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War for JFK Drive: How a Museum’s Money Is Shaping the Fight Over San Francisco’s Most Controversial Street

Written by Josh KoehnPublished Apr. 08, 2022 • 7:34am
  • The JFK Drive fight has led to accusations ranging from financial malfeasance to racism.
  • The de Young views JFK's closure as a major threat after losing millions during the pandemic.
  • One of SF's most powerful lobbying firms was hired by an entity that runs the museum to push to reopen JFK to cars. 
  • Meanwhile a parent group, Kid Safe SF, emerged as a power in its own right with a big campaign to keep JFK open. 
A stretch of JFK Drive is visible from the de Young observation tower on March 24, 2022. | Camille Cohen

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Of all the hysteria to arise in San Francisco during the pandemic, perhaps the most on-brand controversy for a city so insular and hyperbolic concerns a 1.5-mile stretch of asphalt.

The fight over whether John F. Kennedy Drive—the road that traverses Golden Gate Park—should remain car-free has led to accusations of shadow lobbying, financial shell games, ageism, ableism, cronyism, elitism and racism. And many of them are legitimate.

The emotional and expensive battle, now at more than a quarter-million dollars in total spending, is hardly over: A final decision by the city’s Board of Supervisors is likely still weeks away. But the war entered a new phase Tuesday when Supervisor Connie Chan, whose vote is crucial because she  represents the district where Golden Gate Park is located, weighed in with a plan to reopen the road to cars after spending months confusing everyone about where she stood on the issue. 

If her proposal or something like it ultimately carries the day, Chan and other pro-car politicians, including board President Shamann Walton, will undoubtedly cast it as a victory for equity—keeping the park’s majestic green spaces accessible to seniors, the disabled and people of color from the east side of the city.

But the expensive lobbying campaign to prevent JFK Drive’s permanent conversion into a space for walking, biking, skating and letting children play has little to do with these concerns. 

Rather, the debate is being influenced by one of the city’s most powerful lobbying firms, which is being paid by San Francisco’s wealthiest and most politically influential cultural institution: the Fine Arts Museums. The city agency partners with a tightly affiliated non-profit called The Corporation of the Fine Arts Museums (COFAM) to run the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park and the Legion of Honor. 

For the de Young, which lost millions in admissions revenue during the pandemic and is still seeing less than half its pre-Covid attendance, the closure of JFK Drive—and the loss of about 300 free parking spaces along the street—is seen as an existential threat. 

On a recent tour of the museum, Helena Nordström, the spokesperson for the Fine Arts Museums agency but an employee of COFAM, told The Standard that officials are “incredibly desperate” to see JFK Drive reopened. 

Museum officials are adamant—although they have no definitive proof—that the loss of the parking spaces along JFK Drive is the most likely reason visitor attendance has not recovered. An 800-plus-space parking garage that’s supposed to serve the museum routinely sits empty because it charges too much, they say, and for convoluted, only-in-San Francisco reasons, cutting the price is not an option.

Seeing no other avenues, museum officials launched an intense lobbying blitz on JFK Drive early last year. And they might yet prevail. 

Accusations of ‘Recreational Redlining’

It was just four days after the de Young began fully welcoming back guests on March 6, 2021, that the museum’s pressure campaign began in earnest. 

Platinum Advisors, a powerful national lobbying firm whose deep local connections date back to Willie Brown’s time as mayor, started going to work on Supervisor Chan. The lobbyists contacted her four times over the next two weeks, according to disclosures required by the city’s Ethics Commission.

Supervisors Connie Chan, Hillary Ronen and Shamann Walton listen to Mayor London Breed’s State of the City address on March 9, 2022. Platinum Advisors targeted Chan and Walton most frequently. | Camille Cohen

On March 23, Platinum lobbyist Ryan Blake reached out to Board of Supervisors President Shamann Walton. And that same day, Ike Kwon, the chief operating officer for the California Academy of Sciences, met with Supervisor Ahsha Safai about JFK Drive. 

Two days later, Kwon shared an internal memo with Safai that included the phrase “recreational redlining,” a term equating the lack of parking from JFK Drive’s closure to the racist U.S. government housing policies of the mid-1950s that made it much harder for Black people to buy homes.

That same day, Safai and Walton both sent out tweets calling for the reopening of JFK Drive. 

“We were laughing about it afterwards because people were wondering if we had coordinated about it anyway, but we did not,” Safai told The Standard, adding that “recreational redlining” was a term he was not familiar with until hearing Walton use it. “That was a message he was really running with and presenting.”

Safai said his main concern is “working with families, seniors and disabled, forcing people to think about access for all.”

Two days after the tweets, on March 28, a column by Walton in the San Francisco Examiner called for re-opening the road and slammed the closure as “elitist, ableist and segregationist.”

“The lack of transparency and backdoor conversations to close JFK Drive without adequate community input from all San Francisco communities is unacceptable,” Walton wrote. He also used the term “recreational redlining,” which a Google search suggests is a term that had never previously graced the internet.

Walton and Platinum Advisors did not respond to The Standard’s requests for comment.

In a phone interview, Kwon said his memo was more about raising awareness amongst the supervisors, and the Academy, which is located in the park just south of de Young, is not necessarily opposed to keeping the road permanently car-free.

Regardless of the origins of the term “recreational redlining,” Walton’s incendiary column prompted a fierce backlash from car-free proponents. 

Parents Take Charge 

A seemingly overmatched adversary, especially for one of the city’s savviest institutional operators, led the charge: a non-profit called Kid Safe SF, formed just weeks after Walton’s column appeared.

The group bills itself as an advocacy organization made up of tech-savvy parents, dog walkers, environmentalists, cyclists and roller skaters. 

Volunteers with Kid Safe SF speak to passersby on JFK Drive on March 5, 2022. | Sophie Bearman

“Kid Safe didn’t exist in the spring of last year, but then we [made a public records request for] some documents, and we found [museums officials] were advocating all of the supervisors to put cars back on JFK,” said Matt Brezina, an organizer with Kid Safe SF and a safe streets advocate in the city since 2016. 

“We basically looked around, a bunch of parents, and were like, ‘We can’t let this happen. This is about our kids’ safety.’ If we don’t defend this space, one of the best things that ever happened for our children is going to disappear.”

The group moved fast, dropping more than $136,000 in April and May on advertising that championed JFK Drive’s closure as a win for children, safe streets and the environment.

IRS rules do not require nonprofits like Kid Safe SF to disclose their donors, but organizers say the money for the ads came strictly from individuals and families. Brezina said the group mostly partnered with New York-based Hooligan Media to produce Facebook ads.

“We’re just a bunch of very tired parents,” he said. “We have no paid lobbyists. They’re paying all their money on suits—high-priced lobbyists.”

Car-free Plan Gains Support 

The Kid Safe campaign seemed to work.

By the fall, a city survey conducted from September to November by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and Recreation and Parks Department, showed that public opinion had swung strongly to Kid Safe SF’s side. Roughly 70% of respondents said they approved of the JFK Drive’s closure.

But the museums, and Platinum Advisors, weren’t done.

Around the time polling was being completed, COFAM went on its own spending spree, rolling out a new lobbying campaign called Park Access 4 All, with its own webpage and ads being blasted out across a variety of platforms. COFAM has spent roughly $133,000 since October to lobby city officials and blast out political ads.

The campaign has focused on how JFK Drive’s closure has impacted seniors, the disabled and public safety. The ads feature a man in a wheelchair who wants closer access to the museums’ entrance, a retired firefighter who worries that crews will be slowed by the road’s closure and a woman who fears for her safety while walking in the park at night. 

Pacific Heights resident Carol Brownson, 80, rides down JFK Drive on her electric mobility scooter, nicknamed “Little Rascal,” on Dec. 19, 2021. | Ekevara Kitpowsong

A list of supporting organizations mostly includes neighborhood associations, a group for people with learning disabilities and the Calle 24 Latino Cultural District in the Mission. 

It’s unclear who exactly runs Park Access 4 All and how it is funded, but the group is sponsored by COFAM. Ads have mostly targeted Facebook users or visitors to the San Francisco Chronicle’s website. The total money spent on these ads is unknown, but more than $24,000 has gone toward sponsored Facebook posts.

Together, the two sides have spent more than a quarter-million dollars to lobby city officials and influence the public, according to public records.

Bitter Budget Realities 

Fine Arts Museums officials say their concerns about JFK Drive extend beyond access issues. They have argued repeatedly, for example, that the closure has created safety risks for museum staff, who have allegedly had their cars blocked and vandalized, as well as been subjected to harassment and racial slurs. 

A San Francisco police spokesperson told The Standard that a representative of the Richmond district station had “not heard of incidents like these,” but the department encourages any crime victims or witnesses of crimes to come forward. 

Kid Safe SF supporters, for their part, say this and many other claims are red herrings in what should be a larger discussion about the de Young’s convoluted structure and its dire financial state.

The city’s Fines Arts Museums agency owns the de Young and Legion of Honor buildings and spends about $20 million a year on maintenance of the buildings, the grounds and pays about 100 employees. Meanwhile, COFAM, the nonprofit, has a $45 million budget and splits some bills with the city, such as the $900,000 salary of de Young Director and CEO Thomas Campbell. The city pays about $226,000 of this amount.

What Would Dede Do? 

As the war over JFK Drive seems to be nearing a final decision, some have wondered about the role of Diane “Dede” Wilsey, San Francisco’s most prominent socialite-philanthropist and chair of the Fine Arts Museums’ board until she resigned in the wake of a financial scandal.

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Wilsey’s role in the institution was extensive, by all accounts, including taking the lead on a $206 million campaign to redesign and resurrect the de Young from the devastation caused by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake a decade earlier. 

Renowned—and in some quarters, resented—for her ability to both lean on City Hall officials and coax millions of dollars out of her wealthy friends, Wilsey’s broader list of accomplishments includes restoring Grace Cathedral and leading the $600 million fundraising charge for UCSF Hospital’s Mission Bay campus.

Currently, she is an emeritus member of the Fine Arts Museums board and has no formal role. 

A spokesperson for the Fine Arts Museums agency said Wilsey was unavailable for an interview, but former Mayor Willie Brown told The Standard that he believes she has been active behind the scenes in the JFK Drive fight.  

“She’s just not spotted. No one has spotted her,” Brown said. “But she’s interested in keeping JFK open. Period.”

—Han Li contributed to this report.

Meanwhile, a second nonprofit, the Fine Arts Museums Foundation, oversees the de Young and Legion of Honor’s $160 million endowment—about 75% of which is restricted by donors’ special wishes on how the money is used, such as art acquisitions or educational programs.

A couple exits the de Young Museum on March 22, 2022. | Camille Cohen

General admission ticket revenues for the de Young go directly to the city, but donations, profits from the cafe and gift store, and special exhibit ticket sales go to COFAM. The nonprofit then handles day-to-day operations and puts on displays like the current portrait series Alice Neel: People Come First and an upcoming portrait exhibit of Michelle and Barack Obama.

But COFAM is in trouble. The de Young reported a 48% dip in visitors as of March compared to pre-Covid times, and museum membership now stands at 78,000—well below the 100,000 it boasted at the beginning of 2020. COFAM says it has lost $20 million in revenue since the beginning of Covid. Were it not for federal stimulus funds as part of the CARES Act covering some of these losses, the hole would be even deeper.

COFAM’s chief financial officer, Jason Seifer, has repeatedly said in presentations to the nonprofit’s board of trustees that multi-million dollar losses are expected for many years to come.

And the nonprofit may not have quite the financial horsepower that it once did, as Campbell and other trustees, such as hedge fund manager and COFAM chair Jason Moment, have less political clout at City Hall than the longtime matriarch or Fine Arts Museums, Diane “Dede” Wilsey. 

The board pushed out Wilsey—one of the most prominent philanthropists and socialites in San Francisco’s history—after a series of scandals involving a misuse of COFAM funds arose in 2016. It’s possible the nonprofit will need to dig into endowment funds to bridge its financial gap.

Protesters supporting the reopening of JFK Drive rally outside City Hall on March 10, 2022. | Camille Cohen

The Final Showdown

Supervisor Chan’s announcement Tuesday that she supports bringing back cars was a huge victory for the museum and its lobbyists. But the fight isn’t done. 

Next Tuesday, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority is expected to present an equity study on JFK Drive’s closure. Mayor Breed, who has supported permanently banning vehicles on the roadway along with the Rec and Parks Department, the city’s transportation agency and a few supervisors, is expected to have her own legislation go before the Board of Supervisors later this month.

“The last two years have shown us that car-free JFK Drive is vital,” said Nesrine Majzoub, a spokesperson for the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. “We strongly support Mayor Breed’s legislation to make JFK Drive car-free permanently for those biking, walking and rolling now and for generations of San Franciscans to come.”

Brezina echoed that point, noting that “the park is more accessible and more popular than it has ever been. It’s just the museum is trying to hold onto the past. And I think they’re going to lose.”

David Miles Jr., the founder of the Church of 8 Wheels and perhaps best known as the city’s “Godfather of Skate,” has been fighting the de Young for more open space in the park for decades. “They’ve always been blinded to the people that use the park but not the museum,” he said.

Miles expressed hope that the city would finally sign off on a walkable, rollable JFK Drive, but he’s not optimistic.

“This is how San Francisco has always worked,” he said. “The people with the money have the influence.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify that the museum does not own the parking garage, and to give a more precise characterization of the city’s survey.

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Josh Koehn can be reached at [email protected]




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