SF's Central Freeway, Embarcadero eyed for changes

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday January 18, 2023
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Cars prepare to enter the Central Freeway from Octavia Boulevard. Photo: John Ferrannini
Cars prepare to enter the Central Freeway from Octavia Boulevard. Photo: John Ferrannini

Voters' decisions last November to ratify two closures of major San Francisco thoroughfares to cars may prefigure further, more substantial changes to where drivers can rev their engines.

Gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) made the dramatic announcement late last year via Twitter that "it's time to take down the remaining portion of the Central Freeway, south of Market" and, in a letter to Caltrans, asked the agency to study the potential cost of removing the freeway.

Separately, a group of San Franciscans is advocating for a car-free Embarcadero.

Wiener's letter to Caltrans District 4 Director Dina El-Tawansy came on the heels of voters' November decision to ratify the pandemic-era decisions to close John F. Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park to vehicles on a permanent basis, and the Great Highway along Ocean Beach from Friday at noon to Monday at 6 a.m.

He stated that the Central Freeway, which lets out onto the surface streets blocks from the LGBTQ-heavy Castro and West South of Market neighborhoods, and the Bayshore Viaduct "may be approaching the end" of "useful life" and that the costs of maintenance, replacement, or rebuilding need to be studied.

"The transportation sector represents the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in California," Wiener's letter stated. "Freeways have long separated low-income communities of color in San Francisco. The continued existence of the remainder of the Central Freeway and Bayshore Viaducts straddling the Mission District, and the Interstate 280 spur cutting off the Bayview from much of the city, illustrates the vestiges of these discrepancies."

This May 9, 1991 photo shows the section of the Embarcadero Freeway in front of the Ferry Building being torn down. Thirty-two years later a community group wants to reimagine the eastern waterfront without vehicles at all. Photo: Wikimedia Commons  

It wouldn't be the first time such a dramatic move was made in the city. The Embarcadero Freeway was torn down in the 1990s, paving the way for the current configuration of the city's eastern waterfront. And the Central Freeway itself used to be longer, extending to Turk Street until that stretch was demolished in 2003, replaced with Octavia Boulevard.

These closures were prompted by damage incurred by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. They were both opposed by leading figures in the Chinese American community, and led to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency's Central Subway that had a soft opening in late 2022.

When asked by the Bay Area Reporter about mitigating the impact on freeway traffic that would result from closing the freeway, Wiener said, "that's why we're initiating this process."

"The same was true when they closed the other part of the freeway and created Octavia Boulevard," he said. "You have to take all that into account."

When asked why now, Wiener responded bluntly "it's overdue — that's why."

The San Francisco LGBT Community Center sits where Octavia intersects Market Street. When asked for comment, senior communications manager Miguel Raphael Bagsit had "no statement at this time."

A study from CoPilot showed that of all U.S. metro areas, San Francisco Bay Area commuters ranked No. 7 in the amount of time their commute was extended due to rush hour traffic — an average of 22.6 minutes per day, or 94.4 hours annually.

As the remaining segment of the Central Freeway is a major commute corridor for residents of the city's westside neighborhoods, the B.A.R. recently asked gay District 4 Supervisor Joel Engardio, elected last year, if he supported tearing it down. While he applauded the traffic calming and freed up space for new mixed-use housing developments that the removal of the elevated roadway created in Hayes Valley, Engardio stressed that any plan for removing the remaining freeway needs to benefit both the impacted neighborhoods and drivers who use that route.

"I see the benefit of taking away the scars freeways placed on the neighborhoods and rejuvenating those neighborhoods, but like everything it should not be a zero sum game," said Engardio. "Things need to work in concert together with removing the scars but also paying attention to how traffic and people can travel and flow efficiently. It all has to work together."

One of his immediate goals is to broker a deal among his constituents about the future plans for the Great Highway. The city closed the westside thoroughfare to allow for more space for social distancing at the beginning of the COVID pandemic in 2020.

Now, it is closed to vehicle traffic on weekends permanently due to a compromise brokered by Mayor London Breed and then-District 4 Supervisor Gordon Mar, which was overwhelmingly ratified by voters citywide in November's election.

But Engardio pointed out that voters in his district were closely divided on the ballot measure, though a slim majority supported seeing the thoroughfare that runs adjacent to Ocean Beach become a permanent park.

"That's something we need to consider, but 47% wanted it to be highway 24/7. So people are very divided," noted Engardio. "While majority rules, it is important to not discount the 47% who wanted it to be a highway. They have valid concerns about traffic congestion and traffic diverting through their streets as a thruway."

'People are scared of change'
Stacey Randecker, a straight ally, is among a small group spearheading a separate proposal: Grand Embarcadero.

"The Grand Embarcadero vision removes cars from the Embarcadero completely," the website for the group states. "Our vision is a safe Embarcadero, where people on foot and bike don't risk being killed or injured by cars."

Randecker told the B.A.R. that the Great Highway experience was a model.

"I call it the Great Walkway because the Great Highway is its deadname," Randecker said. "I live in Potrero and we don't have that here. ... We have more people, highways, sewer treatment plants, all the heavy infrastructure of the city, and we don't have any of the good stuff. The Embarcadero is the perfect mirror of the Great Highway."

When asked about mitigating the impact on traffic that would result from closing the thoroughfare to vehicles, Randecker said that "people are scared of change" and that "people are reticent to consider these types of things."

"It's the unknown," she said. "How could it ever change? How could it ever be better?"

Randecker said that people were concerned about the traffic when the Embarcadero Freeway was demolished in the 1990s.

"There was an elevated freeway there," she said. "With the volume of traffic there was and the carmageddon everyone predicted losing that capacity — what happened? It's fine."

Randecker said that potentially cars could be allowed onto the thoroughfare in the morning so that waterfront businesses can use the road for deliveries. She said her group is meeting with the Port of San Francisco this week to discuss its proposal.

However, the port's legislative affairs manager Boris Delepine told the B.A.R. in a statement that "the meeting in question is part of the stakeholder outreach the WRP [waterfront resilience program] is undertaking to inform the public about the USACE [United States Army Corps of Engineers] flood study and the significant investment needed to protect the city from rising sea levels."

He added, "As with the many other groups that we are meeting with, we look forward to hearing from this group and also sharing the information the WRP has developed in response to the challenge of adapting the shoreline, including the access and mobility concerns that other users of the Embarcadero and people who live and work nearby have raised with Port staff."

'They have a hell of a nerve'
Opposed to both ideas is Quentin Kopp, a former judge, San Francisco supervisor, 1979 mayoral candidate, and state senator, who is the current president of the San Francisco Taxpayers Association and who, incidentally, has a freeway named after him (Interstate 380, between 280 and Highway 101 in San Mateo County).

Kopp told the B.A.R. that "the Embarcadero Freeway was only demolished because of the earthquake" and that "there is no groundswell to duplicate that demolition regarding the Central Freeway."

He noted that the freeway is used daily and has "no structural defects" in it.

"It was built with taxes paid by motor vehicle operators, both state gasoline tax and federal gasoline tax, and they have a hell of a nerve to take that artery from the people who paid for it," said Kopp. "With respect to the Central Freeway, you'd overwhelm Market Street, which is in terrible physical condition. It's full of holes and cracks and it's a pain in the neck to use it, but demolishing the Central Freeway would make traffic worse than it is now."

When asked about the Embarcadero idea, Kopp scoffed, "that's a joke! They'd go crazy in Chinatown."

Kopp is referring to the years of rancor that accompanied the demolition of the freeway. Dianne Feinstein, who defeated Kopp for mayor in 1979, vowed to tear down the Embarcadero Freeway. But late Chinatown community organizer Rose Pak campaigned to keep the structure because it let out on Broadway, blocks from Chinatown merchants.

While the supervisors voted even before the 1989 earthquake to tear down the freeway, voters opted to keep it. Even after Loma Prieta damaged it, the removal was highly controversial.

The city vowed to build the Central Subway, which opened in late 2022 after years of delays, to try and make up for lost revenue to Chinatown merchants. A Board of Supervisors resolution that asked the Chinatown Muni stop be named for Pak credits her "advocacy and support." The SFMTA ended up naming the station for her.

"The San Francisco Taxpayers Association, and I personally, will oppose any effort to eliminate the Central Freeway or motor vehicles on the Embarcadero," Kopp said.

Assemblymember Matt Haney (D-San Francisco), a straight ally and former District 6 supervisor, issued a supportive statement on the Embarcadero proposal to SFGate but declined to comment for this report.

Wiener spokesperson Erik Mebust said that his boss is "not prepared to get involved with the Embarcadero idea at this time."

"Senator Wiener has a long history of supporting car-free spaces, and he is open to all ideas to improve traffic safety and expand people-centered modes of transit," Mebust said. "However, Senator Wiener is not prepared to get involved with the Embarcadero idea at this time given the lack of engagement with a wide array of key stakeholders such as the Embarcadero, Fisherman's Wharf, and Chinatown small business communities. Senator Wiener will be following any such stakeholder engagement closely."

Gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, chair of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, told the B.A.R. that "the Central Freeway proposal is interesting and seems worth exploring; need to learn more about Embarcadero proposal."

Vice Chair District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin, a straight ally, did not answer a request for comment for this report as of press time.

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