Road rage
Scrambling for new ways to fight the four-lane drive in Golden Gate Park

By Rachel Brahinsky

Jeremy Nelson puts it in pretty simple terms. The fight over whether to widen the roadways of Golden Gate Park, he says, is about creating a new kind of legacy.

"Walk around the city and you'll see all these roads created by a 1950s and '60s planning mentality," Nelson, policy director for the nonprofit Transportation for a Livable City, told the Bay Guardian. Back then planners prioritized cars over pedestrians. Back then the idea of building major highways to crisscross the entire city was a popular idea that almost succeeded.

But these are different times, and activists like Nelson argue that as a transit-first city, and as a community that values open space, San Francisco should no longer be signing off on projects that will worsen traffic – especially in the city's largest park.

Somehow that message hasn't resonated with officials on several panels authorized to approve development in the park. One by one they've agreed to a plan to turn a chunk of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, at the southern entrance of the park, into a four-lane route.

The point is to ease the flow of cars into the controversial 800-space underground garage that's being built beneath the Music Concourse. But the impact of the road widening is likely to be more far-reaching. It's hard to say precisely what the effect will be because the city hasn't done an environmental-impact report on the proposal. Still, city officials have pushed the plan through, and even without a report, it's pretty fair to say that a wider road will likely attract more vehicles to the park, at higher speeds. Muni will have to share a lane with bike riders, which won't make bus passengers particularly happy and will be treacherous for cyclists. And traffic on the roads outside the park entrance, particularly around Ninth Avenue and Irving Street in the Inner Sunset, is likely to be snarled – which in turn will further impede the flow of public transit.

And then, as Nelson puts it, there's the precedent the plan will set. At stake, he says, is more than simply the fate of a stretch of MLK Jr. Drive. "Precedence is a powerful thing. Once we do this, it's game over for having dedicated lanes for bikes, pedestrians, or public transit," he said. "Once we've used it for this purpose, we paint ourselves into a corner, and we'll have this for decades to come."

Though the Recreation and Park Commission approved the road-widening plan Nov. 29, activists and their allies on the Board of Supervisors are still looking for ways to amend it. It's the latest in a long series of struggles over the garage and its impact on the park, dating back to the passage of Proposition J in 1998, a measure that gave a small, secretive nonprofit, the Music Concourse Community Partnership, the authority to oversee the rebuilding of the concourse. Park activists have fought the group since then over whether and how to build a garage – and how to finance it. Now that the garage is approved, the MCCP wants to widen MLK Jr. Drive to create a second entrance to the garage, which is designed to serve visitors to the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum and the California Academy of Sciences.

The proposal has spurred fresh activism against the plan from Inner Sunset neighbors and merchants concerned about traffic.

Supervisor-elect Ross Mirkarimi has gotten involved in the organizing and is working with activists to research the tangle of laws that govern whether the supervisors have the power to change the plan. One key could be a board resolution passed more than a year ago that gives the supervisors the right to approve the traffic-circulation design for the concourse. That could mean that even if the supervisors can't stop the MLK Jr. Drive widening, they could make it hard for cars to actually get from the road into the garage – which could be the leverage needed to force the MCCP to change course.

At the same time, community group Trees Not Cars is hoping to move forward with its appeal of the Superior Court's decision on several aspects of the concourse construction, and is challenging the MCCP for forging ahead without a clear plan for the entire concourse.

There's also the possibility that the Recreation and Park Commission's decision could be overturned through an appeal to the Board of Supervisors. There's even talk of taking it back to the voters. "If we can't get some solace from them," activist and engineer Chris Duderstadt told us, "we'll go back to the ballot."

For more information, or to contribute to the Trees Not Cars lawsuit, go to www.scorcher.org/tnc or www.sfpix.com.

E-mail Rachel Brahinsky