Public Kept in the Dark over Golden Gate Park Garage

by Lorraine Sanders on November 18, 2004

The sun may shine freely in Golden Gate Park, but many say the Golden Gate Concourse Authority has gone out of its way to keep city residents in the dark about plans for a garage near the Music Concourse. The GGCPA’s Tuesday decision to widen Martin Luther King Blvd. to four lanes and slice sidewalks raised the ire of several opposition groups. Groups including the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, the Alliance for Golden Gate Park and Trees Not Cars say the public has had little opportunity to review or comment on the plans for the project, which was approved by voters in 1998. Opponents also worry that some funds for the project will come from public money, which the voter-approved ballot measure promised to keep out of the park project.

The battle over the Golden Gate Park garage is hardly new. Katherine Roberts has been fighting plans for a garage for years. Despite their efforts, opponents including Roberts say that city residents may have heard little about the plans to expand traffic flow in the park. While all decisions for the park project should be open to public comment, Tuesday’s quiet decision to adopt one planning option before either the public or city officials had adequate time to review the details is just one example in what opponents describe as a systematic effort to minimize public access to and involvement in a discussion that affects one of the city’s most valued assets.

“It’s a text book case of how not to run an agency or a public process,” said Bicycle Coalition Program Director Josh Hart.

For those unfamiliar with the conflict, here’s a little background information. In Dec. 2003, Roberts filed a lawsuit against the city for failing to provide an Environmental Impact Report for three proposed projects slated for Golden Gate Park’s Music Concourse. A month later, Roberts went up against city efforts to push the project forward when she discovered what she says is a major violation of Prop J’s original provisions.

According to Roberts, Prop J explicitly promises voters that no public funds will be used for the project and no garage entrances will sit inside park boundaries. To raise the $50 million necessary for the project, the GGPCA partnered with the Music Community Concourse Partnership, a non-profit organization backed by Warren Hellman, who also happens to foot the bill for the park’s annual Strictly Bluegrass festival. With Hellman’s help, the GGPCA raised $35 million.

As for the remaining $15 million in funding, the partnership planned to raise money by issuing tax-exempt bonds that would be repaid using future fees from the parking garage. Opponents say funds raised from parking fees are public funds and, therefore, cannot legally be used to pay for the project. Despite these legal battles and a temporary restraining order against the continuation of the project, garage construction went into full swing in March 2004.

You may have seen the construction and wondered what was happening besides a lot of bizarre signage and unsightly piles of dirt. Ironically, not even the people doing the construction can tell the public exactly what the plans entail. The reason? They simply don’t know. In fact, no one does. Next Wednesday, the Board of Supervisors will discuss the garage plans at their 1 p.m. meeting, which is one of the public’s last chances to weigh in on the matter.

A key part of the issue is a Superior Court judge’s finding earlier this year that requires garage plans to include dedicated exterior entrances to the garage from outside the park. The reasoning makes sense. After all, the garage was intended to reduce traffic in the park by constructing dedicated lanes for parkers, not to encourage more traffic by placing the garage entrance well within park boundaries.

The arguments over the garage plans might not be so contentious if opponents felt their views were being taken seriously.

“They already have their minds made up.. They’ve never changed their mind from public comment,” Roberts said about the GGCPA.

Many share Roberts’ frustration. According to Hart, Tuesday’s special GGCPA meeting exemplified the problem.

“It’s a short circuiting of the public process,” he said, but added he wasn’t surprised.

Instead of publicly presenting several options for garage construction, Hart says, the GGPCA quickly and quietly decided to adopt a plan to widen MLK. Continuing with this plan would expedite the construction process and avoid additional project research and evaluation. Several Golden Gate Park residents, including the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum administration, have complained that lengthy construction will hinder their operations, though no direct connection between museum complaints and the garage plan had been confirmed at press time. But opponents suspect the GGPCA of pandering to its backers instead of public wishes.

“They have basically been a rubber stamp for whatever the MCA wants,” Hart said.

Rubber stamping to please lucrative organizations is one thing, but that pales in comparison to the lies Chris Duderstadt, who sits on the board of San Francisco Tomorrow, says he’s witnessed coming from GGCPA Director Michael Ellzey.

At the GGCPA meeting held Tuesday, Duderstadt said he heard Ellzey misinform the public twice. According to Duderstadt, one of Supervisor Tom Ammiano’s aides directly asked Ellzey just an hour and a half prior to the hearing to postpone proceedings until the public had a chance to review the material. At the hearing, which Duderstadt attended, Ellzey claimed to have no knowledge of the request for postponement.

Also during Tuesday’s hearing, Duderstadt said Ellzey presented only one option for the garage when there were actually three options that should have been considered. When confronted, Duderstadt said Ellzey replied that he had been directed to only address the first option after a special hearing that took place on Oct. 9, 2004. But there was no special hearing on record for that date. [The GGCPA did not respond to a Beyond Chron request for comment before press time.]

“They have from the very beginning wanted to widen MLK to four lanes, but Prop J is emphatic about a dedicated lane,” Duderstadt said of the GGCPA’s current plan.

If the Board of Supervisors accepts the GGCPA’s approved plan at its meeting next week, then the Golden Gate Park could end up with a heavily trafficked thoroughfare paid for with public money. Expanding the already sizable roadway could also preempt plans for bicycle lanes, cut sidewalks nearly in half and co-opt valuable parkland.

At the moment, Duderstadt said, Supervisors Ammiano and Chris Daly are the only board members who have publicly opposed the plan. Supervisor Aaron Peskin is also likely to oppose it. It was unclear how remaining supervisors stood on the issue.

“All of the people keep forgetting we’re talking about Golden Gate Park. It’s our park,” Duderstadt said incredulously.

You can reach the author at lorraine@lorrainesanders.com. Both this reporter and Beyond Chron welcome comments or Letters to the Editor regarding the Golden Gate Park garage project.

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