I'll see your Embarcadero and raise you Market Street

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Scene from last month's ciclovia in Portland, Photo by Steven T. Jones

Sunday Streets, a proposal to bring to San Francisco’s Embarcadero the carfree ciclovias that have caught on in major cities around the world, became mired in the dysfunctional relations between Mayor Gavin Newsom and the Board of Supervisors after Fisherman’s Wharf merchants freaked out.

But even before the full board yesterday considered the resolution by Sups. Aaron Peskin, Michela Alioto-Pier, and Sean Elsbernd demanding the Aug. 31 and Sept. 14 events be postponed until a detailed economic impact analysis can be done, the Mayor’s Office had already announced the events would proceed as scheduled, critics be damned.

“The mayor’s position on Sunday Streets will not change. We will go ahead as scheduled,” Mike Farrah, head of the Office of Neighborhood Services and a longtime Newsom loyalist, told the Guardian on Monday.

In the face of that stand, and with Farrah and other event proponents promising to work with business community critics to massage the plan, Peskin opted to delayed consideration of his resolution until the Aug. 5 meeting. Yet Sup. Chris Daly (who supports Sunday Streets even though he calls it a Newsom publicity stunt) also decided to up the ante yesterday by introducing legislation to permanently ban cars from Market Street.

Farrah told me, “We are in no way afraid of an economic impact study,” believing that it will show the event to be a financial boon for the city and merchants, but he saw no reason to delay the events until the study can be completed. In fact, he said the first event should be part of that study.

When asked about the conflict yesterday, Newsom told reporters he's sympathetic to the concerns of business owners, but he still supports the Sunday Streets, which will close to cars for four hours per event almost six miles of roadway stretching from the Bayview Opera House to Portsmouth Square in Chinatown, opening the streets to bicyclists, skaters, pedestrians, dance troupes and a broad range of planned recreational activities.

Newsom told the story of his days running a restaurant he owned near Union Street and how he actively opposed shutting down Union Street for a parade, also concerned about lost business if motorists were inconvenienced, only to have one of his busiest days of the year.

"Change is difficult. It's always difficult,” Newsom said. “But I'm a business guy... a complaint against me is that I'm too pro-business."

Yet to listen to the business community representatives from Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf, who packed a hearing on the Sunday Streets resolution before the board’s Government Audit and Oversight Committee, Newsom’s proposal will hurt both business owners and employees.

“We just don’t want to have a beta test of a new program on one of the busiest days of the year,” said Karen Bell, executive director of the Fisherman’s Wharf Community Benefits District. “People want to drive down the Embarcadero. They don’t want to take side streets.”

Wharf restaurateur Steve Lebowski told the committee that his business drops off by 75 percent during the annual bike race in the area, hurting him and his employees. He decried what he said was a lack of outreach by the Mayor’s Office: “It’s been foisted on us and we’re being told what’s going to happen on a busy holiday.”

As for the lack of outreach, Farrah said the event was announced months ago, promoted in the media, and the subject of an extensive and expensive public outreach campaign. “It was no surprise,” he said. “Everyone knew this was happening.”

Susan King, a Green Party member brought in by the Mayor’s Office to help with outreach of the event, said at the hearing that the Bayview Merchants Association and many other affected business and civic groups were supportive of the proposal. “The only opposition we’ve really experienced is at Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39,” she said.

Frank Rescino, a third generation fisherman who works out of the wharf, said people will be discouraged from visiting them if they have to use detours and that will exacerbate already lean economic times. “Whenever you cut off the Embarcadero, you cut off the lifeblood of Fisherman’s Wharf,” he said. “We could really use that study before you put the last nail in our coffin.”

Even several labor leaders supported Peskin’s effort, a demonstration of his political acumen and perhaps a way for unions to curry favor with the management representatives they must negotiate with and poke Newsom in the eye. Tim Paulson, director of the San Francisco Labor Council, said the Sunday Streets dates should be postponed, “so that what people think will be high impacts in Fisherman’s Wharf won’t happen.”

But Sunday Streets advocates say critics are discounting the positive impact of the event and overplaying their fears.

“We’re not closing streets, we’re closing them to cars,” said Andy Thornley, program director for the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, noting that the events are expected to draw up to 10,000 people “who have money in their pockets.”

He noted that ciclovias have aroused business community doomsayers in every city where its been done – from Bogota, Colombia to Mexico City to Berlin and, most recently, Portland, Oregon – but it’s proven popular and enduring in each case.

“Every other city that’s tried this has found it has tremendous economic benefits, as well as tremendous health benefits and social benefits,” Thornley said.

“I really want to encourage the city to say yes to this and give it a chance,” said Cheryl Brinkman, president of Livable City, which is helping sponsor the events.

Progressive supervisors and activists noted what an odd turnout this conflict was, particularly after Newsom vetoed a far less ambitious street closure in Golden Gate Park, the so-called Healthy Saturdays proposal. But considering that idea came from the Board of Supervisors, and Sunday Streets was more or less Newsom’s idea (albeit one that was long on the wish list of the same carfree advocates who battled the mayor on Healthy Saturdays), maybe it’s not so strange after all.

No word yet whether Newsom will support the Market Street closure -- which former Mayor Willie Brown even pushed -- but seeing as it's coming from Daly, expect opposition from the Mayor's Office.