July 1, 2022

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Golden Gate Park’s JFK Drive will stay permanently car-free after S.F. supes vote following marathon meeting

San Francisco will permanently keep cars off the east end of John F. Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park after months of intense public debate.

In a 7-4 vote Tuesday evening, the Board of Supervisors backed legislation from Mayor London Breed that bans cars in perpetuity on 1.5 miles of the road that have become a highly popular destination for walkers, runners and bicyclists since being closed to vehicles two years ago.

Supervisors Connie Chan and Shamann Walton, who sponsored an alternate proposal, voted against Breed’s ordinance, as did Supervisors Ahsha Safaí and Aaron Peskin.

The vote came at the end of a 12-hour meeting, most of which was consumed by a deluge of public comment in person at City Hall and on the phone.

Folks exercise on JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park on Tuesday. The Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to keep 1.5 miles of JFK Drive permanently closed to cars.

Yalonda M. James/The Chronicle

The board’s decision resolves one of its most highly anticipated issues in recent months and finalizes the transformation of a thoroughfare that leads to some of the most prominent attractions in the crown jewel of the city’s park system.

Supervisor Matt Haney, who will leave the board to join the state Assembly next week, said the pandemic forced San Francisco to try something on JFK Drive that “many residents knew had such powerful potential for so long.”

“This is many decades in the making, and … it should give us a lot of hope for our city and what’s possible,” Haney said.

The board approved amendments from Supervisors Catherine Stefani and Gordon Mar that will require city officials to provide two years of quarterly reports, starting in July, about their progress improving Golden Gate Park parking options and access for disabled people, among other initiatives.

Chan spearheaded an alternative that would have allowed one-way vehicle traffic on JFK Drive between 8th Avenue and Transverse Drive and would have also let cars on both sides of Conservatory Drive behind the Conservatory of Flowers.

Chan’s proposal could not have been passed Tuesday because its provisions would require city staff to make a determination about what level of environmental review, if any, is required by state law.

Supervisors unanimously agreed to send her proposal back to committee, allowing it to receive the environmental determination. In theory, the move may allow some supervisors to attempt to reconsider Chan’s proposal later if they are not satisfied with the city’s continued attempts to make the park more accessible.

A young demonstrator carries a sign while standing alongside hundreds of others during a rally Tuesday outside of San Francisco City Hall. The Board of Supervisors voted to keep the east side of Golden Gate Park's John F. Kennedy Drive permanently free of cars

A young demonstrator carries a sign while standing alongside hundreds of others during a rally Tuesday outside of San Francisco City Hall. The Board of Supervisors voted to keep the east side of Golden Gate Park’s John F. Kennedy Drive permanently free of cars

Jessica Christian/The Chronicle

“I am hoping that, as we go down this road, that we do so in a way that is inclusive and prioritizes access to all parts of Golden Gate Park,” Stefani said before declaring her support for the mayor’s ordinance.

In considering the two pieces of legislation, supervisors weighed different visions for the future of the park — and its role in civic life.

Breed’s ordinance preserves JFK Drive’s pandemic-era status as a frequently used car-free promenade and haven for those seeking to enjoy the park on foot or bike. Chan’s proposal, meanwhile, would bring cars back to part of the road in an attempt to ensure that disabled people, seniors and residents of neighborhoods with limited transit options can still easily access the park and its attractions.

The road’s fate has been the subject of intense organizing in recent months, with rallies, letter writing and direct lobbying of supervisors trying to sway the outcome. About 70% of 10,000 respondents to a city survey said they wanted the road to stay closed to cars.

But some critics remain concerned about access, including the de Young Museum, which maintains that the current road closure dampens attendance. Museum representatives said de Young attendance since June has been 48% lower than the same period before the pandemic. At the Legion of Honor, the decline has been 18%, the museums’ leaders say, attributing the difference at least partly to the closure of JFK Drive.

Breed’s proposal was co-sponsored by Haney and Mar, along with Supervisors Rafael Mandelman and Dean Preston. They were joined in voting to pass the legislation by Stefani and Supervisors Myrna Melgar and Hillary Ronen.