There are bigger issues facing San Francisco than whether to close off part of Golden Gate Park to cars on Saturdays. But as political dilemmas go, Mayor Gavin Newsom’s impending choice of whether to sign or veto the Healthy Saturdays initiative presents him with a difficult call on a matter of great symbolic importance.
Newsom hasn’t taken a position yet, and City Hall sources say he’s actively trying to find a compromise position — something that will most likely involve strict and quantifiable monitoring standards during the six-month study period, or perhaps a request that the closure be moved to the west side of the park, which supporters of the measure have resisted.
If possible, Newsom would like to avoid vetoing a measure beloved by environmentalists, bicyclists, and recreational park users. Newsom’s only other four vetoes have also shot down legislation prized by progressives: three rejected measures aimed at helping renters and preserving apartments, and one killed an ordinance limiting how much parking can be built along with downtown housing units.
But the clock is running on a JFK Drive closure slated to begin May 25, and Newsom is unlikely to please everyone, given the polarization and strong visceral reactions to the issue. The debate has so far played out as a class conflict, albeit one that has both sides flinging the epithet of "elitism" at each other.
The opposition campaign waged by representatives of the park’s cultural institutions (including many prominent and wealthy political donors) and some park neighbors say closure supporters are trying to shut others out from the park, hurt the museums, and deny the will of voters. Supporters say this about making a portion of the city’s premier park safe and inviting on weekends, rather than allowing it to be used as a busy thoroughfare and parking lot.
The rhetoric on both sides has often been heated, but supporters have for the most part stuck to the facts, while the opposition campaign has been marred by misrepresentations (see "Dede Wilsey’s Whoppers," 4/19/06).
Some of the inaccurate statements — most notably that voters have repeatedly rejected closure — have taken on the air of truth as they were repeated by mayoral staffers, Sups. Fiona Ma and Bevan Dufty, and in two overheated columns by the San Francisco Examiner‘s Ken Garcia that were riddled with inaccuracies and unsupported statements. (Garcia did not answer an e-mail from the Guardian seeking comment on his distortions.)
During the Board of Supervisors’ April 25 hearing on the matter, the main question was whether a measure that already had six cosponsors would garner the eight votes that would be needed to override a mayoral veto.
"On two different occasions, voters rejected Saturday closure," was how Supervisor Ma explained her opposition, reading from a prepared statement. Supervisor Dufty, who voted no, also said he was swayed by the election argument: "This has come before the voters, and that’s what I’d like to see happen [again]."
Actually, the question was put before voters just once, in November 2000. Just over 45 percent of voters wanted immediate Saturday closure (Measure F), while about 37 percent of voters approved of a rival measure sponsored by museum patrons (Measure G) that would have postponed closure until after the garage was completed.
Several supervisors assailed the election argument that Garcia had circulated so vociferously, including one Healthy Saturdays opponent, Sup. Sean Elsbernd, who said neither the voter argument nor the argument that the de Young Museum would be hurt were valid.
Instead, Elsbernd said he was swayed by the concerns of park neighbors that the existing Sunday closure creates traffic problems in their neighborhoods. So he proposes that the Saturday closure happen on the west side of the park, rather than the east.
"Why can’t we spread out these impacts?" Elsbernd said. "It’s a simple compromise that will alleviate a lot of concerns."
Supporters of the closure have resisted that proposal, arguing that the eastern portion has most of the commercial vendors, the flattest and best-quality roads for kids just learning to ride bikes, the warmest weather, and is best served by the new 800-spot parking garage, which hasn’t ever been full since it opened earlier this year.
And at this point, starting over with an alternative proposal would greatly delay the closure and ensure that the trial period doesn’t generate a full summer’s worth of data.
"The time is right. We have the garage open, and it’s accessible," said Sup. Jake McGoldrick, who sponsored Healthy Saturdays after opposing it two years ago on the grounds that the garage wasn’t yet open. He and other supporters later told us that they’re open to considering any monitoring standards that Newsom may propose.
In the end, the measure was approved on a 7–4 vote, with Sup. Michela Alioto-Pier (who didn’t speak about her reasons) joining Ma, Dufty, and Elsbernd in opposition.
"The table is set for the possibility that the mayor will veto this legislation," Sup. Gerardo Sandoval said at the hearing.
Afterward, Newsom spokesperson Peter Ragone said the mayor would make a decision on whether to veto in the next week or so. In the meantime, Ragone told reporters: "The mayor is going to continue to work with both sides on the issue to maintain a dialogue with the hope that we can reach a place where the right thing can be done." SFBG