Bustling multi-lane freeways--icons of prosperity and progress elsewhere in California--have always been criticized as irritating eyesores in this compact city of antique cable cars and breathtaking views.
Such sentiments have prospered since a series of “freeway revolts” in the early 1960s applied the brakes to four major highway projects--and left behind a stubby network of double-decked, half-finished “freeways to nowhere.”
But now, after 25 years of debate, San Francisco has settled on what to do with at least some of those underused elevated roadways, and it is a notion potentially sacrilegious in car-happy California:
Tear them down.
San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote today on a proposal to demolish most of the Embarcadero Freeway and part of Interstate 280 and replace them with a “package” of scaled-down alternatives.
A majority of supervisors already has expressed support, despite claims by critics--including Alameda County across the bay--that freeway demolition will hopelessly clog the region’s commuter traffic.
If approved by the county, the project also would require approval by state transportation authorities and the regional Metropolitan Transportation Commission. City officials believe that demolition would not start for at least 30 months.
In place of the freeway stubs, the city wants to change existing waterfront streets into one wide, elegant, tree-lined boulevard sweeping along the city’s rebuilding shoreline and feeding into a redesigned downtown traffic network.
Also planned is the extension of one streetcar line and construction of an entirely new line, on existing track, that would showcase the city’s collection of vintage streetcars from around the world.
“San Francisco does not like freeways, especially this one,” Supervisor Bill Maher said of the focus of the project, the 1.2-mile Embarcadero Freeway. “It disfigures the waterfront and cuts people off from the bay--all in a city that is very conscious of its maritime heritage.”
Besides, he added, “It’s ungodly in its ugliness.”
In endorsing the project, city planners noted that San Francisco shares with many other cities that problem of being cut off from its waterfront by a large freeway, but concluded that “in San Francisco it is possible to remove this freeway. . . .”
“San Francisco,” the planners added, “has an opportunity which few other U.S. cities can claim--the revitalization of its waterfront and its integration with the adjacent downtown and city neighborhoods.”
Others are not so enthusiastic.
Supervisor Richard Hongisto, for example, thinks the freeway demolition proposal is designed primarily to serve downtown development interests--not only by making more room available, but also by making some existing plots more attractive.
“I think it’s very clear: Development interests are urging this forward,” he said. “This is not even a question of views. That eyesore (the Embarcadero Freeway) has been blocked by all the other eyesores we’ve built in front of it--namely, all those high-rises.”
From the moment construction crews stopped pouring concrete for the freeway in 1959, San Francisco mayors have been winning votes with promises of tearing it down.
Current Mayor Dianne Feinstein enthusiastically expressed her sentiments by smashing a 64-foot cake replica of the freeway with a wooden mallet during one rally against the highway two years ago.
The Embarcadero Freeway was meant to link the Golden Gate and San Francisco Bay bridges, gliding above the cluttered northern waterfront. Interstate 280 was designed to complement it, serving the southern waterfront and railroads.
However, only 1.2 miles of the Embarcadero Freeway could be erected before opponents overwhelmed the project. What remains, planners say, “serves as an elongated system of on- and off-ramps” for the Bay Bridge, or one that is not used at all.
Later, Interstate 280 fizzled about six-tenths of a mile short of hooking up with either the Embarcadero Freeway stub or the Bay Bridge. The last half-mile or so of it is unused and dead-ends in midair.
Views Are Affected
Since the two highways were built, the shipping industry has moved down San Francisco’s shoreline or across the bay to Oakland. This opened the waterfront for development into offices, shops and homes--and renewed complaints that the Embarcadero Freeway ruins views of the bay and the landmark Ferry Building.
Despite this, freeway demolition opponents fear that the traffic improvement measures would fail, that parking places now hidden below the freeways would not be replaced and that the $171 million for the project could be better spent.
Traffic is a touchy subject in San Francisco, where the 750,000 residents are joined every workday by an estimated 500,000 commuters from the suburbs. Supervisor John George of Alameda County across the bay said the San Francisco plan is “traffic terrorism” and an “unmitigable . . . disaster.”
Maher, echoing other proponents, is unperturbed by such criticism.
Other Factors Noted
“The proposal is poorly understood, at best,” he said. “People think we are only going to tear down the freeway. They don’t realize we are going to have new on-ramps nearer the Bay Bridge, a new roadway with almost the same capacity as the freeway and new mass transportation.”
Opponents nonetheless wonder where project funds would come from.
San Francisco planners say $87 million in Interstate 280 funds are available now that the freeway will stay unfinished; developers have pledged $20 million and another $10 million will be the city’s share.
The remaining $54 million would be sought from various federal agencies--most of which, critics note, President Reagan has targeted for cutbacks.
Maher said new taxes generated by increased waterfront development would let the city afford its share, despite a projected budget deficit next year.