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The de Young’s Latest Exhibit is a Semi-Stealthy Push to Reopen JFK to Cars

Not quite grassroots: A new website sponsored by SF Fine Arts Museums advocates to restore JFK Drive to its “pre-pandemic configuration.” A prefilled email form on the site argues it would be better for bike and pedestrian safety. (Image:

This article first appeared in the Frisc and is reprinted with permission.

If you didn’t look closely — and even if you did — you might not realize that a new website advocating to return cars to John F. Kennedy Drive, Golden Gate Park’s main roadway, was paid for by the parent organization of the de Young Museum.

Only if you click on the “FAQ” page would you see this note:


That’s not the only relevant information that the new site, at the URL, obfuscates — or omits altogether. The site is the latest twist in a long fight over the post-pandemic future of Golden Gate Park. San Francisco has generally supported limiting cars on neighborhood “slow streets” to give residents safer recreational space and breathing room, but permanent plans to alter the park’s JFK Drive and the Great Highway, by Ocean Beach, have run into resistance.

The de Young brass has been adamant that the JFK Drive closure is bad for its customers and workers, and the new site pushes that view hard — and disingenuously. Take, for example, a claim that moving JFK Drive’s disabled parking spaces to Fulton Street would be dangerous for people with disabilities since Fulton is on the city’s “high injury network.”

Fulton is indeed on the network’s list of streets. But the site fails to note that JFK Drive, before it was closed to cars, was also on the high injury network. (See slide 8 of this presentation.) And the site wants to go back to that, full stop: “It is time to restore JFK Drive to its pre-pandemic configuration” — language that echoes what SF Fine Arts Museums chief Thomas Campbell said at last month’s board of trustees meeting.

(Pre-pandemic, JFK was only closed to cars on Sundays and holidays and some Saturdays.)

The Frisc reached out to FAMSF spokeswoman Helena Nordstrom about the website, which the de Young has also touted to its email subscribers. For most questions, including why the site calls for a reopening and cites bike and pedestrian safety, Nordstrom said she needed to consult with colleagues.

[Update: Nordstrom sent a response via email over the weekend. We have included it in full at the bottom of this story.]

The site’s main point is that the JFK Drive closure is severely limiting access to some of the park’s beloved sites, like the Conservatory of Flowers, the Academy of Sciences, the Japanese Tea Garden, and the de Young. Apparently that’s because people with mobility limitations cannot drive right up to them and park, either in ADA (blue zone) spaces or in regular parking spots.

That is a half-truth. Many places in Golden Gate Park, like the SF Botanical Garden, are not even on JFK, and pandemic or no, you can drive up and park — if you can find parking. Sure, closing JFK reduces total available spots. The stretch now closed to cars, roughly 25 city blocks long, had around 549 parking spaces.

What the site doesn’t say, though, is that the underground garage beneath the de Young and Music Concourse has 800 parking spaces. In fact, the site fails to mention the garage at all, except for an oblique reference to restricted access for “those who cannot afford to pay for parking.” There are also about 4,700 parking spaces in the park that are still fair game, according to the Recreation and Park Department.

Parking available in Golden Gate Park. Even with road closures (in green), about 4,700 spots remain, split about evenly between the western and eastern halves of the park. (SF Recreation and Park Department)

Since the site doesn’t mention the parking garage, there’s no way to know that the underground facility, which is accessible from the north and south sides of the park, provides exquisitely easy access to the de Young (walk right in from the garage), the Academy of Sciences (take an elevator up to the entrance), and the Japanese Tea Garden. Those attractions account for many of the park’s visitors. Nor does the site mention that using the garage for drop-off and pickup is free.

About those fees: Sure, it sucks for those who cannot afford to pay $6.25 per hour on weekends and weekday evenings. There’s movement to change those rates, however.

A nonbinding resolution from Sup. Connie Chan and adopted by the Board of Supervisors in September urges the city to consider free garage parking for some SF residents. (Chan’s proposal also aimed to allow cars back on one part of JFK, but it was watered down.) Other legislation before the board could give SF’s transit agencies the right to reset the garage rates, but there’s a big caveat: Changes cannot impact the garage’s ability to pay off its debt with parking revenue.

The parking racket

What about other places near the garage, like the Conservatory of Flowers and the spiffy new tennis center? (Both are a half-mile walk from the museums.) Even there, the website fudges around. The Conservatory actually has a few parking spots close by, accessible via Arguello Street to the north, and they’re closer than JFK Drive to the Conservatory’s front door.

If you’re playing tennis, you probably don’t have too many mobility issues. But if you do, there are two sizable free parking lots on its south side.

The site skirts reality as well by implying that before the JFK Drive closure, Golden Gate Park’s eastern end, with all its amenities, was a parking nirvana. In reality, on busy days before the pandemic, the chances of driving up and parking within spitting distance of a site were low. Reopening JFK to cars isn’t going to change that.

We’ll concede this: If the contention is JFK’s permanent closure will ward off curbside drop-offs for those who prefer convenience or those with mobility limitations, then fine. That will likely happen.

But this is where creativity, drive, and imagination — traits often highly prized at art museums — can make a difference. If JFK is permanently closed to cars, how about a lane dedicated to a free tram or shuttle that drops people smack in front of their desired spots? Practically every freaking zoo in the world has figured this out, and hopefully Golden Gate Park can too.

Here’s a last bit of propaganda. The site offers an email form to contact SF’s supervisors, and as of earlier this week, prefilled the message field with this:

“I fully support bicyclist and pedestrian safety. That’s why I am asking you to reopen JFK Drive to how it was before COVID. It is [sic] closed all Sundays and half of the Saturdays every year, with ample bike lines [sic] and pedestrian walkways each day of the week. We need to balance equity AND safety!”

If that’s what the de Young’s money is paying for, perhaps the funds and energy would be better spent on a shuttle system, subsidized garage spots for people who could use a break, and an effort to make visitors aware of the ample parking still available to them.

Update 11/15/21: Here is FAMSF’s response to our questions:

As an institution, we advocate for a reopening of the JFK Drive per pre-pandemic compromise because it is the only option currently on the table that grants equitable access to the park, and sustains the operational needs of the de Young museum, so we can continue to serve the people of San Francisco. The closure has negatively impacted many San Franciscans, Bay Area residents, and visitors to the city who want to safely visit the Golden Gate Park and its many attractions, such as the de Young Museum. This includes people living with disabilities, seniors, families with young children, and residents who do not live within walking/biking distance of Golden Gate Park. We have been transparent about our advocacy for those needs. All financial disclosures will be made publicly available with the San Francisco Ethics Commission, in accordance with local disclosure laws.

Alex Lash is editor in chief of The Frisc.

Staff writer Max Harrison-Caldwell contributed to this report.

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