Merchants Oppose Ballot Measure to Turn Great Highway Into Park

User Pi.1415926535 via Wikimedia Commons

Great Highway viewed from Sutro Heights in September 2019.

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A group representing dozens of merchants in the Sunset District is objecting to a ballot measure that would close San Francisco’s Great Highway to cars and transform it into a park. 

The closure would hurt businesses on the west side of the city, the group said. 

“We will strongly oppose the proposition,” said Ed Siu, chairman of the Chinatown Merchants United Association of San Francisco, speaking on behalf of its Sunset branch, which formed last year and represents 45 businesses. 

The group may be the first to come out officially against the proposition, which Mayor London Breed and five city supervisors last week approved to be put on the November ballot. If passed by voters, it would permanently remove car traffic from the Great Highway between Lincoln Way and Sloat Boulevard. Currently, the thoroughfare closes to car traffic during weekends so that people can walk and bike its length.

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The Great Highway is vital for local commerce during the week, Siu said, because it is the quickest route for drivers traveling between the Sunset and Richmond neighborhoods. A permanent closure could slow travel, discouraging commuters and harming foot traffic to businesses in both areas. The longer travel time could also give merchandise-delivery companies a reason to delay transporting goods to stores until hours when street congestion was lighter, leaving store inventories sparse until after customers had left, Siu said.

Siu acknowledged that two major arteries, Sunset Boulevard and 19th Avenue, serve as alternatives to the Great Highway. 

“But what if one day one of those routes needs to close down for maintenance?” he said. That would leave drivers without options, possibly causing worse delays. 

The Great Highway’s hybrid use — for vehicles during the week, and for pedestrians on weekends — is part of a pilot program that will be in effect through the end of 2025. At that time, supervisors would be able to decide the highway’s long-term fate.

Switching back and forth between uses is “unsustainable,” said District 4 Supervisor Joel Engardio, who represents the Sunset District. That’s because “it’s difficult to create lasting park infrastructure when the weekend park has to convert back to a road every Monday morning,” he said.

A majority of the Board of Supervisors is already interested in closing the street to cars, Engardio said. He speculated that in the future, a veto-proof majority of the board might push for closure. 

One of the supervisors to put the measure on this year’s ballot, Engardio did not respond directly to Siu’s criticisms. Instead, he said that the ballot measure empowered residents, rather than supervisors, to decide how to use the highway. 

“A ballot measure gives people opposed to the closure a chance to organize and defeat it,” he said. 

The measure would not affect the Great Highway extension, a nearly one-mile stretch between Sloat and Skyline boulevards that connects San Francisco with Daly City. The Board of Supervisors voted in May to close the extension as part of a plan to protect coastal properties from erosion due to sea level rise. 

District 1 Supervisor Connie Chan, who represents the Richmond District, opposes the proposition, saying in a statement that the Great Highway is “a vital North-South connector for the Westside.” She said that the city should leave half its traffic lanes to cars and convert the other half to recreational space.

Engardio said that Chan’s suggestion would not satisfy both drivers and park goers, and it would be an inefficient use of money. The city would “still have all the expense of maintaining the road for cars, while the road has far less utility,” he said.

But Chan’s proposal sounds good to Albert Chow, owner of Great Wall Hardware, on Taraval Street, and president of the People of Parkside Sunset, a neighborhood group that helps promote small businesses. 

Without that option on the table, “I will be forced to vote no” on the measure, Chow said, adding that some of the supervisors who put it on the ballot seem to know little about the dynamics of the Sunset District. Opinions on the measure are mixed among members of Chow’s group.

Dorothy Pang, a pediatric dentist with a practice in the Parkside neighborhood and a former resident of the Ocean Beach area, said the highway is fine as it is. She enjoys using it as a beautiful outdoor park, but said she recognized that many drivers need to use it to commute in and out of the city. 

“Why can’t we share the space? Why do we have to go so extreme to make it all inclusive for one thing or another?” Pang said.

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