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End of the Road Arrives for Embarcadero Freeway

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A symbolic chiseling of concrete from the Embarcadero Freeway, California’s first interstate highway and one of this city’s most infamous landmarks, on Wednesday signaled the long-awaited start of demolition for the earthquake-crippled structure.

In a festive noon ceremony near the beginning of the double-deck freeway, city leaders praised efforts to raze California 480, rendered useless after the Loma Prieta earthquake closed it to traffic more than a year ago.

Dwarfed by the roadway’s massive pillars and a cinnamon-red battering ram, San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos told a crowd of more than 300: “This is a great day to take a freeway down.”

“A generation ago, people believed that they had to make a choice between our city’s beauty and our city’s needs,” Agnos said. “This generation says: ‘We won’t buy that choice.’ ”

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Bystanders cheered, “Down! Down!” spurring on the demolition of the viaduct that had blocked a view of the bay for more than three decades.

“I’m glad to see it go,” said Mary Woodward, a retiree who has lived in San Francisco since 1960. “For a long time, I accepted the freeway like everyone else. I didn’t think it would ever come down.”

But others, such as Rose Pak, a consultant to the Chinese Chamber of Commerce who lobbied to save the freeway for Chinatown merchants whose customers depended on the Embarcadero, said this was no time to celebrate.

“I’m very saddened to see it go,” she said of the highway. “I hope they will put the same effort into helping rebuild our community as they did to tearing the Embarcadero down.”

Former freeway designer Robert W. Halligan, who worked on the freeway, shared her sentiments, adding that the Embarcadero freeway served the Chinatown community well by handling 60,000 cars per day and keeping traffic off surface streets.

“It’s their decision,” he said. “I hope they don’t live to regret it.”

To city leaders, though, the ceremony marked the end of a long fight to remove what they consider a blight on San Francisco’s cityscape. Former Mayor Dianne Feinstein, who crusaded against the roadway during her tenure, congratulated the city on the highway’s destruction.

“Mother Nature helped move this demolition along,” she said.

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Agnos, at the controls of the battering ram--known as a pulverizer--launched the effort. With a deafening roar that drowned the applause, a two-foot-long, eight-inch-thick metal needle bolted to the machine’s arm pierced one of the concrete pillars and chopped away pieces of the column.

Construction crews then took over the $3.2-million demolition, which is expected to be finished in four months.

The idea for the freeway was hatched during World War II--an era in which progress and growth were equated with bigger and better highways--as a key corridor in a grand scheme to link the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge.

City officials concerned with the drift of jobs to the suburbs, traffic problems and the deterioration of neighborhoods near the piers supported the new structure. But in a rush to build, say historians, state planners failed to consult with private developers and landowners, resulting in a poorly planned freeway.

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“The Embarcadero Freeway was out of place from the day it was built,” said David Jones, a transportation consultant and author of “California’s Freeway Era in Historical Perspective.”

Even before the first stretch of the Embarcadero was completed in 1956, community opposition to the elevated highway had mounted. Finally, in the early 1960s, the frenzy to construct more freeways dead-ended when San Franciscans staged a “freeway revolt,” demanding the master plan be thrown out.

After the city’s master plan to extend the Embarcadero collapsed, officials downgraded the freeway from an interstate to a state route, making it ineligible for federal interstate money.

Since then, the 1.7-mile-long, 60-foot-tall freeway has steadfastly weathered community and city opposition. But the Loma Prieta earthquake, which severely damaged the Embarcadero, finally did what more than three decades of resistance had failed to do: It forced even the roadway’s supporters to concede that California 480’s days were over.

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With cost estimates from Caltrans to retrofit the highway rising, the city’s Board of Supervisors last September voted to raze the crippled highway. When the dust clears, officials plan to build a below-ground freeway that will allow a clear view of the bay.


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