San Francisco's cyclists cheer a road less traveled. Museums mourn it.
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San Francisco's cyclists cheer a road less traveled. Museums mourn it.
File photo of the De Young Museum, San Francisco. Photo: Mark Miller.

by Adam Nagourney

SAN FRANCISCO (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- From the top of the Hamon Observation Tower at the de Young Museum, with its sweeping views of San Francisco, John F. Kennedy Drive cuts a gentle curve through Golden Gate Park below. It is, these days, a road without cars, set aside for pedestrians and bicyclists since the beginning of the pandemic, which forced the museum to shut down for nearly a year.

But as the de Young comes slowly back to life, this six-lane road has become a flashpoint, pitting two historically influential constituencies — cultural institutions and park enthusiasts — against each other in a divisive debate about public space, the arts and the priorities of a city rethinking its future after the pandemic.

For parkgoers, closing the road to cars has shown what can be and should be: A broad boulevard that cuts through the city’s premier park, transformed into a safe, quiet refuge for people to enjoy on foot, Rollerblades, skateboards and bicycles.

For the museum, the closed road has become another obstacle as it tries to draw people back to an institution slightly off the beaten path. The road closing has cut off the vehicular approach from the north side of the park, made it more difficult for trucks to make deliveries and eliminated free parking spots, including some set aside for people with disabilities.

“It’s the last thing we need as we try to reopen and get the museums back up and functioning, ” said Thomas P. Campbell, director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, which oversees the de Young.

The de Young, which is known for its collection of American, African and Oceanic art and art of the Americas, in addition to extensive holdings of costumes and textile work, has been pressing to reverse the ban on vehicles on the 1.5-mile stretch that runs by the museum. Its objections have been echoed by the California Academy of Sciences, a natural-history museum across the street. The museums want to return to the pre-pandemic policy of closing the road only on Sundays and some Saturdays.

But park enthusiasts said that the explosion of bikers, joggers, runners and scooters during the pandemic was evidence of the need to permanently ban cars from the road. Jodie Medeiros, executive director of Walk San Francisco, a pedestrian advocacy group, called it a “silver lining to a real tough pandemic” that far outweighed any inconvenience suffered by the museum.

“We saw the benefits of this through the pandemic and we want to keep it that way,” said Medeiros. “This is a small slice where people can let down their guard, be more relaxed.”

The debate is shaping up as a test for the arts community at a time it is grappling with declining revenues, competition for philanthropic dollars and the challenge of bringing visitors back after a year of shutdowns.

Few cities can match San Francisco for the dedication its government and philanthropic donors have to the arts. That devotion is reflected in its network of fine museums, as well as the San Francisco Opera and San Francisco Symphony, all of which have long played prominent roles in society life.

But the museums and their supporters may be outmatched in this fight — an old guard using old-school techniques as it confronts a coalition of well-organized, passionate advocates who have packed meetings of the board of supervisors and have stunned museum executives with barrages of attacks on social media.

Megan Bourne, chief of staff for the museums, said they were confronting a coalition that had been organizing for 20 years. “It has a large voice in the city,” she said. “It has a great deal of influence on how the roads are used.”

But it is not only park users and advocates who have applauded closing the roads in the 1,017-acre park to vehicles. City recreation officials said they were delighted by a sharp increase in bicycle traffic since the shutdown began. The city counted 664,437 bikes on the road between October 2020 and April 2021, more than five times the bike traffic measured during those same months two years earlier. The officials said they were intent on finding a solution that would build on those gains, while accommodating some of the museums’ concerns.

Before the COVID shutdown, officials said, three-quarters of the cars that passed through the park used the drive as a shortcut to avoid the traffic lights and congestion of the surrounding city blocks.

“It may become less convenient for some visitors that would prefer to park just a few steps from the museum for free all day,” said Phil Ginsburg, general manager of the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department. “We get it. But that convenience should be balanced with this incredible increase in healthy park uses on JFK.”

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the organization that runs the de Young and Legion of Honor museums, took in $68.5 million in revenues in 2019, the year before the pandemic. That dropped to $56.4 million last year. While donors and the city contributed more money in 2020, the museums saw a sharp decline in earned income, as admissions revenues dropped to $2.3 million from $9 million the prior year.

At times the debate has grown heated.

“What you have are museums that are 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, a cyclist and a leader of the movement to close the streets.

“They are on public land,” he said. “They have been having their way with this street for decades.”

Campbell, the director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, said advocates of closing the road had seized on the pandemic as “the perfect opportunity to push this through.”

The road had offered 280 free parking spaces within a half-mile of the museum’s entrance, and 17 for disabled people within a quarter mile of the entrance. There is an 800-car garage nearby, but it costs $5.25 an hour, and more on weekends.

Campbell took a visitor to the top of the tower and pointed down at the drive which was, on this weekday morning, fairly empty — no cars, of course, but not many pedestrians either, although it would fill up later in the day. “We all share the vision of zero accidents and fewer cars, but the abrupt closure, under cover of the COVID crisis, without full analysis, is really impacting access to the park and access to the museums,” he said.

Ike Kwon, chief operating officer of the California Academy of Sciences, said his patrons had complained of congestion on alternate routes to that museum. “It really does have an impact on those with mobility challenges, and also people with younger children who come from far away,” he said.

Shamann Walton, president of the board of supervisors, argued in an op-ed in the San Francisco Examiner that banning cars was “recreational redlining”; cutting off the park to people with disabilities and minorities who do not live near Golden Gate.

Yet many people believe that even during this difficult time for the arts — and in a city known for its vibrant arts scene — the priorities in a post-COVID world have become clear. David G. Miles Jr., a roller-skater who has been pushing to prohibit vehicle traffic from the park for 40 years, said he doubted cars would ever return, no matter how much the museums object.

“People want the park closed to car traffic,” he said. “There’s an energy that is stronger than it’s ever been. You can fight it all you want, but I think they are going to lose this. The people want this.”

Campbell, who previously served as director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York until he was forced to resign in the face of pressure from trustees and staff, said he had been unprepared for how fraught this fight would become.

“This is a very political city,” he said. “There are some very powerful lobbying groups like the bike coalition. We don’t feel that our point of view is being taken into account as city institutions.”

The board of supervisors, which will make the final decision on the road later this year, has asked for more study of the issue in the face of high emotions on both sides, but particularly from Golden Gate denizens who have been fighting this battle for decades.

“They are less experienced at advocacy and this type of civic engagement than the bicycle coalition and the other groups of activists who are pushing for a car-free JFK Drive,” said Gordon Mar, a member of the board of supervisors whose district abuts the park. “The leadership of institutions like the de Young and the Academy of Sciences don’t engage in local policymaking and political efforts as much as the folk on the other side.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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