A Walk in the Park

Cynics use the retarded to keep cars in Golden Gate Park

For 40 years San Francisco has barred cars from the eastern section of Golden Gate Park on Sundays. The quiet, safe expanse of parkway has over time become the most enjoyed attraction in the city, as thousands of families with children, joggers, skaters, and bicyclists enjoy the opportunity to frolic without worrying about automobiles.

Recently, a heated debate has emerged over whether cars should be banned the entire weekend. On one side there are environmentalists, parents with children, cyclists, skaters, and pedestrians. On the other side, supposedly, are disabled people such as Spencer DeBella.

DeBella is a client of the Arc of San Francisco, a charity that serves people with developmental disabilities. He's in his 50s, uses crutches, and works as a greeter at the Conservatory of Flowers at Golden Gate Park. He finds it too hard to get through the park on Sundays, when JFK Drive is closed to cars.

“We don't schedule him on Sundays, because we'd have to write a note for taxi drivers to remove the barricades,” says Ann Ziolkowski, an ARC board member.

“Nine times out of 10, [the cabbies] refuse to remove the barricades.”

The Arc of San Francisco, citing DeBella's difficulty getting to work on Sunday, has made it known that it is unacceptable to extend car-free Sundays to Saturday, and announced that the organization may initiate a federal lawsuit demanding an end to Sunday closure, too.

“They're going ahead, jumping out of the starting blocks, saying, let's close it on Saturday,” said Tim Hornbecker, executive director of the Arc of San Francisco. “You have to have ways to get people to the facilities and the programs.”

Opponents to extending car-free Sundays have retained Berg Davis Public Affairs, which has put on the case Ryan Minniear, last seen in the news helping Wal-Mart lobby for permits to build a new Super Center in Vallejo.

According to a press release, Park Access for All is backed by the de Young Museum and the Arc of San Francisco. The front group characterizes extending car-free Sundays to Saturday as being harmful to the disabled. The claimed conflict between the interests of the disabled and people like me, who like to have a place for their children to play without fear of being run over, is bogus. There's another agenda at work here.

Ziolkowski is not just an Arc board member. She's director of operations for San Francisco Parks Trust Inc., the private nonprofit corporation that runs the Conservatory at Golden Gate Park. And execs of the Parks Trust Inc., such as Ziolkowski, want the money they believe car-drivers bring to keep the organization's coffers full.

Ziolkowski made it clear to me that a pressing concern in her mind is making it easier for car drivers, whether or not they're disabled, to visit the Conservatory, pay the entry $5 fee, and help the Parks Trust Inc. make ends meet. That, she claims, can be accomplished by re-opening JFK Drive to cars at the park's east end.

While car opponents suggest the Conservatory could do more to encourage Sunday attendance, Ziolkowski tells me that able-bodied out-of-town visitors are always going to want ample, nearby parking.

“As an employee here, it really saddens me that we don't have the attendance we could have. Hopefully there will be some type of resolution that will allow this to thrive. That's my real concern,” Ziolkowski said.

Far be it from me to say the Parks Trust Inc. shouldn't exploit the retarded to achieve its financial goals. But opening up JFK Drive on weekends, and creating a place where children can play on weekends without risking being run over is too important to be defeated by this kind of cynicism.

Last May, under pressure from directors of the Parks Trust Inc. and the Corporation of the Fine Arts Museums, which manages the de Young museum, Mayor Gavin Newsom vetoed legislation that would have extended car-free Sundays to Saturday on a six-month trial basis.

Car-free Saturdays sponsor Jake McGoldrick retrenched. He pulled strings to have a study commissioned assessing claims made by opponents that the car closure caused traffic problems and reduced attendance to the de Young museum. The study, released last month, said traffic problems are negligible. It also showed that de Young attendance actually increases on car-free Sundays, while attendance at the Conservatory goes down.

With his sights set on later re-introducing legislation for car-free Saturdays, McGoldrick also passed a resolution ordering the Department of Recreation and Park to improve access for the disabled. The resolution allocated $225,000 for things such as a slow-moving tram for people with trouble walking, new signs making it clear that people dropping off disabled people can drive up to the door of park facilities, and new street striping to provide additional parking spaces for vehicles with handicapped placards.

And then the Department of Recreation and Park did nothing for 10 months. Department spokeswoman Rose Dennis tells me it may be many more months before any work is done to improve disabled access. She said there isn't enough funding to complete the plan (but wouldn't say how much more is needed).

If our mayor cared about park access for the disabled, he could pick up the phone today and order his minions in the Department of Recreation and Park to stop making excuses, and start spending the $225,000 allocated almost a year ago to make it easier for people such as DeBella to gain access to the park. He should then sign legislation this spring extending car-free Sundays to Saturday.

Sadly, I doubt he will do this, because the same millionaire swells that have backed his candidacy for office are behind the private nonprofit corporations that run the de Young Museum and the Conservatory of Flowers. Dede Wilsey, president of the Corporation of the Fine Arts Museums has donated $500 to Newsom's re-election campaign, and donated $10,000 last year to measure D, a ballot measure Newsom's advisers considered politically important.

Wilsey has made clear that she wants JFK Drive for use as her museum's parking lot.

And, pardon my cynicism, but leaving the park without sufficient access for the disabled has the potential to give Gavin Newsom political cover for vetoing the proposed car-free Saturday legislation. This way, Newsom can use the disabled to justify his opposition when he does the dirty work for his pals like Wilsey.

The Conservatory and its backers haven't always been so concerned about accessibility for the disabled. The 1878 giant glass terrarium is a historical landmark, and backers used this status to request waivers under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The waivers allowed the 2003 renovation to proceed without providing the same level of access for the disabled that a new building would, said Bruce Wolfe, a San Francisco social worker whose clients include the disabled, who gets around with the help of a cane.

“When they did the re-build, they refused to make accommodations for access. They had the opportunity to adjust the steep stairs in the front. They could have put in a winding ramp. They didn't do that,” Wolfe said.

It's clear that Golden Gate Park can be improved so as to help provide greater autonomy and happiness for both disabled people such as Spencer DeBella and for children such as my daughter Olivia. Like any child, she suffers disabilities of her own. She has a mental age of 4, and can't do things for herself such as find her way around town or negotiate traffic.

On Sundays however, when JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park is closed to automobiles, I let Olivia lead the way. She speeds along the quiet, safe expanse of asphalt heading by the Conservatory of Flowers and de Young Museum, along car-free Middle Drive West, until we get to the shore and stop for french fries at the Beach Chalet.

“Golden Gate Park is one of the few places you see children, other than schools. It really is one of the few family-focused and free areas of the city,” says Leah Shahum, executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, which supports the idea of car-free Saturdays on JFK Drive. “As someone who values the diversity of San Francisco, and as someone who wants the next generation of San Franciscans to be able to bike, to be able to skate, I think it's important to have a little space on weekends where they can feel safe.”

I'm jaded enough to not be surprised to see that the Corporation of the Fine Arts Museums and San Francisco Parks Trust Inc. would try to prevent this from happening by exploiting the retarded.

I hope San Francisco voters are similarly skeptical when the mayor uses this shameful campaign as cover for vetoing car-free Saturdays.

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