In October, Curbed SF reported that the director of the de Young Museum, Max Hollein, wanted to scuttle a proposal to close JFK Drive to car traffic on Saturdays, citing a letter from Hollein to the Recreation and Parks department obtained by the San Francisco Examiner.
JFK Drive has already closed to most traffic on Sundays for over 50 years. Since 2007 it has shut down on Saturdays for half the year. Street closure boosters allege that shutting off vehicular access protects cyclists and pedestrians.
However, Miriam Newcomer, de Young’s director of public relations, says that weekend closures are bad for the museum and the park. She alleges that the recent press coverage misrepresents the de Young’s position and Hollein’s intent. And with that, we asked Newcomer to tells us what the noted art institution wants and why.
What’s the museums position on the proposed closures?
Miriam Newcomer: The museum’s position is that extending road closures to year round is a stopgap measure to a larger problem. We believe that the traffic flow design [in the park] no longer supports the population and amount of traffic. Closing JFK Drive is not really solving that issue.
We need better regulation for everyone; cars, bikes, pedestrians. We object to continuing to put a band-aid on this and acting like it has a long lasting effect.
Sunday closures have been popular for 50 years. Why not make a popular thing twice as frequent?
I think that’s valid, but it’s not a holistic conversation. By closing JFK on Saturday you close something to the effect of 300 parking spaces, a good number of them handicapped spaces. So where are you adding new disability spaces to make up for that?
The museums are landlocked by the park. If you cut them off from traffic then a lot of people just cannot physically reach them. It’s not just about being pro-car or anti-car in the park, that’s just one piece of the puzzle.
What would a more holistic conversation be about then?
The pathways as they’re built in the park don’t work, and they need to be looked at. There’s too much commuter traffic, and a lot of people using the park as a segue from one place to another.
If you close JFK on weekends, okay, then where is the corresponding conversation about increasing Muni access to the park? The city is saying, everyone come out to the park, but they’re taking away the tools to do that.
And there are other issues, like not enough light, not enough rangers. When we close during Daylight Saving Time, it’s pitch black outside. Who wants to have to walk through the park at night? That’s scary for some people.
And our loading dock dumps out on JFK; we use that to bring in priceless pieces of art. When you close JFK, you’re not allowing us to function as an institution. Right now it isn’t working and we need to talk about it.
Of all the museum patrons most weekends, how many rely on their personal cars?
I’m not sure offhand. But when Saturday closures started 10 years ago our Saturday patronage went down 14.7 percent.
Has that number gone up since then?
It’s hard to say, because our attendance will fluctuate up and down depending on exhibitions and things like that.
What period did that 14.7 percent decline happen over?
I’m not sure right now, I’d have to check.
Because you’re right, numbers are going to go up and down depending on a lot of variables. If there was a 14.7 percent drop a month later, that’s pretty damning. Yet if it was over the course of a year, could be a combination of other things?
But by closing these streets on weekends, it’s no secret, any museum will tell you you always seen more attendance on a weekend. That’s when people have the most time to visit.
We’re not like the big museums in New York’s Central Park, those have dedicated street access. To get to us you have to go through the park. They’re essentially taking away both of our biggest days.
And I can tell you that when they started doing Saturday closures ten years ago there was meant to be a lot of studies about its effect at the city level. That didn’t happen. Look at that 2007 law and you’ll see a lot of caveats about studying traffic flow, but we haven’t seen much.
It’s easy to say we need more buses, more traffic control, different lanes, but the city could say they don’t have the funding. Closing the street barely costs anything, and even if we call it a stopgap, well, that’s good for something?
Short term solutions are fine if you’re working toward the larger solution. But we’re not seeing that. It’s a great ambition to get to a park that’s safer for cyclists and pedestrians and everyone, but [the city isn’t] taking those steps.
A lot of our visitors have wheelchairs and limited mobility. A lot of people come with four kids or their grandparents and really need a car. Our challenge is to be as welcoming to everyone, cyclists, drivers, families, transit. We need to serve multiple constituencies.
People have been talking about this one day a week street closure for decades. Why so much attention to this one thing?
Oh wow. Well, I think these things come from a really good place across the board. It is a wonderful, lovely thing to have a safe space to bike and to play. I really think the reason we’re still talking about it is because it was a stopgap thing then and it’s a stopgap thing now, and by never really solving the problem you have to keep talking about it.
- Park Considers Car-Free Saturdays [Curbed SF]