Opponents of Healthy Saturdays Wage Dishonest Campaign

by Paul Hogarth on April 10, 2007

Battles at City Hall defy logic – we have small fights over big issues, and big fights over small issues. Last year, the Mayor and the Board of Supervisors came together to pass universal heath care with unanimous support. For a bold proposal that will impact the lives of thousands of San Franciscans, it was heartening to see it just sail through.

Now we are headed for an epic showdown over what should be a “no-brainer” – a six-month pilot project to ban cars from 1.7 miles of road in Golden Gate Park on Saturdays, in order to create more recreational space. Opponents of Healthy Saturdays are waging a dishonest campaign – as they grandstand the plight of the disabled, the working-class, and the “will of the voters” – just to keep cars roaring through the park. And some even want Supervisor Jake McGoldrick’s head on a plate because he dares to support it.

Yesterday, over 100 speakers attended a 3-hour public hearing at the Board’s Land Use Committee to debate the proposal, as McGoldrick hopes to broker a reasonable compromise among the parties today. Last year, the Board passed Healthy Saturdays by 7-4 but failed to override the Mayor’s veto. Now that the City has studied the effects of a Saturday closure, McGoldrick has re-introduced the legislation.

From the sound of opponents at the hearing, you would have thought that the Supervisors were planning to cut off all vehicle traffic from Golden Gate Park. Representatives from the DeYoung Museum and the Academy of Sciences were in full force, trumpeting the cultural riches that their institutions bring – along with dire warnings of decreased attendance if visitors could not bring their cars.

But it’s important to keep things in perspective. There are 17 miles of road in Golden Gate Park, and we’re only talking about a stretch of 1.7 miles – specifically, the section of JFK Drive from the Panhandle to Crossover Drive (or roughly the northeast quadrant of the park.) Vehicle access to the DeYoung Museum will not be affected, and the museum’s parking garage is only at 60% capacity during peak hours.

The section has already been closed to cars on Sundays for the past 40 years, and is one of the most enjoyable parts of being a San Franciscan. Again, we’re talking about a six-month trial period to expand what has been a wildly popular practice on Sundays – to Saturdays. Alarmists at the hearing warned that a trial period would become permanent, but if it’s going to be the disaster that they claim it will be – then we’ll know it in six months.

But what about the “will of the people”? Repeatedly, opponents at the hearing said that the voters “twice rejected” proposals to expand the car closure to Saturdays. While it’s technically true that two ballot propositions were defeated in the November 2000 election regarding Healthy Saturdays, this argument is extremely misleading.

In 2000, activists gathered nearly 10,000 signatures to place Proposition F on the ballot – which would have expanded car closure of JFK Drive to Saturdays. In response to this effort, six Supervisors (including Michael Yaki, who later lost re-election to Jake McGoldrick) put a competing measure on the ballot. Proposition G would have called for the same thing as Prop F, but only after the DeYoung Museum’s garage was built.

With two rival measures on the same ballot that both called for removing cars from JFK Drive on Saturdays, voters got confused and defeated both. If you go back and read the ballot arguments, it’s clear that everyone supported the concept of Healthy Saturdays – the only question was whether it should be done before or after the garage was built.

There was no organized campaign to defeat both measures simultaneously, so the fact that both lost does not mean that the people spoke against Healthy Saturdays. Meanwhile, we saw the exact situation happen on the same ballot over a separate issue – development of dot-com lofts in the Mission. In that case, activists put a measure on the ballot – so Willie Brown sponsored a rival proposition which promised to do the same thing. Like Healthy Saturdays, both measures failed because voters were confused.

Seven years later, the parking garage at the DeYoung Museum has been built and it’s not even operating at full capacity. But the same people who in 2000 argued that we should wait until the garage was built before closing off JFK Drive are now opposing a six-month trial for Healthy Saturdays. Back then, the Chamber of Commerce, the DeYoung Museum, the Academy of Sciences and Ron Miguel of the Richmond Planning Association all paid for ballot arguments in favor of Prop G. Yesterday, they spoke out against it.

But the hypocrisy doesn’t stop there. Some opponents at yesterday’s hearing tried to portray advocates of Healthy Saturdays as elitists who are discriminating against the working class. Yes, there’s a new parking garage at the DeYoung, they said, but it costs $3-an-hour to park there and working families can’t afford that. Better they get free parking on JFK Drive.

First, does it really make sense for people on a fixed income to drive to the park when gas prices are so high? Second, as activist Andy Blue mentioned at the hearing, the DeYoung Museum should compromise by offering parking discounts to low-income patrons who use the garage. It is reprehensible to frame parking as a “social justice” issue – and to pit economic interests against environmental protection.

Finally, there’s the issue of the disabled. Various speakers said yesterday that Healthy Saturdays would discriminate against people with disabilities because they have a greater need to use cars to reach Golden Gate Park. First, there were many other disabled people who were at the hearing in favor of Healthy Saturdays. Second, Healthy Saturdays would not deprive access – as mentioned before, we’re only talking about 1.7 miles of road out of 17 miles in the whole park. Again, opponents are grandstanding the issue.

It’s incredible that an issue so benign as Healthy Saturdays would arouse that much political tension. Already, various activists in the Richmond are planning to recall Jake McGoldrick because he supports the legislation. Mayor Newsom vetoed the legislation last year, and now says that his prior position stands – despite a study that showed how much of a success Healthy Saturdays will be.

As Ted Strawser said at yesterday’s hearing, “what would be great is if we could de-politicize this issue.” Somehow, the Mayor and the Board of Supervisors managed to de-politicize universal health care. We should hope that they would learn not to play politics over other issues that – in the grand scheme of things – are not nearly that important.

Send feedback to paul@beyondchron.org

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