Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Ellzey on safety, traffic, parking, MLK, and Mirkarimi

Since the anti-garage zealots will evidently now get the widening of Martin Luther King Blvd. on the ballot for city voters to decide, the MLK/garage-in-the-park is officially The Issue That Won't Go Away. Readers may be interested in what Mike Ellzey, Executive Director of the Concourse Authority for five years, had to say about safety, traffic, parking, Supervisor Mirkarimi, and the MLK issue in April of this year in a District 5 Diary interview.

The Ninth and Irving area is in District 5, Supervisor Mirkarimi’s district. Have you talked to him?

Ellzey: Yes, I have. He’s legitimately concerned about what’s going on out there. With due respect, Supervisor Mirkarimi is coming way late to the table on this one, because I have been here five years, and I have only been working with him a few months. We had a good, forty-five minute meeting where I attempted to educate him on what was really going on, with the primary message being, “Mr. Supervisor, this is a court order, and we are under very strict guidelines with what the court asked us to do. We are at the mercy of the court in this process. Even though there are people who disagree, we did what we did, because we have to get something back to the court. We had to come up with something.” I think he appreciated that basic message. However, I believe that some of the misinformation has rightly concerned Supervisor Mirkarimi---if it were true. But it is not true. When all is said and done, I think we will all realize that the project area that we’re all arguing about is not causing Ninth and Irving to go down the tubes, it’s not ruining those neighborhoods. Actually, I think it’s going to present an opportunity to take a look at that whole area, from the entrance to the Concourse on the south side all the way out into the Ninth and Judah area, where we have connections with our shuttle system. We’re already working with DPT, with Jerry Robbins in Traffic Planning over there, on programs to improve south of the park, Ninth and Lincoln, Ninth and Judah, having to do with the rail car and everything. We have plans to make this a better corridor.

Question: Questions have been raised about the safety of pedestrians, cyclists, and the handicapped dealing with a redesigned MLK in accessing the park. How do you respond to those concerns?

Ellzey: Basically we agree with critics and project proponents alike that that area is an unsafe area and is in need of improvement.

Question: Even before redesigning MLK?

Ellzey: Oh, sure. We believe this is an opportunity---and when things settle down a bit, we think our community will agree with us---to really take a look at the Ninth and Irving, Ninth and Judah, Ninth and Lincoln area and all the way into the park. Because one of our responsibilities in developing this project is not only to address impacts inside the park but also to address impacts outside the park that originate from our project---or that might arguably be connected to our project. That doesn’t mean that our project takes responsibility for all the pre-existing problems in the Ninth and Irving area, because the city has long-standing records indicating that those are difficult areas. But we believe that we can bring a planning perspective to help in this area. But to answer your question directly, we do appreciate that pedestrian advocates have a problem with the four-lane situation, and their concerns are valid: if you’re crossing over four lanes, it’s twice as many as crossing over two lanes of traffic. I’ve always thought, before we entered into this debate with pedestrian advocates, that parked cars are a negative thing. There is a school of thought that believes that parked cars are a hazard because people walk out from in between them---which people tend to do over in the Strybing Arboretum area, which we noted when we did the plan---because people walk out from between parked cars and cross without a crosswalk. And people in cars stop and back into parking spots, which congests things back into the Ninth and Lincoln area. So that area is a bad area. We believe that the removal of parking from MLK, the cleaning up of that area, the pedestrian improvements we’re going to be making at a couple of different crosswalks, the work we’re doing with the San Francisco Botanical Garden, the additional crosswalks we’re going to create, and the stop signs we’re going to add are all going to make that quarter-mile stretch of MLK much better than it is today. So, yes, if you home in on whether it’s worse to traverse four lanes rather than two lanes, I would accept that. However, traversing out there today versus traversing out there when we finish this project, there’s no comparison. It will be a safer area.

Question: And cyclists won’t be “doored.”

Ellzey: Yeah, on the bicycle side, we really believed that what we were doing there would be lauded by the bicycle community. We thought they would really enjoy no parked cars and a lane that only they and transit and people accessing the garage would share. Now, we never had an approved bicycle implementation plan, a dedicated lane for bicyclists, but we did plan for bicyclists to be able travel with the traffic as they do today. But we thought removing the parked cars[from MLK] would be a huge benefit to the bicycle community, but the bicycle community came down very much in disfavor of this design of the four-lane road. We were surprised at that, and we have been working with that community ever since. But I’m not sure we will ever get the pedestrian community or the bicycle community to support Option #1. They will probably continue to oppose it. So we are doing the best that we can, and we are talking with them about a multi-use, off-road pathway on the east side of MLK, which is going to be a part of the design, which would allow for much broader pedestrian and bicycle access into the park at Ninth and Lincoln. We’re removing some parking on the corner to improve the safety of the turns of cars and bicycles into the area. Once again, when we finish with this, it’s going to be a lot better than it is now.

Question: Some merchants in the Ninth and Irving neighborhood are part of the coalition opposing the MLK plan. They seem to regret most the loss of the 85 parking spaces on MLK. People park on MLK now and shop in the neighborhood. But can’t their customers park in the new underground garage and take the short walk to the neighborhood to shop?

Ellzey: I think you’re absolutely right. That’s another area where we just misunderstood the reception we thought we’d receive with our neighbors to the south and the merchant district there. First of all, it’s our responsibility to remove a certain number of parking spaces from the surface of Golden Gate Park in connection with our project. We have to remove 800. One of the messages that the Concourse Authority Commission sent to me pretty loud and clear was that, in implementing our parking management program, we are to discourage commuter parking and parking in the park for non-park users. To the extent that there’s parking available in the park, it’s supposed to be used by park users. So we’re not in the game of developing parking for the neighboring merchant district. That’s not what we are about. However, we did do three- and four-hour time limited parking programs that we implemented out there for the first time in the blocks directly adjacent to that area, which means there’s a lot more transient parking available for the merchants. However, that being said, I also agree that if I were coming to the area, I would park in the parking facility and take a beautiful quarter-mile walk through the park into that district. It’s nothing but enjoyable. I think it’s ironic in San Francisco that the merchants might be having a problem with a relatively short walk through the park, when that’s really what we’re all about in San Francisco: we walk places.

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Pedestrian oasis in the park

Jo Stanley of the SF Examiner is the latest city reporter to muddy the garage/MLK "widening" issue: "That measure[Proposition J] permitted the 800-space underground lot but also envisioned a 'pedestrian oasis' that environmentalists charge has never been fulfilled." ("Voters May Decide Access to Proposed Parking Garage," SF Examiner, July 27, 2005)

From the text of her piece, it's clear that Stanley only talked to John Rizzo---the only Concourse Authority Director to oppose the MLK plan---and Supervisor McGoldrick. If reporters want balance on this issue---not to mention some actual information---they need to talk to Mike Ellzey, who has been Executive Director of the Concourse Authority for five years.

The "pedestrian oasis has never been fulfilled" because the Golden Gate Park project is not done yet. The "pedestrian oasis" concept is not a pie-in-the-sky promise that the city is dragging its feet on. And, as Proposition J makes clear, the concept is in reference only to the Concourse area, where, when the project is done in a few months, 200 parking spaces will in fact have been removed and access to automobiles will indeed be limited. Stanley quotes Rizzo on his fear of "fast-moving traffic" that will result from the widening of MLK. His fears seem completely groundless in the light of Ellzey's lengthy discussion of that issue in an interview I did with him last April.

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