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Taking Down a Freeway to Reconnect Neighborhoods

Taking down a freeway—as radical as that sounds—is not a new idea. Paris, Milwaukee, Seoul and New York are among the cities who’ve removed them.

Taking down a freeway—as radical as that sounds—is not a new idea. Paris, Milwaukee, Seoul and New York are among the cities who’ve removed them. In San Francisco, two major freeways—the double-decker freeway that rounded the Embarcadero and the Central Freeway that cut through Hayes Valley—were demolished and replaced with surface boulevards after being damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta quake. These neighborhoods have since enjoyed a renaissance through freeway demolition that healed scarred communities.

In San Francisco, it wasn’t the earthquake that actually got the freeways taken down; there and in the other cities where such major pieces of infrastructure have been removed, it was the hard work of individuals who wanted to see something better in their city.

Changes in cities don’t just happen. People have to develop a vision for change, and convince others that such change is good. People with technical expertise need to weigh in to make sure the details work; politicians have to find the political will to make it happen. The people who had the vision in the first place need to hold on to that vision and push forward even when all hope seems lost.

San Francisco again finds itself with another opportunity to take down a freeway while creating major transportation infrastructure improvements in an important area of the city. Currently, the stub end of Interstate 280 creates a barrier between the developing Mission Bay neighborhood and Potrero Hill. At the same time, the Caltrain railyard—19 acres stretching from Fourth Street to Seventh Street between King and Townsend—divides Mission Bay and SoMa. These obstructions will worsen if current plans for California's high-speed rail proceed, forcing 16th Street and Mission Bay Boulevard into below-ground trenches beneath the tracks and the elevated freeway.

SPUR has an alternative plan, one that can transform this part of the city while also generating funding for several key regionally important transit projects—namely, the electrification of Caltrain, the extension of Caltrain into the Transbay Terminal, and putting high-speed rail underground, as opposed to having it travel at street level right through Potrero Hill and Mission Bay. These changes would have an enormous positive impact on the eastern part of San Francisco, helping to better connect neighborhoods while strengthening the region’s transit network.

SPUR's provocative plan represents its desire to be part of a conversation that is starting to percolate amongst increasing numbers of people interested in replacing portions of Highway 280 with something better. The work is meant to lead to more questions and ideas, more thinking, more asking “What if?” It is the first step forward on what will be most certainly a very long path towards change.

Enter the 280 Freeway Competition, from AIA San Francisco, Studio for Urban Projects, the Architectural Foundation and the San Francisco Planning Department, and co-sponsored by SPUR. The competition asks participants to submit concepts for public art, buildings, landscape treatments, public amenities and infrastructure, or other urban design interventions that would be made possible with the replacement of the elevated Highway 280 north of 16th Street with a surface boulevard. Click here to say you'll do it.

Images courtesy of SPUR

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