Garage Opponents Protest Road Widening / Golden Gate Park construction advances

By Savannah Blackwell

Two dozen protesters gathered at the corner of 9th Avenue and Lincoln Boulevard in the Sunset last Saturday, in opposition to a planned four-lane thoroughfare leading to the controversial parking garage being excavated under Golden Gate Park’s Music Concourse.

The protesters handed out leaflets to passers by, and motorists periodically sounded their horns in response to signs reading “Public Process Steamrolled” and “Honk against widening roads in Golden Gate Park.”

Pinky Kushner, a Sunset resident and one of the protestors, said that the garage’s backers — including the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in the Music Concourse, and Wells Fargo heir Warren Hellman, a primary funder of the museum — appear to be on their way to getting the plan implemented by the city.

She hopes the protest inspires the same sort of grassroots politics that scuttled a rebuild of the elevated highway along the Embarcadero after the Loma Prieta earthquake, and that blocked a plan to build an elevated highway around the Golden Gate Park Panhandle in the early 1960s.

A longtime neighborhood activist, Kushner said that the four-lane thoroughfare “runs counter to everything San Francisco has always stood for,” and that public input into the planning process has been minimal or ignored.

“Every time we go to a meeting to complain, they go ahead and do it anyway,” she said. “[The thoroughfare] is the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

“Less traffic”
The plan for the four-lane thoroughfare was approved on November 16 at a meeting of the Golden Gate Concourse Authority — the city agency tasked with overseeing the construction of the garage — with only one member, John Rizzo, dissenting.

At the meeting, the San Francisco Planning Department issued a report stating that the plan for the thoroughfare would not require additional environmental review.

The report was not made available to the public and to the Concourse Authority until after the meeting began, a move that Rizzo described as a “highly unusual practice … We don’t really even know what we’re voting on.”

According to California state procedures, if planners had found that the thoroughfare warranted a separate environmental impact report, the city would have been required to notify nearby residents and businesses.

Representatives from the Inner Sunset Merchants Association said they were only recently contacted about the project.

At the November 16 meeting, a representative of the Merchant Association read a letter by the group’s vice president, Craig Dawson, in opposition to the plan.

“It was stated … that traffic patterns south of the park would not be affected by the garage and an inadequate survey of one southern intersection was performed,” 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.”

But public officials, and the private interests backing the garage and thoroughfare, say there will be no impact from the expansion on traffic patterns in the Inner Sunset or its environment.

“We think this is a good solution,” Carolyn MacMillan, the de Young’s Deputy Director for Marketing and Communications, told “We believe this will cause less traffic.”

The conflict marks the latest battle in a roughly eight-year struggle over the de Young and the California Academy of Science’s plan to increase motorist access to the museums by building an underground parking lot, now estimated to cost roughly $50 million, under the Music Concourse in between the two institutions.

Court ruling
Stiff opposition failed to defeat a 1998 a ballot initiative, Proposition J, which authorized the garage and called for private dollars to fund the construction under city auspices.

The proposition’s stated purpose was to create a “pedestrian oasis” in the park and reduce the impact of cars.

Proponents of the four-lane plan acknowledge that it’s far from ideal, 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,” Mike Ellzey, the Concourse Authority’s executive director, said. “Clearly what we’re doing is in direct response to the court order.”

In response to the activist 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.

Warren’s ruling stated that the city cannot construct an entrance or exit inside the park “without first attempting to design a dedicated access route to that entrance that itself begins at a location outside the park.”

In response, Ellzey and the Music Concourse Community Partnership proposed widening the park entrance at 9th Avenue and Lincoln Boulevard into four lanes, with one lane as the dedicated entrance to the garage,

The MCCP, a private nonprofit organization, was created by Hellman in 2002 to raise funds for the garage and oversee its development.

Activists contend that the four-lane entryway plan will not fly because the part of the intersection where construction is planned is technically in the park — an assertion Ellzey disputes.

“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.”

Letters of protest
Some city officials, including those with the Municipal Transportation Authority, which oversees the MUNI public transportation system, say they cannot support the plan, in large part because it requires buses to share a lane with bicyclists.

The agency also said the plan would result in more dangerous road conditions.

“We look for creating … a calm [traffic] environment,” Joe Speaks, an MTA staffer, said at the meeting. “The MTA cannot support [a plan that] will lead to increased motor vehicle speed.”

District Six Supervisor Chris Daly is opposed — though it is not clear whether the city Board of Supervisors has the power to reject the plan.

District Nine Supervisor Tom Ammiano introduced a resolution on November 23 calling for the Recreation and Park Commission to work with the MTA to develop a design for a new entryway, with related hearings to be held by February 2005.

The Inner Sunset Merchants Association, the local chapter of the Sierra Club, Walk SF, and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition have also gone on record as opposed.

“We’re going to fight [them] to the bitter end,” Josh Hart, program director of the Bicycle Coalition, said.

He noted that his group’s members faxed in some 600 letters of protest to the city’s Recreation and Park Department, which has the authority to reject the plan, but only with a two-thirds vote.

Museum officials say they want the plan to move forward as quickly as possible, claiming that they have been delayed by the activists’ lawsuit.

They are counting on the garage being completed in time for the re-opening of the museum in October 2005.

The plan approved November 16 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.

Activists are hoping to get a more sympathetic hearing with the Board of Supervisors on November 24.

Supervisor Daly 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, such as Ammiano, who opposed the 1998 measure authorizing the garage.

“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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