Time to “Hit Reset”
on illegal street closures in SF
Six plaintiffs have sued Rec and Park general manager Philip A. Ginsburg and the Recreation and Parks Commission for illegal street closures that have created hardship for tens of thousands of San Franciscans.
The Open the Great Highway Alliance calls for safe and fair usage of reopened streets; plaintiffs seek a preliminary injunction
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Today, six plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against Rec and Park general manager Philip A. Ginsburg and the Recreation and Parks Commission for violating state and local laws in shutting down the Great Highway, John F. Kennedy Drive, and Martin Luther King Drive to their disfavored members of the public.
Hundreds of everyday San Franciscans have contributed tens of thousands of dollars (mostly in small donations) to fund a lawsuit seeking to “hit reset” on illegal road closures. A citywide political movement of the “silent majority” is growing, who are frustrated by city agencies and elected officials who have tried to take advantage of a pandemic emergency to ram through unpopular closures of these and other streets.
“This lawsuit is an attempt to return common sense and fairness to San Francisco’s street policies,” says plaintiff Steven Hill. “Unfortunately, Phil Ginsburg and the Rec and Parks Department have stretched and misconstrued the law to illegally close streets in ways that are hurting most San Franciscans. It is time to reopen the streets, just as we have reopened the economy.”
The attorney for the plaintiffs, Gautam Dutta, says, “San Francisco has been engaging in illegal street closures for many months now, and everyone just looked the other way because of the pandemic emergency. My clients have been injured by these illegal closures, and it’s time for San Francisco to follow the law. There are legal ways to enact policies so that all San Franciscans can share the streets fairly and safely.”
The six plaintiffs are seeking a preliminary injunction to reopen these streets. The plaintiffs include:
1. Victoria Bruckner, who has had cerebral palsy all her life, and has effectively been shut out from visiting any of the public attractions along the eastern part of JFK Drive. Victoria has been a regular visitor to Golden Gate Park since she moved to San Francisco in 1978. Some of her favorite attractions include the Rhododendron Dell, the Conservatory of Flowers, Stow Lake, the Dahlia Garden, National AIDS Memorial Grove, Lily Pond, and Peacock Meadow, all along JFK Drive (and of course the museums, but as Victoria says eloquently in her declaration, “This is NOT about just the museums.” For her mobility, Victoria either must use a wheelchair and attached mobility device, or her driver must accompany her wherever she frailly walks, always with great risk of falling. She cannot simply be dropped off at a location. None of the proposed attempts to mitigate the significant impacts on the disabled will help her gain access to the attractions along JFK Drive. Unless JFK Drive is re-opened, she will be permanently shut out.
2. Raul Hernandez, who is a resident of the Mission District and walks with a cane (partially disabled), can no longer visit JFK Drive like he and his extended family have been doing for decades. He remembers his extended family all piling into their family car and driving to JFK Drive for picnics, museums, and other attractions. For he and many other working-class Latinos living in the crowded Mission District, the eastern portion of JFK Drive has long been a lifeline, “a fabulous crossroads of different kinds of people from all over the city who could mix together and learn to appreciate our diversities.” All of that now has changed, with the permanent closure. Public transit is not a solution for him, as it can take an hour to get from some parts of The Mission to JFK Drive, as one must transfer to one or two other buses, depending on the route. “Try getting to JFK Dr. on the bus or a bike with all members of your extended family – kids, picnic food, soccer balls, baseballs, and bats,” says Raul. “They are denying access to people who are fully disabled, to people like me who are partially disabled, to families who need a car to transport their kids and all of their stuff to the park, to anyone who isn’t physically able enough to ride a bicycle, to anyone who isn’t wealthy enough to live close to JFK Drive, to anyone who simply lives too far away, such as our African-American and Asian brothers and sisters in Bayview-Hunters Point and Excelsior neighborhoods. That’s a lot of people.” For these reasons, Raul calls the JFK Drive closure a form of “racial redlining.”
3. Michael Regan resides in the Ingleside Terraces neighborhood in District 7, near San Francisco State University, and is a 73-year-old Vietnam Veteran suffering from cancer due to exposure to Agent Orange. For many years he has been treated at the Veterans Hospital (VA) at Ft. Miley in northwestern San Francisco and has always used the Great Highway to get there. When the Great Highway is closed, it takes him an additional 20 minutes each way, or 40 minutes round trip, to get to the VA, traveling on other streets that are less direct and more congested because of the closure. If the Great Highway is closed permanently, as defendant Ginsburg and other city agencies have proposed, it will greatly impact his ability to receive health care. Veterans transport drivers have told him that the veterans they transport are extremely happy when the Great Highway is open to traffic, since that makes transporting them faster and safer, and they have a beautiful and relaxing view, looking at the ocean. Why is closure even necessary, he wonders, because very few bicyclists and pedestrians use the Great Highway, and there is already an existing paved bicycle and pedestrian path. He felt especially upset when city officials recently began allowing food trucks on the closed Great Highway. “They are clearly telling me that, as a military veteran who defended my country, my vehicle is not welcome on the highway but food trucks and motorized scooters are. Their gratitude for my military service seems very disingenuous to me.”
4. Sheila Koren is a licensed mental health therapist living in District 1, the Richmond. Sheila has a partial disability as a result of severe scoliosis that also impacts her lungs, as well as arthritis and bursitis. For her health, she regularly swims at the therapeutic pool of the Pomeroy Recreation & Rehabilitation Center near the SF Zoo. The closures of both the Great Highway and Martin Luther King Drive have more than tripled her traveling time to the Pomeroy Center. With the approximately 18,000 cars per day that normally travel on the Great Highway being diverted onto other streets and the MLK Drive outlet to Sunset Blvd also blocked Chain of Lakes Drive through Golden Gate Park, onto which she must detour, also has become extremely backed up in bumper to bumper traffic. Sheila has been stuck in Chain of Lakes traffic when an ambulance driver struggled to get through during an emergency. Sunset Boulevard also backs up, which she must connect to from Chain of Lakes Drive in order to travel to the Pomeroy pool when the Great Highway is closed to cars. These delays also have impacted her therapy practice, in which she works with some of the most impoverished and troubled clients in the city who qualify for Medi-Cal. With so much more time needed to travel to the Pomeroy Center, she has had less time for her clients. These road closures impact not only the number of clients she is able to serve but also her income.
5. Steven Hill is a nearly-25 year resident of the Outer Sunset who lives on Lincoln Way, within a few blocks of the Great Highway, Martin Luther King Drive, and Chain of Lakes Drive, three of the areas most impacted by street closures. Lincoln Way is one of the main detour routes when cars are blocked from the Great Highway. When the City closed the highway, he immediately experienced many of the 18,000 angry and frustrated drivers per day rushing by his house instead. It was loud, noxious, and unsafe. Across the street in GG Park, with MLK Drive closed, Chain of Lakes Drive, one of his favorite walking and biking areas, suddenly was flooded with bumper-to-bumper traffic. When his wife became temporarily disabled due to a tragic injury, instantly they were denied access to the attractions along the eastern portion of JFK Drive due to their inability to drive and park there. “These road closures have denied access to tens of thousands of people. Rec and Park, and certain elected officials, have taken advantage of people’s goodwill and cooperation during a pandemic emergency, and now are trying to permanently close off access. That is unconscionable.” Steven has proposed a compromise for the Great Highway, involving a redesign of the area so that there is plenty of room for the roadway to be shared by all. Previously he led ballot campaigns in San Francisco for ranked-choice voting and public financing for candidates and is the author of seven books of political nonfiction.
6. Open the Great Highway Alliance is a California-registered nonprofit public benefit corporation. It has been educating the public about the impacts of the Great Highway closure and other road closures. It has been monitoring and reporting on the illegal bicyclist blockades of the partially reopened Great Highway, and has met with most members of the Board of Supervisors and the Mayor’s office, seeking redress of the harms caused by these road closures. Many of its members also have been making continuous and generally frustrating attempts to acquire public information (through Sunshine Ordinance requests) about the largely non-transparent process through which defendant Ginsburg and others have advanced their plan to permanently close the various streets to vehicles. The Alliance also has collected over 15,000 signatures on a petition, demanding that the Great Highway be reopened.