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By Thomas K. Pendergast

This November, city voters can decide whether to permanently close the Upper Great Highway between Lincoln Way and Sloat Boulevard and replace it with a waterfront park, although opposition to the ballot proposal is already forming.

On June 18, San Francisco Board of Supervisors members Joel Engardio, Myrna Melgar, Dean Preston, Matt Dorsey and Rafael Mandelman filed a ballot proposal asking voters to approve converting the two-mile stretch of Ocean Beach from a highway to parkland “to combat the impacts of pollution and climate change on the city’s coastal ecosystem,” according to a press release from the Friends of Great Highway Park, an organization that is working with other groups to push for the change.

Engardio, whose district borders that stretch of the Great Highway, noted that the “pilot program,” in which the highway will be closed from Friday afternoon through the weekend into Monday morning and then reopened to vehicle traffic, is scheduled to expire next year.

San Francisco voters will be put to a ballot proposal to decide whether the Upper Great Highway should remain a road for vehicles or be closed to traffic and turned into a park. Photo by Thomas K. Pendergast.

“As the deadline approaches, the battle between highway advocates and park advocates will only intensify,” Engardio said in a separate statement. “That’s why we must decide once and for all whether the Great Highway will become a park or not. We’re asking a momentous question: ‘Should a coastal highway remain what it was for the last century, or should it become something new for the next 100 years?’ A decision of this magnitude deserves to be made directly by voters.”

Engardio said the next scheduled elections after November will be in June 2026.

“By then, the pilot weekend closure of the road will be over,” he said. “That means the decision about the Great Highway in 2025 will be in the hands of the Board of Supervisors and the mayor. If voters want to directly determine what happens to the Great Highway, they need to do that this November.”

Other groups supporting the idea include the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.

“It is abundantly clear to all of us that this measure is consistent with our goal of creating a citywide network of car-free and people-friendly corridors,” said Roan Kattouw, president of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition Board. “The city’s beachfront should be accessible to people, not left to private vehicles, especially when it costs the city millions every year to keep it clear of sand.”

Another group that supports the park concept is Kids Safe SF.

“We are delighted to support this effort with Friends of Great Highway Park and applaud those responsible for their leadership and vision for the future of San Francisco’s public spaces,” the organization’s website states. “San Francisco’s children and families have a right to easy access to safe open spaces for recreation throughout the city, from Ocean Beach to downtown.”

But not everyone agrees with the proposal. This includes Connie Chan, District 1 Supervisor, who represents Richmond and rejects the proposal in its current form.

Instead, she supports an alternative plan that will not yet be put before voters in November. That plan would preserve the eastern section of the highway and instead convert it to a two-lane road, while the western section could be converted to parkland.

“The Great Highway serves as a key north-south connection for the west side, providing access to and from the Richmond District for both residents and visitors,” Chan said. “Based on the 2012 Ocean Beach Master Plan and a Great Highway study released by the SF County Transportation Authority in 2021, there is an opportunity to both create open space and maintain road access. And I supported such a concept then and continue to do so today.”

And locals in the Sunset and Richmond districts are also organizing on social media like NextDoor and Facebook to fight the closure of the upper Great Highway.

“The people who need this highway are the professionals who commute,” said Alyse Ceirante, who lives in the Outer Sunset about three blocks from the ocean. “All of these professionals are being asked to do this, but they can’t use the park during the week because they have to work.”

“So it’s a very elite group of people that can do this,” Ceirate said. “And that’s why we close the park to those people. Most of them have money, most of them have extremely expensive bikes, they have their spandex suits and they’re really the driving force behind it.”

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) plans to divert traffic to Sunset Boulevard and improve traffic flow along Lincoln Way and Sloat Boulevard by replacing stop signs with traffic lights.

Patricia Arack is 81 years old and has lived in the Outer Sunset for 40 years. Although she no longer drives, she is skeptical whether Sunset Boulevard or 19th Avenue can handle the additional traffic.

“It’s going to be a disaster for the people who live out here on the Sunset because the traffic is going to be horrific,” Arack said. “19th Avenue and Sunset Boulevard are already jammed with cars. The traffic isn’t going to let up. It’s only going to get more horrific on the Avenues because people are going to continue to drive down the Lower Great Highway.”

Supporters of the proposal argue that closing the motorway will also eliminate pollution from sources other than exhaust fumes, such as brakes and tyres, which contribute to marine pollution.

However, Arack is convinced that this will not reduce air pollution.

“The pollution on the Lower Great Highway is unbelievable when the highway is closed and we have that Friday afternoon commuter traffic. I can’t open the windows because the pollution from the car exhaust is so bad,” she said. “They always say ‘this will be good for the environment’. No, it’s not. The cars will still be emitting pollutants, but now they’re doing it outside people’s homes and in their lungs.”

Camila Kolseth lives in the Sutro Heights neighborhood in the Outer Richmond District. Both she and her husband commute frequently to the peninsula.

“The Great Highway is really a major artery for those of us who live in the neighborhoods,” Kolseth said.

While a citywide vote might seem fair, she believes it would not be in the interest of the people who will have to live with the outcome.

“It’s a local problem. It’s not a citywide problem. People in other parts of the city don’t understand the dynamics of the neighborhood and just love it,” she said.

“I think we already have a lot of parks in this area. We have Sutro Park, Land’s End Trail, Golden Gate Park and the entire beach.”

Peggy Barry has lived in Outer Richmond for 40 years. She is now in her 70s and no longer drives.

“The more you cut off access, the less I see friends and people who want to visit me. It feels very isolating. We need more access, not less,” Barry said.

“They’re also putting it up for a vote for all the people who aren’t on the west side, and that’s the majority of people. There are more people living on the other side,” she said.

“We’re not the bike coalition. We don’t have a lot of money. We’re not organized, just a bunch of neighbors calling each other on NextDoor. We’re so outnumbered financially and in terms of personnel. And I think that’s unfair,” Barry said.