San Francisco’s Cyclists Rejoice on a Road Less Traveled. Museums mourn.

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SAN FRANCISCO — John F. Kennedy Drive curves gently over Golden Gate Park below, from the top of the Hamon Observation Tower at the de Young Museum, with panoramic views of San Francisco. These days, it’s a car-free road reserved for pedestrians and cyclists since the onset of the pandemic, which forced the museum to close for nearly a year.

But as de Young slowly came back to life, this six-lane road became a flashpoint, pitting two historically influential constituencies – cultural institutions and park enthusiasts – in a divisive debate about public space, art and priorities. The story of a city that rethinks its future after the pandemic.

For those who go to the park, blocking the road to cars showed what can and should happen: A wide boulevard that cuts through the city’s premier park turns into a safe, quiet haven for people to enjoy on foot, Skating, skate boards and bicycles.

The closed road for the museum became another hurdle as it tried to lure people back to an institution a little further from the road. there is a road closure cut off vehicle approach from the north side of the parkmade it harder for trucks to make deliveries and eliminated free parking spaces, some of which were reserved for the disabled.

“This is the last thing we need as we try to reopen and get museums working again,” said Thomas P. Campbell, director of the San Francisco Museums of Fine Arts, which oversees De Young.

Known for her collection of American, African and Oceanic art and American art, de Young is pushing to reverse the 1.5-mile vehicle ban, in addition to her extensive costume and textile work. operated by the museum. Their objections were echoed by the California Academy of Sciences, a natural history museum across the street. Museums want to revert to the pre-pandemic policy of closing roads only on Sundays and some Saturdays.

But park enthusiasts said the explosion of cyclists, joggers, joggers and scooters during the pandemic is testament to the need to permanently ban cars from the road. Jodie Medeiros, executive director of Walk San Francisco, a pedestrian advocacy group, described it as a “silver lining to a truly challenging pandemic” that far outweighed the discomfort the museum had suffered.

“We’ve seen the benefits of this through the pandemic and we want to keep it that way,” Medeiros said. “It’s a little slice of where people can lower their guard, be more comfortable.”

The controversy is shaping up to be a test for the arts community at a time when it grapples with declining revenues, competition for charitable dollars, and the challenge of bringing visitors back after a year of cutbacks.

San Francisco can rival few cities in the dedication of its government and philanthropic donors to the arts. This commitment is reflected in the fine network of museums, as well as the San Francisco Opera and the San Francisco Symphony, which have long played important roles in community life here.

But museums and their supporters may be unrivaled in this fight – facing a coalition of well-organized, passionate advocates, an old guard using old-school techniques may have filled supervisory board meetings and stunned museum administrators with barrages of bombings. attacks on social media.

Megan Bourne, chief of staff of the museums, said they are facing a coalition that has been organizing for 20 years. “He has a big voice in the city,” he said. “It has a huge impact on how roads are used.”

But park users and advocates aren’t the only ones applauding the closure of roads to vehicles in the 1,017-acre park. City recreation officials said they were pleased with the sharp increase in bicycle traffic since the closure began. The city counted 664,437 bikes on the roads between October 2020 and April 2021; that’s more than five times the bike traffic measured in the same months two years ago. While addressing some of the museums’ concerns, they said they intend to find a solution that builds on these gains.

Before the Covid shutdown, three-quarters of cars passing through the park used the driver as a shortcut to avoid traffic lights and the congestion of surrounding city blocks, officials said.

“It may be less convenient for some visitors who choose to park for free all day just steps from the museum,” said Phil Ginsburg, general manager of the San Francisco Department of Recreation and Parks. “We get it. But this convenience has to be balanced with this incredible increase in healthy park uses at JFK.”

San Francisco Fine Arts Museums, the organization that operates the De Young and Legion of Honor museums, Earned $68.5 million in revenue in 2019, the year before the pandemic. That fell to $56.4 million last year. While donors and the city contributed more money in 2020, museums saw a sharp drop in earned revenue as entry revenues fell to $2.3 million from $9 million the previous year.

At times the controversy flared up.

“The museums you have are filled with the wealthiest and most connected people in San Francisco, and they want to tell us who can play in the park,” said Matthew Brezina, a cyclist and leader of the street-blocking movement.

“They are on public land,” he said. They have been finding their way on this street for decades,” he said.

Campbell, director of the San Francisco Museums of Fine Arts, said advocates of the road closure see the pandemic as “an excellent opportunity to get around this.”

The road offered 280 free parking spaces within half a mile of the museum entrance and 17 disabled parking spaces within a quarter mile of the entrance. There is an 800-car garage nearby, but it costs $5.25 an hour, and more on weekends.

Campbell took a visitor to the top of the tower and pointed to the road, which was pretty empty this weekday morning – no cars of course, but not many pedestrians either, as the day fills up. “We all share the vision of zero accidents and fewer cars, but in the context of the Covid crisis, the sudden closure without full analysis is really affecting access to parks and museums,” he said.

Ike Kwon, chief operating officer of the California Academy of Sciences, said his bosses had complained about congestion on alternate routes to that museum. “It really has an impact on people with mobility difficulties and also on people with young children who come from far away,” he said.

Shamann Walton, chairman of the supervisory board, said: an op-ed At the San Francisco Examiner, banning cars is “re-drawing for fun”; Cutting off the park to disabled and minorities who do not live near the Golden Gate.

Still, many people believe that priorities are becoming clearer in the post-Covid world, even in this difficult time for the arts and in a city known for its vibrant arts scene. David G Miles Jr.One skater, who has been pushing to ban vehicular traffic from the park for 40 years, said he doubts the cars will ever return, no matter how much museums object.

“People want the park to be closed to vehicular traffic,” he said. “There is a stronger energy than ever before. You can fight all you want, but I think they’re going to lose it. The people want it.”

Campbell, previously manager he served asNew York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art said it wasn’t prepared for how fierce the struggle would be until it was forced to resign under pressure from its trustees and staff.

“This is a very political city,” he said. “There are very strong lobby groups like the cycling coalition. As city institutions, we do not think that our point of view is taken into account.”

The supervisory board, which will make the final decision on the road later this year, has requested further study on the issue, in the face of intense emotions on both sides, especially from the residents of Golden Gate, who have been fighting this war for decades. .

“They are less experienced in advocacy and this type of civic engagement than the cycling coalition and other activist groups pushing for a car-free JFK Drive,” said board member Gordon Mar. Park. “The leadership of institutions like De Young and the Academy of Sciences does not engage as much in local policy-making and political efforts as the public on the other side.”

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