An aggressive and misleading campaign against Saturday road closures in Golden Gate Park by the Corporation of the Fine Arts Museums — spearheaded by its board president, Dede Wilsey — appears to be backfiring as the proposal heads for almost certain approval by the Board of Supervisors.
Yet the Healthy Saturdays proposal by Sup. Jake McGoldrick — which would close from May 25 to Nov. 25 the same portion of JFK Drive now closed on Sundays, a six-month trial period to study its impacts — still needs the signature of Mayor Gavin Newsom, who has not yet taken a position.
And there are rumblings that even if the measure is approved — either with Newsom’s signature or an override of his veto — Wilsey and her supporters intend to attempt a referendum that would effectively kill the project if they can gather 20,000-plus valid signatures within 30 days. City law requires the targets of referendums to be placed on hold until the vote, which would occur this November.
The proposal got its first hearing April 14, when the Land Use Committee unanimously recommended it be approved by the full board (which will consider the matter April 25). The long and emotional hearing showed sharp divisions between the environmentalists and recreational park users who support closure and the de Young Museum benefactors and park neighbors who oppose it.
It also unmasked the deceptive tactics being employed by Wilsey and museum director John D. Buchanan, who coauthored an April 7 letter to de Young Museum members and April 4 memos to museum trustees and staff urging opposition to Healthy Saturdays and implying the museum’s survival was at stake.
"Closure of JFK Drive on Saturday has twice been voted down by the electorate and has been shown to be unpopular in polls for the last decade. While Sunday closure is a reality, road closures severely compromise access to the museum, particularly for seniors, families, persons with disabilities, and anyone who cannot afford the cost of the parking garage," they wrote. This information was parroted by many who argued against the closure.
Yet the letters were grossly misleading — and at least 16 museum members wrote angry letters to the museum protesting the Wilsey-Buchanan position. The Guardian obtained the letters through a Sunshine Ordinance request. One writer called the museum campaign "self-serving and deceptive," while another wrote: "I take issue with undertaking a letter campaign using my donations."
Contrary to what the April 7 letter implies, people with disabilities are allowed to drive on the closed roads, and McGoldrick has now incorporated into the measure all recommendations of the Mayor’s Office of Disability. The letter also never indicates that the closure is temporary, that free parking is available a short walk from the museum, or that the public voted on the proposal just once, albeit on two competing measures that were each narrowly defeated, in November 2000.
At that time, with polls showing public support for the Saturday closure proposed in Measure F, museum patrons tried to scuttle the closure by qualifying a competing Measure G, which would have delayed the Saturday closure until after completion of the parking garage. In the ballot pamphlet, Wilsey, the California Academy of Sciences, and other opponents of Measure F wrote arguments for the ballot handbook promising to support Saturday closure once the garage was completed, as it was last summer.
"The Academy supports the closure of JFK Drive on Saturdays once the efforts of Saturday closure have been studied, alternative transportation measures are in place, and the voter-approved, privately funded parking facility is built under the Music Concourse," one statement read.
At the hearing, McGoldrick asked Wilsey why she is reneging on her promise. Wilsey said that she wrote her statement in 1998 while her husband and dog were still alive, before she had raised $202 million for the museum renovation, and back when "we were not in a war against terrorism. Almost nothing that was true in 1998 is true today."
Wilsey did not respond to our request to clarify her response or explain other aspects of what appears to be a calculated campaign of misinformation. For example, she and other museum spokespeople have been saying publicly that museum attendance on Saturdays is far higher than on Sundays because of the road closure.
When we spoke with museum spokesperson Barbara Traisman, she said the de Young receives 15 to 20 percent more visitors on Saturdays than on Sundays. Yet she refused our request to provide the attendance data to support her statement — just as museum officials have ignored requests by McGoldrick for that data for the last three weeks — telling us: "That’s too onerous to ask someone to do that."
So on April 13, the Guardian made an immediate disclosure request for those records under the Sunshine Ordinance. The next day, just as the hearing was getting under way, Wilsey turned those records over to McGoldrick.
The documents showed that on 10 of the 23 weekends that the de Young has been open, attendance on Sundays was actually higher than on Saturdays. By the end of the hearing, even committee chair Sup. Sophie Maxwell — who had voiced concerns about Saturday closure and was not considered a supporter — voted for Healthy Saturdays, joining the board’s progressive majority of six that has already signed on as cosponsors. SFBG