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Demolish the Central Freeway. Build homes, parks and transit

A lively urban street scene with pedestrians, trees, outdoor seating areas, and buildings. A father holding hands with two kids crosses the street near a food truck.
Source: Courtesy Multistudio

By Daniel Owens

The one-mile-long Central Freeway is arguably the ugliest piece of infrastructure in San Francisco. “The Stub,” as I like to call it, has loomed over the heart of the city for six decades, sitting at the nexus of the Mission District, SoMa, Lower Haight, Hayes Valley and several other neighborhoods. 

The Stub acts as a physical and psychological barrier to neighborhood connectivity, blighting the corridor and discouraging foot traffic to nearby small businesses. Four of the 10 most dangerous intersections in San Francisco are either underneath or part of The Stub. Like any other freeway slicing through urban areas, significant pollution encompasses The Stub, creating dangerous AQI levels for thousands of residents and workers. 

The image maps particulate matter in a city, with colors indicating pollution levels: green (low), yellow, orange, and red (high) near Central Freeway and US-101.
A pollution map of the area around the Central Freeway. | Source: Courtesy Multistudio

The Stub’s existence also prevents San Francisco from modernizing infrastructure and the urban streetscape of the surrounding neighborhoods. If removed, the city would finally have the opportunity to expand public transit and create more parks in an area that has the least amount of green space in the entire city. San Francisco is also in the midst of a disastrous housing shortage crisis, leading to exorbitant housing costs and the vast displacement of longtime residents.

If current City Hall leaders are serious about meeting our state housing mandate of building 82,000 new homes by 2031, then they should take a hard look at our proposal for Vision Blvd. We believe that removing the freeway would free up land for thousands of new affordable homes.

Vision Blvd is a grassroots San Francisco campaign led by residents that seeks to remove The Stub once and for all, and replace it with abundant new housing, transit, and parks. This is a vision that looks toward the future while acknowledging current community needs.

Vision Blvd faces many challenges. Whenever freeway removal proposals are introduced, fears of clogged traffic and “carmageddon” emerge. We hear those concerns, and we do not dismiss them. Addressing the traffic issue is one of our biggest priorities. 

Vision Blvd has enlisted traffic engineers and city planners to ensure our plan is sound. Based on our research and analysis, the time it takes vehicles to get from point A to point B will remain about the same once the freeway is removed, as evidenced by previous San Francisco freeway removals that were similar in scope. The Embarcadero and Hayes Valley were rejuvenated as a result of these freeway removals. More studies are, however, in order, and we call on local and state leaders to fund that critical work.

Other local factors stand in our way. Various crises in San Francisco have dominated our political and civic attention. These crises have compelled city leaders to put projects like ours on the back burner, despite the fact that it has been city policy to study Central Freeway alternatives since 2004. 

The image shows a dimly lit, slightly wet street beneath an overpass, with a barbed-wire fence to the left, and light traffic in the background.
The state of things under the Central Freeway. | Source: Courtesy Daniel Owens

The city currently has a $16 billion dollar budget and it would cost about $150,000 to complete a comprehensive study of the impacts of Central Freeway removal, or 0.0009% of the budget. In a time when residents are frustrated by the city’s lack of follow-through on important policy items, do leaders want another 20 years to pass before we get something done?

In a perfect world, City Hall would have the bandwidth to focus on projects like ours, and not be mired in emergencies like rampant homelessness and the fentanyl crisis. Regardless of San Francisco’s current conditions, we will continue to thoughtfully and meticulously advocate for our proposal, because we believe it can help revitalize several neighborhoods impacted by these issues.

Vision Blvd is in the spirit of San Francisco’s long history of dreaming up big ideas and bringing them to life. We built the Golden Gate Bridge. We invented the television. We have been a stronghold of LGBT rights. San Francisco built the world’s largest shipbuilding complex during World War II. The first-ever denim jeans company, Levi Strauss, started here. We attract the best tech industry talent in the world. 

And to really drive home the point, we have already successfully removed two freeways in our city limits. It is in San Franciscans’ DNA to be inventive and creative—to create seismic change that doesn’t require an actual tectonic event. Given broad, citywide support and a completed transportation study within the next year or two, the freeway could be removed soon–not 10 or 20 years down the road. 

The 13th and Division Streets corridor–the Vision Blvd corridor–could be one of the most beautiful and sought-after destinations in all of San Francisco. Future generations are depending on us to create a better, safer, and more livable city for all.

I think San Francisco is up to the task.

Daniel Owens is an SFUSD high school educator, longtime Mission District resident and member of the Vision Blvd campaign.

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