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Forget the Central Subway—what’s happening with the Central Freeway?

In a compact city that prides itself on progressive urban design and desperately needs more housing, public officials have inexplicably ignored one especially promising area for innovative development: the land now occupied by the remainder of the Central Freeway.

A deep dive into San Francisco’s General Plan, the city's blueprint for development, reveals a 2005 provision requiring that the city examine the community impact of removing the elevated highway connecting the 101 to Market Street. But the study was never done, despite the obvious benefits that have come from the demolition of the northern part of the Central Freeway.

An illustration of the Central Freeway in San Francisco, Calif. | Lu Chen/TheStandard

Now, a group of local residents is leading an effort to bring down the remainder of the roadway. Major cities from Seattle to Boston are reclaiming land occupied by freeways to knit together neighborhoods, and SF’s housing crisis makes it especially important to do the same here, these community activists say.

Daniel Owens is the leader of a campaign to remove the remainder of the 1959-built Central Freeway. The high school teacher, a 15-year North Mission resident who lives beside the freeway, has sought guidance and support from city nonprofits, neighborhood associations and even a political action committee.

“The neighborhood would be a million times better if we just got rid of it,” Owens said. “We have the opportunity to create a really beautiful boulevard at the street level, create more housing, [and] possibly add a public transit option.”

Owens is far from alone in that belief.

Daniel Owens poses for a portrait next to the Central Freeway in San Francisco Calif., on Saturday, Aug. 27, 2022. Owens, a resident that lives two blocks away from the Central Freeway is advocating for its removal to make the area more pedestrian and neighborhood friendly. | Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

Lynn Valente was among a group of neighborhood activists who called for removing the freeway completely after it sustained damage in the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. “My understanding is they kept it to mollify the west side of the city,” Valente said. “But if my understanding is correct, it wasn't that big of a difference.”

Recent streetscape improvements being made beneath the freeways on 13th Street have re-energized her opposition to the freeway. She’s tried to mobilize neighbors, saying they can put in bike lanes and make better crosswalks all they want, but it won’t improve the area until the freeway is removed.

The existing skate park, dog park and McCoppin Hub, which are currently in the freeway’s shadow, would be “lovely” if it were removed, she said.

“It's dark. It's unsafe. People really don't want to walk there, and cars are zipping through,” Valente said. “It could really be a vital part of the city. It's so central to everything. Public transportation is all around. It's a great place to live because you can walk everywhere.”

Martha Zulke, 59, crosses the street under the Central Freeway, in San Francisco, Calif. on August 29, 2022. | James Wyatt for The Standard

Owens is enlisting neighbors to the cause. He has sought guidance from the nonprofit Livable City, and members of the Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association expressed support for the plan this summer, as have members of the political action committee GrowSF, he said. Owens also said he had the support of some elected officials but declined to name them.

Neither Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association nor GrowSF has taken an official public position yet. However, Jen Laska, who has leadership positions in both organizations, said the neighborhood association’s membership has been supportive of taking down the freeway for many years.

Livable City Executive Director Tom Radulovich said that the city needed to act: “It's a decaying piece of infrastructure that we'll either spend a zillion dollars rebuilding or doing something different, but that requires us figuring out what, as a city, we want to do with it.” 

A Very Brief History 

In 1999, voters approved a proposition to build Octavia Boulevard to replace the concrete section of the Central Freeway west of Market Street severely damaged 10 years earlier.

As the project advanced, calls to study the removal of the eastern section of the freeway mounted. In 2004, then-Supervisor Bevan Dufty, who now sits on the BART board, directed the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA) to study relocating the freeway’s on-and off-ramps and managed to narrowly pass legislation directing city agencies to study the complete replacement of the elevated freeway with a boulevard.

“My recollection was that I was an island of one, and I don’t believe departments took the effort seriously,” Dufty said.

The Central Freeway in San Francisco, Calif. on August 29, 2022. | James Wyatt for The Standard

The legislation urged the governor at the time to commit Caltrans to work with the city to study alternatives to the freeway and to postpone retrofits to lessen the negative impacts on the surrounding neighborhoods.

Then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom did not end up signing the legislation, and Caltrans did end up retrofitting the freeway. But in his current role as governor, Newsom could order Caltrans to study the impact of the freeway’s removal. His office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

A Matter of City Policy

What’s most intriguing about the question of the Central Freeway is tucked away in San Francisco’s General Plan, which outlines the city’s plans and policies for guiding growth.

The plan’s “Transportation Element” calls for a comprehensive study of removing the Central Freeway south of Market Street to analyze neighborhood livability, transportation and economic benefits and impacts.

Sections of the Central Freeway in San Francisco, Calif. on Aug. 26, 2022. | Paul Kuroda for The Standard

San Francisco County Transportation Authority Executive Director Tilly Chang, who was unaware of the provision, said it is actually the San Francisco Planning Department that needs to take the lead in initiating the study in question.

“If there's going to be a discussion about taking down the freeway, it really needs to include land use,” Chang said, referring to the policy decisions around what types of housing and industry could be built and operated in the area.

Planning Director Rich Hillis declined to be interviewed for this article. The department, meanwhile, is working to fend off a state investigation into the city’s housing production.

“This is an important issue,” mayoral spokesperson Parisa Safarzadeh said. “We're definitely looking into it and getting more information.”

The Salesforce tower is seen from under the Central Freeway in San Francisco, Calif. on August 29, 2022. | James Wyatt for The Standard

Elizabeth Deakin, a retired UC Berkeley urban design professor, said city government ignoring general plans is a problem not just in San Francisco but statewide. She prescribed adding an “Implementation Element”—as in, timing on projects—to bolster chances that plan goals are met.

“Where we trip up is actually putting the plans into effect,” Deakin said. “And we see it's not just transportation. It's the same problem that we have with our housing elements and affordable housing requirements.”

The Planning Department is updating the transportation section of the General Plan this year. What will happen to the section regarding the comprehensive study of the Central Freeway and the impact of taking it down remains to be seen.

A Vision for the Future

San Francisco State geography professor Jason Henderson has participated in public meetings about the future of the Central Freeway and written a chapter about the debate in his 2013 book, Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Francisco.

The Transportation Authority has limited capacity, he said, and it prioritized other projects over the Central Freeway, such as removing Interstate 280 in Mission Bay.

Henderson and amateur urban planners estimate that the potential for mixed-use development on the land the freeway occupies would be substantial.

The Central Freeway ends on Octavia St., lower left (out of frame), on Friday, Aug. 26, 2022 in San Francisco, Calif. | Paul Kuroda for The Standard

UC Berkeley student Qingchun Li’s 2021 plan for turning the Central Freeway into 4,000 housing units, two parks and a tree-lined boulevard earned a merit award from Congress for New Urbanism.

The redevelopment of the freeway also has a strong social justice aspect because of its location in the middle of the city, according to Henderson. “This is where we need to put workforce housing, so people can get to the city jobs, like emergency responders and the teachers,” he said.

Owens, the teacher who launched this latest campaign to raze the freeway, has his work cut out for him. While he says the organizations and people he’s spoken to agree in principle, it will be difficult to muster the political will.

Daniel Owens poses for a portrait next to the Central Freeway in San Francisco Calif., on Saturday, Aug. 27, 2022. | Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

“It’s going to be hard for everyone to put aside their differences and work together,” he said. “But we have to do it if we’re serious about mass transit, more affordable housing, climate change and more bike and pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods.” 

Owens has already a new unifying name in mind for the new street should his dream come true.

“Name it ‘Vision Boulevard’ instead of Division Street,” he said.