San Francisco, it seems, can't take down its interstates fast enough. The city began dismantling its elevated highways out of necessity, when the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake damaged the Central and Embarcadero freeways beyond repair. Instead of rebuilding them, city planners and local architects transformed the plots into tree-lined surface boulevards that stitched divided neighborhoods back together and beckoned pedestrians and cyclists alike. Without that urbanist about-face, we wouldn't have the Embarcadero's palm-tree-studded waterfront promenade, the Ferry Building would never have been redeveloped, and Pier 1 would still be a parking lot.
Now Mayor Ed Lee and the city's design community have turned a wanton eye toward the last leg of Interstate 280, which tapers off in the northeastern corner of the city, near the terminus of Caltrain, the local commuter rail, and the South of Market district. The Center for Architecture + Design recently announced an ideas competition inviting architects and students to imagine a future San Francisco unencumbered by the shadowy underside of 280's final stretch. Backed by a grant from the Seed Fund, the contest offers $10,000 in prizes and the exquisite satisfaction of playing God with a blank slate. The deadline is July 31.
The Ferry Building's emporium of local merchants and artisanal goods owes its existence to the removal of the Embarcadero Freeway after the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989.
When 280 was built, everything between the interstate and the waterfront was rail yards, so running a highway overhead made sense. Now that part of the city is home to the University of California San Francisco's Mission Bay campus, and is growing into a biotech-industry hub.
"Suddenly people are working and living in that area," says Center for Architecture + Design executive director Margie O'Driscoll (who also happens to be the executive director of AIA San Francisco, a competition sponsor). "They want to be connected to the rest of the city, and there's a freeway in the way."
The Interstate 280 overpass cuts off Mission Bay from its neighbors to the west. Image courtesy of SPUR Urbanist.
The site in question runs from 16th Street to 5th Street. The idea is to stitch Mission Bay back together with its western neighbors, Potrero Hill and South of Market, and give pedestrians and cyclists easy access to the rest of San Francisco. In recent years the city accomplished much the same thing in Hayes Valley, where the removal of the Central Freeway made way for the pedestrian-friendly Octavia Boulevard and a bunch of innovative new architecture, from Envelope A+D's micro-enterprise pop-up Proxy to one of David Baker's acclaimed affordable housing developments, the Richardson Apartments.
The storefront of Aether Apparel, one of the businesses at Douglas Burnham's Proxy pop-up in Hayes Valley. Photo: Peter Prato
Re-envisioning the acreage buried under 280 also has the potential to enrich a part of the city that will see improved transit access as plans move forward for high-speed rail, electrifying Caltrain, and extending the line to the Transbay Transit Center. Like the Embarcadero and Hayes Valley's Octavia Boulevard before it, the idea is pure urbanist utopia: Slice off some highway, encourage pedestrian street life, make way for rapid transit, and suddenly people have gotten out of their cars and everyone wonders what the highway was doing there in the first place. Plus, as the urban think tank (and competition cosponsor) SPUR points out, repurposing a portion of the elevated freeway as a park might make a great West Coast–style answer to the High Line.
A possible view from 7th Street toward Mission Creek. Note the proto–High Line in the left corner! Image courtesy of SPUR Urbanist.
The transit piece is both a bright spot in this concept and a huge complication. The current plans for high-speed rail call for trains to run at surface level—further carving up the neighborhood—and for 16th Street to be moved below grade. Giving the Mission Bay its pedestrian makeover would require the reverse: Keep people at the surface and run the trains underground, which someone has to figure out how to fund. And there's the question of relocating Caltrain's remaining rail yards.
"The idea of going through the exercise of imagining what it's like to tear down a freeway and open up a new neighborhood is both challenging to the designer but also potentially helping citizens understand the possibilities," says O'Driscoll. If this little utopian vision can fight its way through the tangle of agencies and stakeholders involved, the Mission Bay folk won't be the only ones to benefit. A 280-free neighborhood will draw explorers in from the Mission and SOMA, who will finally get a glimpse of the water.