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Car-Free Parks

Cars Invade Golden Gate Park, Inner Sunset as Institutions Reopen

3:30 PM PDT on April 16, 2009

IMG_2684_1.jpgPhoto by Bryan Goebel

The Music Concourse in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park is living proof of that ancient maxim dating back to the movie Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come.

In this case, however, it isn’t the spectators to a baseball diamond in an Iowa cornfield, but people traveling in their cars through the Inner Sunset and along MLK Jr. Drive to an 800-car garage below the concourse with two entrances, one in the south near 9th Avenue, Lincoln Way, and MLK Jr. Drive and one in the north near 10th Avenue and Fulton.  The ultimate destinations of many of the occupants are the California Academy of Sciences and the de Young Museum, which sit on either side of a manicured, European-style bowl that is the concourse.  Both attractions have been rebuilt in recent years and seem to be drawing vastly increased numbers of visitors.

“Today is an example of the potential for what could happen when King Tut comes,” Inner Sunset resident and public parks watchdog Chris Duderstadt said Wednesday.

Make no mistake – he wasn’t referring to hordes of people escaping tax collectors by hiding in the park.  Instead, he was referring to academy patrons who descend on the concourse en masse on the third Wednesday of every month.  That’s when the academy waives the $25 entry fee.  Starting June 27th, the de Young will be showcasing the finery of Egyptian boy king, Tutankhamun, and then, suggests Duderstadt, traffic congestion could start to resemble what it was around Woodstock four decades ago – but every day of the summer, not just the third Wednesdays, and certainly not just for one, long bacchanalian weekend.

_6.jpg9th Avenue. Photo by Chris Duderstadt

On Tuesday evening, members of the Concourse Authority, a seven-member board created when voters passed Proposition J in 1998 and whose mission is to provide leadership in the coordination of construction projects in the Music Concourse area, met to tackle traffic congestion and other issues.  Among those testifying were Don Skeoch, chief revenue officer at the academy.

“’Golden Gate Park is too car friendly’,” testified Skeoch, reporting on feedback from some members of the public who had attended a March 24th town hall-style meeting convened by San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, whose district includes the Inner Sunset.

In fact, the fifth paragraph of Proposition J reads: “The principal purposes of this ordinance are to (1) create a pedestrian oasis in the Music Concourse area of Golden Gate Park, situated between the de Young Museum and the Academy of Sciences (the “Concourse”) and (2) take steps to reduce the impact of automobiles in the Park while still providing long-term assurance of safe, reliable and convenient access for visitors to the Park, including its cultural institutions.”

Indeed, I studied mid-afternoon traffic in and around the Music Concourse this week, and discovered that many motorists ignore signs – which are small and sometimes obscured by tree branches or other street signs – forbidding through traffic from using the concourse to get from one side of the park to the other.

On Tuesday, most of the errant motorists entered the concourse area from the southern entrance of MLK Jr. Drive and exited on JKF Jr. Drive on the north – instead of turning left on Bowl Drive to go to Tea Garden Drive and presumably drop off parents, grandparents, and in-laws at the de Young (which is permitted).

_5.jpgPhoto by Susan Vaughan

On Wednesday, the garage had filled up by early afternoon.  In response, two park rangers stood in the middle of the southern entrance to Music Concourse Drive preventing cars backed up in queues up and down MLK Jr. Drive – and all the way out to 9th Avenue and Lincoln Way – from heading for the southern entrance of the garage.  At the opposite end of the concourse, many motorists entered the pedestrian oasis illegally from JFK Jr. Drive, wound through an obstacle course of elementary school groups and moms with baby carriages, and then headed across the park.

“These traffic jams are not unanticipated,” Authority member John Rizzo said at the meeting. He noted that there was no one present from the San Francisco Department of Parking and Traffic, which had promised to put signs up along Lincoln Way and Fell Street to indicate whether the garage was full.

“We need permanent message boards," agreed John Steele, division manager of City Park, the private company that operates that garage on behalf of the Music Concourse Community Partnership, a private entity that oversees the garage.  “But the de Young and the academy won’t pay $15,000 to rent them every weekend.”  The signs cost about $40,000 to $50,000 each to purchase, according to Margaret O'Sullivan, another authority member.

Possible Solutions

Staff at the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department are applying for a grant to bring back the Golden Gate Shuttle bus that used to operate between the stretch of parking spaces at Ocean Beach between Fulton and Lincoln Way and improved signage to encourage people to park there or elsewhere in the west end of the park.  In addition, they are considering adopting a “Smart Parking” program in which people pay to park in the east end of the park.  Authority members also discussed the possibility of establishing a shuttle between the Parnassus garage serving the University of California at San Francisco.

And the much-maligned Muni Culture Bus that operates between cultural institutions in the city?  Usage is down, staff acknowledge, perhaps because of the economy and the correlated drop in tourism.  It costs $7 for an all day pass – but riders get a $3 discount at the academy and a $2 discount at the de Young, making the ride only $2, said Denny Kern of Rec  and Park.

Still, some authority members objected to the culture bus, especially when Muni service is being cut in other parts of the city.

Cut the culture bus instead of service on other Muni lines first, recommended Rizzo.

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