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City’s plan to reopen Great Highway to cars met with pushback

In response to a planned reopening of the Great Highway to vehicle traffic, a number of residents are pushing back and issuing last-minute appeals to the city to stop or delay the change. 

Last week, Mayor London Breed and Supervisor Gordon Mar announced that a two-mile stretch of the Great Highway, which has been closed to cars since April 2020, will reopen to vehicle traffic on weekdays starting Aug. 16. The plan was characterized by Mar as a “meaningful compromise” between residents who disagreed over whether the Great Highway should remain a pedestrian promenade permanently. 

“The timeline here has been very short—the mayor announced on Thursday, Aug. 5 that the  Great Highway was going to turn from a park into a driving place on Aug. 16,” said Brian Coyne, a resident who supports a permanent closure of the Great Highway. “Anyone who follows city projects knows that’s not the usual timeline city projects fall into.” 

On Tuesday, Coyne and a fellow advocate, Scott Feeney, filed a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) appeal with the Board of Supervisors, asking for the change to be delayed until the appeal is reviewed. 

In a letter, Coyne and Feeney asserted that the reopening of the Great Highway to cars constitutes a “project” and is thus eligible for CEQA review. The two delivered the appeal in person at City Hall on Tuesday in the hopes that it can be reviewed quickly. 

CEQA, a California state law enacted in 1970, sets forth an environmental oversight process for development: With some exceptions, developers must submit to an environmental review of their projects, and remediate any impacts where appropriate. Third parties are also permitted to appeal CEQA exemptions, though most CEQA appeals don’t wind up approved. According to records provided by the Planning Department, there were 22 CEQA appeals filed in 2020; of those, 19 were either denied or withdrawn, and only one appeal was upheld.

The CEQA appeal process has also been criticized for providing a way for appellants to stop or delay projects—such as housing, homeless shelters or even bike infrastructure—for reasons that may have little to do with environmental protection. 

Coyne said that an appeal of the Great Highway reopening meets the spirit of CEQA, if not the letter: “[Mayor Breed] and Supervisor Mar explicitly said that the goal here is to make it faster to drive into downtown San Francisco,” he said. “But the question is: Is such a project exempt from environmental review?”

“It’s easy to be cynical about CEQA, but we feel this is exactly what it’s meant for,” Coyne added. 

Coyne is far from alone in opposition to the Great Highway plan.  

Advocates for the oceanfront promenade balked at what they called a backroom deal by the Mayor and Supervisor Mar, which will override a Great Highway planning process that was already underway. Since the Great Highway’s initial closure last year, San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency (SFMTA) has conducted a series of meetings, and issued surveys and reports, to determine a permanent path forward for the approximately 17-acre stretch.

For their part, opponents of the Great Highway closure contended that it pushed traffic onto surrounding roads, and some complained of unsafe driving on Outer Sunset roads resulting from the closure of a main thoroughfare. San Francisco County Transportation Authority, which manages congestion on local roadways, approved a traffic calming plan for nearby roads earlier this year. 

“We are so disappointed by this news from Supervisor Mar,” said Heidi Moseson, an Outer Sunset resident and organizer with the Great Highway Park Initiative, which supported a permanent closure, at a meeting last week. “There’s a process in place that we’ve all spent thousands of hours organizing around, talking to neighbors, talking to our representatives, and talking to city agencies, and that’s all been completely subverted.” 

KidSafeSF, a parents’ group that advocates for safe, open spaces for children, is organizing a demonstration and March this Sunday at the Great Highway. 

Coyne called the CEQA appeal a “last-ditch effort” to save the walkway, and it’s unclear if and when the Board of Supervisors will hear the appeal.

Because the Board of Supervisors is on recess until Sept. 6, there is no calendared date yet for the board to consider the CEQA appeal. The clerk's office can't anticipate what the board will and will not consider, said Board of Supervisors deputy director Wilson Ng, but he advised members of the public contact their representatives in the meantime.

“We think it’s worth it,” Coyne added of the appeal. “San Francisco and other cities have started to rethink how we use our public space...I think these moments of emergency give us a chance to rethink how we do things.”