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Cars or no cars? Voters to decide future of Great Highway

People on the Great Highway on a car-free day.
People on the Great Highway in April 2022 on a car-free day. | Source: SFSU Multimedia Journalism Class

Joining the November ballot is a measure to seal the contested future of the Great Highway.

After five supervisors and Mayor London Breed approved sending a proposition to the ballot, voters will decide whether the two-mile, often sand-clogged highway ought to go car-free and become a 17-acre oceanfront recreation space and promenade. 

Proponents call the measure a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform the coastal highway into a park. Motorists and some local residents say they will lose an important north-south route with scenic views.

Supervisor Joel Engardio, who sponsored the measure with Supervisor Myrna Melgar, likened the proposal to tearing down the Embarcadero Freeway after the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake damaged it. “I wonder, will the Great Highway for cars become as forgotten as the old Embarcadero Freeway?” he said in a statement. “I believe our kids and generations after them won’t be able to imagine San Francisco without an oceanside park. We are the lucky ones who get to create this joyful place that will define San Francisco for the next century.”

Also like the long-gone Embarcadero-obscuring freeway, a section of the Great Highway is crumbling, in this case into the Pacific Ocean due to coastal erosion. Lawmakers recently voted to permanently close the thoroughfare’s southern end.

If voters adopt the proposal, a permanent coastal recreation area would be established and commuters would be diverted to new north-south traffic routes. New signals are already in the works to improve Lincoln Way and Sunset Boulevard traffic flows.

A group of residents lost an appeal last month before the California Coastal Commission over the closure of the Great Highway to car traffic.

Friends of Great Highway Park, a volunteer-led nonprofit dedicated to the conversion of the highway to a park, partnered with Engardio and Melgar on the ballot measure. Lucas Lux, an Outer Sunset resident who recently co-authored a much-discussed opinion article about the proposal published in The Standard, has worked on the project for four years. “San Franciscans already love spending time at their coasts—and a new park will let them do more of that,” Lux said.

Some small business owners have lined up behind the proposal, believing that turning the highway into a promenade similar to the Embarcadaro, would attract tourists and be a boon for business.

“I have watched the Great Highway become an open community space that draws people from all parts of San Francisco as well as tourists who before would never consider visiting this part of the city,” Kathryn Grantham, owner of nearby Black Bird Bookstore, said in a statement. “More visitors to the neighborhood has meant more customers for my business. The impact has been hugely positive for my store.”

Supervisors Matt Dorsey, Rafael Mandelman and Dean Preston co-sponsored the ballot measure.

Correction: This article was updated to reflect that the Embarcadero Freeway was not damaged beyond repair.