One of the best places to see the San Francisco skyline is at the crest of Interstate 280, just before the elevated highway begins its descent into downtown. From a vehicle hurtling along at 65 miles an hour, it's a two-second vista (unless you happen to be stuck in a traffic jam, which, whoopee). Designer Brian Vargo, for one, would like to prolong the magic. "What if that view could become a preserved—and celebrated—part of the city?" he writes. "Imagine giving that experience to a pedestrian rather than to a car."
Vargo envisions the last several blocks of 280 as a carless paradise for bicycle and foot traffic along the lines of New York's High Line. Dubbed the HighLink, his proposal would connect the South of Market district with Mission Bay to the east, a once industrial but rapidly developing neighborhood that has been isolated from the rest of the city since 280 took its place at the foot of the skyline in 1955.
The HighLink is among the five winning entries of the Center for Architecture + Design and AIA San Francisco's 280 Freeway Competition. Launched in June and sponsored by the Seed Fund, the contest invited architects and students to reimagine the highway site as a public space that reattaches a severed street grid. Though the competition is speculative, the idea of a truncated 280 has the attention of Mayor Ed Lee. Plus, history favors demolition: Earlier highway removal projects transformed the earthquake-damaged Embarcadero and Central freeways into tree-lined surface boulevards the likes of which other cities now want to emulate.
Top and above: The HighLink, a proposal by Brian Vargo. Rendering courtesy Brian Vargo/CFAD
This being San Francisco, the High Line approach—which includes a closed-to-traffic corridor of restaurants and shops—is by far the most conservative (and business-friendly) proposal. Other winners went big and bold, offering a premodern landscape of dunes and mudflats, an upside-down motorized bicycle delivery system, and an earthquake-inspired seismic orchard that harnesses underground train vibrations to produce showers of produce. Four winners took home $2,500 each and the special satisfaction of rubbing out a freeway, if only in CAD.
Fieldshift, by Erik Jensen and Justin Richardson. Rendering courtesy the architects/CFAD
Landscape architecture students Erik Jensen and Justin Richardson began with an all-important question: What Would Lebbeus Woods Do (WWLWD)? Out of the scar of the 280 overpass, they propose creating a "cultural field" marked by the freeway's pylons.
The columns might be repurposed for murals, sculpture, or other community art, for instance. Meanwhile, the leftover concrete from the demolished freeway deck would have a second life as ground material, raising the elevation slightly to make way for a tidal marsh that would act as a buffer as sea levels rise.
"It's OK to have open space, even in the midst of what wants to be a very dense area, a place that offers an opportunity for cultural expression," says Richardson. "We're leaving the pylons as a way to remember the history of a mistake that was made previously—to not forget the quote-unquote scar."
Perhaps most important, Field Shift makes way for affordable housing. The project would use just one of the six freeway parcels, and its no-frills design means that the architects don't need the backing of a luxury developer to meet their costs. "It doesn't have to be this superflashy thing," Jensen says. "It can be very simple and honest."
Salt Sand Sieve, by Katherine Jenkins and Parker Sutton. Image courtesy the architects/CFAD
As strong as San Francisco's anti-development contingent is, it's hard to imagine anyone truly prioritizing an uninterrupted natural landscape over another Blue Bottle coffee kiosk or bicycle boutique. So we have to hand it to Katherine Jenkins and Parker Sutton for trying to turn back the clock by a couple of centuries.
Their proposal, Salt Sand Sieve, calls for demolishing everything but the freeway pylons, which happen to make great anchors for a landscape of dunes and tidal pools. This barren, sandy landscape, crisscrossed by pedestrian and bike paths, would both save the city the cost of dredging the bay and give everyone strange new backdrops to run through their Instagram filters.
Art de Defeet, by Jonathon Bradley and Ye Bao. Rendering courtesy the architects/CFAD
Academy of Art graduate students Jonathon Bradley and Ye Bao started with the premise that the original freeway designers wasted a lot of space. "The old program of highway 280 has automobiles on the upper plane and nothing on the lower plane," they write. "Thus it is only 50% in use."
Their proposal is the ultimate bicycle takeover fantasy: Banish cars from the freeway deck, run an elaborate mobile bike rack on the underside, and give pedestrians on the overpass the power to go-go-Gadget themselves a bike, which will, on cue, somersault up the the surface in a flourish perhaps designed to intimidate car owners once and for all.
Seismic Harvest, by Isshin Morimoto, Dion Dekker, and Huang Y. Chen. Renderings courtesy the architects/CFAD
The jury singled out another WWLWD-style concept for an honorable mention. The trio behind D.IS.H—Isshin Morimoto, Dion Dekker, Huang Y. Chen—wanted to build something out of the destructive power of earthquakes.
D.I.S.H's proposal, Seismic Harvest, repurposes the freeway deck as an elevated fruit orchard. Instead of calamitous tremors, though, the project would take advantage of the vibrations from a (still speculative) underground Caltrain. This energy would be stored until harvest time, when D.IS.H's merry band of seismic farmers would unleash the world's first citrus quake.
"It's a controlled thing where the energy is stored up and localized," explains Dekker. "The energy released in these local areas of the crop fields, so it's not just like the train goes by and everything drops down." Though that would be kind of awesome, too.