition for philanthropic dollars and the challenge of bringing visitors back after a year of closure.
Few cities can match San Francisco for the dedication of its government and philanthropic donors to the arts. This devotion is reflected in its network of fine museums, as well as the San Francisco Opera House and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, all of which have long played a leading role in the life of society here.
But museums and their supporters can be outmatched in this fight – an old guard using old-school techniques as they take on a coalition of passionate and well-organized lawyers who have filled the supervisory board meetings and stunned them. museum leaders with barrages of attacks on social networks.
Megan Bourne, chief of staff for museums, said they faced a coalition that had been organizing for 20 years. “He has a great voice in the city,” she said. “It has a big influence on the way the roads are used. “
But it wasn’t just users and park advocates who applauded the closure of the 1,017-acre park’s roads to vehicles. City recreation officials have said they are delighted with the sharp increase in bicycle traffic since the closure began. The city counted 664,437 bikes on the road between October 2020 and April 2021, more than five times the bicycle traffic measured in those same months two years earlier. They said they intended to find a solution that would build on these gains, while taking into account some of the concerns of museums.
Before the Covid shutdown, officials said, three-quarters of the cars passing through the park were using the ride as a shortcut to avoid traffic lights and congestion on surrounding city blocks.
“This may become less convenient for some visitors who prefer to park a few steps from the museum for free all day,” said Phil Ginsburg, general manager of the San Francisco Department of Recreation and Parks. “We get it. But that convenience needs to be balanced against this incredible increase in healthy park uses on JFK.”
The San Francisco Art Museums, the organization that manages the de Young and Legion of Honor museums, collected $ 68.5 million in revenue in 2019, the year before the pandemic. This dropped to $ 56.4 million last year. As donors and the city contributed more money in 2020, museums saw a sharp drop in earned revenue, with admission revenue falling to $ 2.3 million from $ 9 million the year before. .
Sometimes the debate got heated.
“What you have are museums filled with the richest and most connected people in San Francisco and they want to tell us who can play in the park,” said Matthew Brezina, cyclist and leader of the shutdown movement. streets.
“They are on public land,” he said. “They’ve been enjoying this street for decades. “
Campbell, the director of the San Francisco Art Museums, said supporters of the road closure had seized the pandemic as “the perfect opportunity to get this through.”
The road had offered 280 free parking spaces within a half-mile of the museum entrance, and 17 for disabled people within a quarter-mile of the entrance. There’s an adjacent 800-car garage, but it costs $ 5.25 an hour, and more on weekends.
Campbell led a visitor to the top of the tower and showed him the driveway which was, on that weekday morning, fairly empty – no cars, of course, but not many pedestrians either, although it would fill up as the day progressed. “We all share the vision of zero accidents and fewer cars, but the abrupt closure, under the guise of the Covid crisis, without a full analysis, really impacts access to the park and access to museums,” he said. -he declares.
Ike Kwon, chief operating officer of the California Academy of Sciences, said his customers have complained about congestion on alternate routes to this museum. “It really has an impact on people with reduced mobility, as well as people with young children who come from far away,” he said.
Shamann Walton, the chairman of the supervisory board, argued in a San Francisco Examiner editorial that the car ban was a “recreational red line”; cut off the park for people with disabilities and minorities who do not live near the Golden Gate.
Yet many believe that even during this difficult time for the arts – and in a city known for its vibrant art scene – the priorities in a post-Covid world have become clear. David G. Miles Jr., a roller skater who has been pushing to ban vehicle traffic in the park for 40 years, said he doubted the cars would ever return, no matter how badly the museums went. oppose it.
“People want the park to be closed to automobile traffic,” he said. “There is an energy that is stronger than it has ever been. You can fight it as much as you want, but I think they’re going to lose this. People want that.
Campbell, who was previously director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City until he was forced to resign amid pressure from administrators and staff, said he was unprepared for the gravity of this fight.
“It’s a very political city,” he said. “There are very powerful pressure groups like the bike coalition. We do not feel that our point of view is taken into account as city institutions.
The supervisory board, which will make the final decision on the road later this year, has called for further study of the matter in the face of strong emotions on both sides, but in particular from the residents of the Golden Gate who have been fighting this battle for decades. . .
“They are less experienced in advocacy and this type of civic engagement than the cycling coalition and other activist groups pushing for a car-free JFK Drive,” said Gordon Mar, a member of the District Oversight Council. adjoins the park. “The leaders of institutions like de Young and the Academy of Sciences are not as engaged in local policy making and political efforts as the people on the other side. “