October 4, 2023

SAN FRANCISCO – 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’s a car-free street these days, reserved for pedestrians and cyclists since the beginning of the pandemic that had the museum shut down for almost a year.

But as the de Young slowly comes back to life, this six-lane street has become a focal point where two historically influential voters – cultural institutions and park enthusiasts – compete in a divisive debate about public space, art, and the priorities of a city rethinking their future after the pandemic.

For park visitors, closing the street to cars has shown what can and should be: a wide boulevard that cuts through the best park in town is transformed into a safe, quiet retreat for people on foot, rollerblades, skateboards and bicycles.

For the museum, the closed road has become another obstacle as it tries to pull people back to an institution off the beaten path. The road closure cut off vehicle access from the north side of the park, made truck delivery difficult and removed free parking spaces, including some for people with disabilities.

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

Known for its collection of American, African, and Oceanic art, as well as American art, as well as extensive holdings of costume and textile work, the de Young has urged the ban on vehicles on the 1.5 mile (1.5 mile) route by the museum. His objections were taken up by the California Academy of Sciences, a natural history museum across the street. The museums want to return to the pre-pandemic policy of only closing the road on Sundays and some Saturdays.

However, parking enthusiasts said the explosion of bikers, joggers, runners and scooters during the pandemic was evidence of the need to permanently ban cars from the streets. Jodie Medeiros, the executive director of Walk San Francisco, a pedestrian advocacy group, called it a “silver lining of a really harsh pandemic,” which far outweighs any inconvenience the museum is facing.

“We have seen the benefits of this from the pandemic and we want it to stay that way,” Medeiros said. “This is a little bit where people can drop their vigilance and be more relaxed.”

The debate is becoming a test for the art scene at a time when it struggles with declining revenues, competing for philanthropic dollars, and the challenge of bringing visitors back after a year of closure.

Few cities can match San Francisco when it comes to the commitment of its government and philanthropic donors to the arts. This dedication is reflected in his network of beautiful museums as well as the San Francisco Opera and the San Francisco Symphony, all of which have long played prominent roles in social life here.

But museums and their supporters could be outdone in this struggle – an old guard using old-school techniques as they face a coalition of well-organized, passionate advocates who jam the board meetings and the museum directors with a barrage of attacks on social media.

Megan Bourne, the museums chief of staff, said they were facing a coalition that had been organizing for 20 years. “It has a big voice in the city,” she said. “It has a huge impact on how the roads are used.”

But not only park users and supporters applauded the closure of the roads in the 1,017 hectare park for vehicles. The city recreation authorities were pleased with the sharp increase in bicycle traffic since the closure began. The city had 664,437 bicycles on the streets between October 2020 and April 2021, more than five times the number of bicycle traffic measured in the same months two years earlier. They said they are keen to find a solution that will build on these gains while addressing some of the museums’ concerns.

Before Covid closed, three-quarters of the cars that drove through the park used the drive as a shortcut to bypass traffic lights and the congestion of the surrounding city blocks.

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

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the organization that runs the de Young and Legion of Honor museums, had revenues of $ 68.5 million in 2019, the year before the pandemic. Last year it was $ 56.4 million. While donors and the city contributed more money in 2020, museums saw a sharp drop in revenue as admission revenue fell from $ 9 million a year ago to $ 2.3 million.

The debate has become heated at times.

“What you have are museums filled with the richest, most connected people in San Francisco and wanting to tell us who can play in the park,” said Matthew Brezina, a cyclist and a leader in the roadblock movement.

“You are on public property,” he said. “You have prevailed with this street for decades.”

Campbell, the director of the San Francisco Fine Arts Museum, said proponents of the roadblock used the pandemic as “the perfect opportunity to get this through.”

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

Campbell led a visitor to the top of the tower and pointed to the driveway, which was pretty empty that weekday morning – no cars, of course, but not many pedestrians either, though it would fill up as the day wore on. “We all share the vision of zero accidents and fewer cars, but the abrupt closure under the guise of the Covid crisis without full analysis is really having an impact on park access and museum access,” he said.

Ike Kwon, chief operating officer of the California Academy of Sciences, said his patrons had complained about traffic jams on alternative routes to this museum. “It really has an impact on people with limited mobility and also on people with younger children who come from far away,” he said.

Shamann Walton, president of the board of directors, argued in a comment in the San Francisco Examiner that the ban on cars was “recreational redlining”; Closure of the park to people with disabilities and minorities who do not live near the Golden Gate.

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

“People want the park to be closed to car traffic,” he said. “There is an energy that is stronger than ever. You can fight anything you want, but I think you will lose that. That’s what people want. “

Campbell, who was previously director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York until he was forced to resign due to pressure from trustees and staff, said he was unprepared for how tense this battle would get.

“This is a very political city,” he said. “There are some very powerful lobby groups like the bicycle coalition. We feel that we are not taken into account as urban institutions. “

The board of directors, which will make the final decision on the streets later this year, has asked for more investigation into the issue, given the high levels of emotion on both sides, but especially from Golden Gate residents who have been fighting this battle for decades.

“They are less experienced in advocacy and this kind of civic engagement than the bicycle coalition and other activist groups advocating a car-free JFK Drive,” said Gordon Mar, a board member whose district to the park. “The leadership of institutions like de Young and the Academy of Sciences are not as involved in local politics and political endeavors as the people on the other side.”