by Jason Henderson
Second Freeway Revolt (Part 2)
In 1994 the Northridge earthquake in Los Angeles damaged part of that city’s freeway system. There was little public debate about rebuilding the freeways, and the damaged I-10 in Santa Monica was quickly rebuilt. In San Francisco proponents of rebuilding the Central Freeway were awed by the speed of post-earthquake rebuilding in Los Angeles. Across the bay in Oakland, the Cypress Freeway, also shaken down by Loma Prieta in 1989, was under reconstruction by the mid-1990s, despite protests and mixed reviews from some neighborhood residents. Protests in Oakland did not stop the rebuilding of the Cypress Freeway, and this fact was not lost on proponents of rebuilding the Central Freeway. In San Francisco, conservatives were none too thrilled with the city’s second freeway revolt. Against that backdrop, a group of pro-freeway business interests formed a Central Freeway Coalition in 1996 to counter progressive organizing. The Central Freeway Coalition was a business group and included all of the automobile dealerships in the vicinity of the Van Ness Auto Row as well as businesses and institutions that considered automobile access by freeway to be crucial, such as the San Francisco Ballet, hotels on Van Ness Avenue, and a number of real estate agencies, law firms, restaurants, and local shops.
Auto dealership at Van Ness and Geary, 1923.
Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library
The Central Freeway Coalition advocated for Caltrans to fully rebuild the freeway as an elevated, single-deck crossing over Market Street and connecting the Fell and Oak couplets with new ramps. In an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle the Central Freeway Coalition argued that San Francisco’s sales tax base would decline because auto-oriented costumers would shop elsewhere and that this in turn would kill the retail viability of the Van Ness corridor and the downtown.(20) The group claimed that retail jobs would then be lost and that the performing arts institutions at the Civic Center would lose patronage. They lobbied the city’s political establishment and sent representatives to public hearings on the freeway. The Central Freeway Coalition also allied with the California Academy of Sciences, which was located in Golden Gate Park and was dependent on regional automobile access via the Fell and Oak couplet, as well as with some residents and businesses of the Sunset and Richmond Districts. These west-side interests wanted to preserve automobile access to the freeway via the Fell and Oak one-way couplets. The coalition’s reasoning was that cars were natural, necessary for economic activity, and not going away, invoking a conservative essentializing discourse about automobility and the freeway.
Freeway proponents sought to spin the livability discourse to favor the freeway. They reasoned that a rebuilt elevated freeway would keep traffic off local streets, making it safer to walk, and that the elevated structure would minimize disruption to Muni operations on Market Street and Haight Street, two key transit routes. Some also promoted a tunnel variation that had aesthetic appeal, although it was extremely costly compared to an elevated structure. Members of the Central Freeway Coalition wrote letters to the editor of both dailies, the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner, accusing Hayes Valley neighborhood activists of being NIMBYs concerned only about property values at the expense of citywide mobility needs and framing progressive transportation advocates as obstructionist.
A second front in the movement to rebuild the freeway came out of a new west-side Chinese American faction with a conservative politics toward automobility. Beginning in the 1980s and through the 1990s, Chinese Americans moved into the west side, using their frugal savings and pooling their incomes to buy homes, and, as they moved, many of these households enthusiastically adopted automobility. Politically active white conservatives courted the new Chinese American property-owning class on the west side as early as 1991.(21) White conservative organizations financed voter registration drives among the Chinese American electorate, and conservative Chinese voters defected from the politically liberal Chinatown establishment that had been in power since the late 1960s.
The new conservative, home-owning and car-driving Chinese electorate voted for the conservative Jordan for mayor in 1991, aiding in the defeat of the progressive Agnos. Chinese American conservatives were pro-growth and antitax, and they favored less government and reductions in social services. Jordan returned the favor of this voting bloc by getting the planning commission, which he appointed, to change the planning code to allow more housing on the west side, albeit not the kind of high-density housing found in eastern parts of the city. The San Francisco Neighbors Association coalesced out of this politics. It promoted new family homes with abundant parking and often characterized by large, unsightly garage doors facing the street and commanding the entire width of the front of the house.
At the time of the Central Freeway debate, there were two ideological factions within the Chinese American voting bloc.(22) There was an established progressive politics centered in Chinatown with ties to the local Democratic Party. These progressives usurped the power of the Six Companies, which had operated as Chinatown’s political voice for a century.(23)
They linked to federally funded social service programs for assimilating immigrants and were part of a cluster of nonprofits with strong bonds to the civil rights movement. These nonprofits organized lower-income Chinese immigrants and helped them settle in Chinatown as well as in Visitacion Valley and the Excelsior on the south side of the city.
On the other hand, middle-class Chinese American property owners tended to be more conservative and ally with traditional west-side conservative politics, particularly on transportation. Through the San Francisco Neighbors Association, these conservatives were politically organized and sought to usurp power from the progressive Chinatown faction. They used a Cantonese-language radio program as an organizing tool because many of the new Chinese homeowners were not proficient in English. Conservative advocates used the radio forum to agitate and stoke the anger of their audience over the proposal to tear down the Central Freeway. Many of the listeners were personally indebted to Chinese American leaders who had helped them buy property, often at low prices relative to the east side of the city, and so they trusted and deferred to this leadership in local politics.
Since many in the Chinese American community did not speak English fluently, they heard only one side of the debate, and they heard that the American dream included owning a home and a car. The pro-freeway advocates took it a step further, pontificating that Hayes Valley radicals were going to make it impossible for them to use their new automobiles. An angry subset of an ethnic community was now organized to fight free-way removal. The anger spread, leading to the formation of another grass-roots organization called the Coalition to Save the Central Freeway, which included white and Chinese American conservatives.(24)
In the meantime Caltrans gave the debate added momentum in 1995 and 1996. Just as progressives pushed harder for removal and conservatives pushed back, Caltrans circulated an internal memorandum stressing that the freeway segment from Mission Street to Fell Street was in danger of imminent collapse.(25) The memo urged Caltrans to immediately under-take a complete rebuilding or retrofitting of the freeway from Mission to Fell, irrespective of the more deliberative planning process then under way. It warned that the upper deck of the structure would collapse in the event of an earthquake and that the probability of another earthquake occurring was high.
The Central Freeway at Fell and Octavia streets, August 12, 1965.
Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library
ASTAC activists responded that here was evidence that the entire free-way should be promptly removed. Caltrans, using traffic data, instead insisted that the freeway be rebuilt expeditiously in order to avoid a regional “traffic nightmare.”(26) If progressive advocates had their way, Caltrans reasoned, queues of vehicles waiting to exit the freeway westbound at the new Mission Street off-ramp would extend onto the mainline freeways of I-80 and US 101 and impede Bay Bridge and Peninsula traffic. Caltrans predicted that all motorists heading to the Central Freeway from the south would experience a thirty-minute delay.(27)
Embellishing the prophecy of a traffic nightmare, the Department of Parking and Traffic (DPT) floated a traffic management proposal to convert some residential streets in Hayes Valley into one-way arterials to detour traffic through the area. The DPT asked Caltrans to open vacant lots adjacent to the freeway for residential parking so on-street parking could be removed to create additional travel lanes. The DPT’s position was that if the freeway was removed, city surface streets had to be reconfigured to accommodate the corresponding increase in the amount of traffic, reflecting the logic that created one-way couplets throughout the city in the 1950s and 1960s.
DPT’s proposal was beat back by ASTAC. The structurally compromised segment of the Central Freeway, from Mission Street to Fell Street, was shut down on August 26, 1996, as Caltrans peeled off the upper deck. The predicted traffic nightmare did not occur. Instead, traffic volumes actually dropped on some streets in Hayes Valley. The Fell and Oak couplet obviously saw deep reductions in traffic. Since they fed into Golden Gate Park, reductions occurred there too. Caltrans acknowledged that the mainline 101 and I-80 flowed smoothly, not worse, as predicted. By the week after Labor Day, Caltrans reported that 30 percent of the Central Freeway traffic had disappeared.(28)
In a follow-up study of the freeway closure, traffic counts, surveys of motorists, and focus groups of former freeway users revealed that 76 percent of drivers used another ramp to access the regional freeway system, including 19th Avenue.(29) Up to 11 percent of motorists shifted their trip entirely to city surface streets, 2.2 percent of drivers shifted to transit, and 2.8 percent of drivers no longer made the trip previously made on the freeway. Caltrans concluded that a public information campaign alerting drivers of alternatives was a success and that drivers experimented with options and learned new ways to navigate the city by car. The evidence was that a traffic nightmare did not ensue after a segment of urban freeway was removed without a replacement boulevard. This reinforced progressives’ arguments for full freeway removal, but that in turn alarmed the proponents of rebuilding, compelling them to act more aggressively.
In March 1997, nine months after closure, pressure to reopen the Fell Street ramp mounted. The California Academy of Sciences urged its members to write to the mayor and the Board of Supervisors to support the rebuilding of the Central Freeway.(30) The academy alleged that its attendance was suffering because the Central Freeway was not yet rebuilt. Merchants in the Upper Haight claimed that their businesses were suffering because the freeway was down. The San Francisco Chronicle lamented that Hayes Valley was dictating the terms of the discussion and called for citywide participation in the debate.(31) A new transit advocacy organization, Rescue Muni, established to advocate from a neoliberal, businesslike perspective for improvements to Muni, weighed in, suggesting that Muni was stuck in the traffic of the closed freeway.(32) Yielding under all of that pressure, city officials reopened the Fell Street ramp in April 1997.
Complementing the reopening of part of the freeway, a new environ-mental impact assessment, required by the Federal Highway Administration and heavily influenced by Caltrans and city traffic engineers, provided more ammunition for proponents of rebuilding the entire freeway.(33) The environmental assessment used conventional traffic engineering techniques that predictably forecast congestion and assumed that automobile use would grow. It warned that freeway removal would cause widespread congestion at intersections throughout the Market and Octavia area and add an average of five minutes’ travel time for a motorist previously using the Fell Street ramp. It warned that businesses in Hayes Valley, Japantown (to the north of Hayes Valley on Geary), and in the Haight-Ashbury would decline owing to the removal of the Fell Street ramp and the increased travel times for motorists.(34) It cited self-reported anecdotal evidence from west-side businesses that claimed delays in daily deliveries and stated that the Academy of Sciences and the Exploratorium in the Marina District had a decline in patronage attributable to ramp removal. Last, the report reiterated Caltrans’s position that freeway removal would cause a traffic nightmare on the mainline US 101 and I-80.
The environmental impact assessment essentialized automobility, characterizing increased automobility as inevitable. The language and tone of the report clearly advocated the rebuilding of the freeway. The report did not consider that in the future there could be less traffic and more bicycling and transit use. Fundamentally the analysis presumed the continued dominance of automobility and never entertained the idea of transit-first treatments to streets and increased walking or bicycling; it looked solely at the traffic impacts in the immediate area, assuming that all the existing freeway users would converge there, despite contrary evidence that traffic dispersed after the entire freeway was temporarily shut down months before.
Not surprisingly, public hearings on the draft environmental assessment were highly polarized. The emotional nature of the issue led people in the audience to boo and jeer at the hearing on April 23, 1997, held in the Veterans Memorial Building, a large hall in the Civic Center area that accommodated the boisterous audience.(35) A few days after the hearing the Board of Supervisors held a unique Saturday hearing to vet public sentiment about the environmental assessment. Both hearings, though highly charged, were inconclusive. The proponents of rebuilding felt vindicated by the environmental assessment and used it to rally citywide support to quickly rebuild the freeway. Advocates of removal argued that the data were flawed and that the fundamental assumptions in the environmental assessment skewed the results toward rebuilding. They asked for a sec-ond opinion, requesting that the Board of Supervisors direct its in-house transportation agency to conduct its own analysis of the alternatives.(36)
Supervisor Sue Bierman, a progressive of freeway revolt fame in the six-ties, and other board members requested that the city undertake its own review, and the resulting report was skeptical of the conclusions drawn in the environmental impact assessment promoted by freeway proponents.
The second opinion, by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA), suggested that the environmental assessment and other Caltrans reports on traffic were confusing and conflicting.(37) It highlighted that full removal was actually the cheapest of the alternatives analyzed and that removal would distribute traffic in such a way that it was more dispersed and thus equitable because no single neighborhood was absorbing the brunt of automobility. The SFCTA’s second opinion also argued that even though more intersections would be congested by removing the freeway, the congestion was really acute only during rush hour while at most other times of the day freeway removal would not cause traffic. The report hinted that Hayes Valley was being sacrificed for rush hour traffic.
The SFCTA warned that regardless of which alternative was chosen there would be cost overruns and a lengthy construction period. The full rebuilding of the freeway would take four to five years and thus be the most disruptive option. As was the case with the temporary shutdown of the freeway in 1996, traffic would have to be rerouted and dispersed throughout the city, but this time for up to five years. Motorists would behave rationally, as they had before, and find detour routes and establish new patterns that exhibit that the freeway was not necessary. Full re-building was also the most expensive of the options in overall engineering and construction costs and would have a major funding shortfall because emergency funds set aside after the earthquake in 1989 were depleted and no other funds identified. The SFCTA report did not explicitly select a preferred option, but the comparison of the alternatives was least enthusiastic about rebuilding an elevated freeway to Fell Street.
There were now two sets of evidence in front of the public. One, the environmental impact assessment conducted by the Federal Highway Administration with the collaboration of Caltrans and city traffic engineers stressed that if the freeway to Fell Street were not rebuilt a traffic nightmare would engulf much of the eastern half of the city. The second report, requested by progressives on the Board of Supervisors and conducted by the board-controlled SFCTA, suggested that not rebuilding the freeway would be manageable and that traffic would disperse. Both sides dug in. Progressives were armed with both a report and physical evidence from the temporary shutdown that a traffic nightmare would not occur with removal. Conservative activists had their own evidence and data that warned that continued future growth in automobility would overwhelm the city unless the freeway was rebuilt. This pushed conservative activists into a deeper political commitment to rebuild. In the meantime, neoliberals, the heirs to the Keynesian business elites, etched out a role in the debate as well.
Neoliberals and Freeway Removal
After the earthquake in 1989 part of the decision to tear down the Embarcadero Freeway had a neoliberal hue, that is, using market forces to shape transportation policy in what was ostensibly a privileged space along the waterfront. Special legislation was crafted that required the city to provide an adequate surface street to handle the traffic previously carried by the freeway, today’s Embarcadero Boulevard and Promenade. Built into the legislation was a financing scheme stipulating that the land parcels beneath the former freeway be sold at market rates and that the proceeds be used to help finance construction of the boulevard. Real estate speculators and global corporations like the apparel giant the GAP would purchase signature waterfront properties on some of the former freeway parcels, a beautifully landscaped waterfront promenade and boulevard were constructed, and those same parcels, now privatized, doubtless increased even more in value. A few blocks inland, other former freeway parcels were part of this approach, eventually including a handful of luxury high-rise condominium projects.
This financing scheme reflected an emerging neoliberal turn in cities and signaled a retreat from Keynesian policies for public finance. Neo-liberalism accompanied a substantial retrenchment in federal funding of urban programs during the 1980s, forcing localities to take on more of the burden for providing local needs like transportation. In California this retrenchment was accentuated by the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, which froze local property taxes to 1975 values, limited the rate for reassessing property values, and required a two-thirds supermajority vote in a plebiscite for any local special tax increases, such as for transportation. The combination of federal and state defunding of urban infrastructure meant that cities like San Francisco had scarce resources to take on the removal or replacement of a freeway. To compensate for the loss of public finance, the land, some of which was held by the city redevelopment agency, was sold at market rate.
As the Central Freeway was debated in the mid-1990s, the neoliberal financing arrangement gained traction among some progressives, signaling a rapprochement with the city’s neoliberal land development class. Progressive advocates recognized that money, not just conservative opposition, stood in the way of freeway removal. Activists in Hayes Valley and in the broader sustainable transportation movement came to cautiously accept the notion that adopting the neoliberal approach of land sale could be the best way to achieve their vision of removal. However, while progressives were overwhelmingly in favor of eliminating the freeway and conservatives adamantly opposed to it, the neoliberal land development class had a disjointed, ambivalent view of the matter, reflecting a broader ambivalence toward automobility.
On the one hand, the Central Freeway provided high-speed, high-volume automobile access to specific locations important to the neoliberal class, such as the Civic Center performing arts venues, which were adorned by the philanthropic wealth of capitalist elites. The Civic Center was a major regional destination, and the elite did not take the bus to the symphony or the opera. Recognizing this, the SFPD characterized the freeway as a significant factor in the array of components supporting the Civic Center area and even suggested that a new or expanded parking facility be built adjacent to newly rebuilt freeway ramps.(38) On the other hand, freeway removal, coupled with developmental opportunities in the former path of the freeway, meant there was much profit to be made on urban infill and densification in a centrally located part of the city that was relatively well served by public transit. The SFPD touted the development potential of Hayes Valley and stated that the eventual rebuilding of the Central Freeway “should be done in such a manner as best meet[s] the needs of adjacent neighborhoods.”(39)
The SFPD, as proxy for the development class, was promoting Hayes Valley as an area well suited to dense, transit-oriented housing and invoking the emerging livability discourse. Yet it paradoxically called for doubling the number of parking spaces in the Performing Arts garage adjacent to the arts venues, signaling that generous automobile access to entertainment was still a priority for city planners, and it assumed abundant parking in the new housing developments as well.(40) The consideration of the Central Freeway required neoliberals to weigh these competing out-comes, and the decision to rebuild or remove the freeway was not as clear-cut to them as it was to progressives and conservatives. Neoliberal ambiguity offered openings to progressives, exposed fissures in the political landscape, and further agitated the entire public planning process around the freeway.
The election of Willie Brown as mayor in 1995 summoned confusion and contradiction in regard to neoliberal discourses about the Central Freeway. Previously a state senator and major fundraiser in the California Democratic Party, Mayor Brown, who had strong ties to large-scale developers, initially committed to fixing transportation problems in San Francisco, particularly Muni. But he resisted such proposals as imposing new fees and an assessment district on downtown landowners, bowing to neoliberal opposition to taxes. During the row in 1996 over the temporary shutdown of the Central Freeway, Caltrans and pro-freeway advocates convinced Brown to expedite the rebuilding of the freeway rather than permanently shut it down. The new mayor, not wishing to be blamed if freeways collapsed in another earthquake, tacitly approved the proposal to remove the upper deck for safety reasons. Yet, as Caltrans wanted, he simultaneously endorsed the retrofitting of the lower deck in a way that expanded its width from two to four lanes.(41)
The CFCTF and others saw this as a backdoor attempt to achieve full rebuilding without proper public vetting because once the segment from Mission Street to Fell Street was retrofitted, it would be considerably harder to make a case for demolition of the freeway.(42) The chair of the CFCTF, a structural engineer wary of the freeway’s durability, wrote an op-ed in the San Francisco Examiner stating that the task force unanimously opposed the Caltrans–Brown maneuvering, supported full freeway removal, and argued that the Caltrans scheme was really permanent.(43) Sensing the disappointment of both progressives and some neoliberals, including members of SPUR, Mayor Brown sent a letter to Caltrans asking that the entire Central Freeway be temporarily torn down from Fell to Mission Streets. But the letter also stated that the city’s position rested in favor of an eventual, though undefined, replacement structure.(44)
Brown next sent a liaison to meet with ASTAC and subsequently asked Caltrans to reconsider a full-removal alternative in their environmental impact analysis. For advocates of total freeway removal, the politics of possibilities were fluctuating but gaining momentum. Caltrans had tried to use fear to compel a rapid rebuilding, but that strategy backfired, and now, with neoliberal ambivalence being expressed through Mayor Brown, removal was still an option. Vacillating yet again, Brown, fearing political backlash over traffic, agreed to allow Caltrans to tear down the top deck of the Central Freeway while retrofitting the lower deck. At a public hear-ing on June 5, 1996, advocates for full freeway removal pointed out the manipulative safety and traffic nightmare rhetoric and ridiculed Brown for having wavered indecisively, accusing him of a failure of leadership.(45)
Brown was ridiculed as well by pro-freeway advocates.(46) The Central Freeway Coalition urged that no demolition of the freeway occur until money for rebuilding was identified and an environmental report was conducted. The group’s position was that the upper deck should be removed for safety reasons, but that the retrofitting of the lower deck should be done in a permanent manner, not just temporarily, as suggested in the agreement between Brown and Caltrans. They were worried that Brown would have parts of the freeway removed temporarily and then claim there was no money left for rebuilding.
The confusing, ambivalent positions on the freeway became more pronounced when Brown, after dithering multiple times, came to appreciate the idea of a surface boulevard north of Market Street rather than an elevated freeway. Pressed on by progressive planners who wished to remain anonymous, Brown directed the planning department to draw up renderings of a hypothetical Parisian-style boulevard with new buildings on land that once lay beneath the freeway. Brown had the renderings displayed at his State of the City speech in 1997, and he loosely endorsed the concept. The development potential of the former freeway parcels had convinced the mayor that there was an economic benefit to freeway removal, and this suggested neoliberal compromise with an otherwise progressive idea.
The city next recruited the former director of the SFPD Allan Jacobs and his partner, Elizabeth MacDonald, who had researched boulevards in other cities, notably Paris and Barcelona.(47) The pair proposed a boulevard with six lanes, two of which were side lanes with on-street parking. The four inner lanes were divided by landscaped medians and separated from the outer parking lanes by more landscaped medians. Two wide side-walks rounded out the edges of the boulevard plan. With Mayor Brown’s approval, a political consensus was emerging between progressives and neoliberal land developers that the freeway would be torn down north of Market Street. The consensus partly addressed progressives’ broader agenda of challenging automobility and promoting livability. To neoliberal developers, the land underneath the former freeway signaled opportunity for profit.
There was no real, lasting, solidified coalition between progressives and neoliberals so much as the seedlings of an ad hoc agreement that the removal of a short segment of freeway benefited both neoliberal developers and progressives. Progressives knew that if they were to achieve freeway removal they had to have political allies beyond their normal bailiwick of environmentalists and sustainable transportation advocates. Therefore, by 1997 ASTAC was promoting freeway removal not simply as a tactic against automobility but also as an economic development tool that would benefit private developers. In sum, this was a tacit settlement between neoliberals and progressives that shunted aside the conservative vision of a full freeway rebuild. The rapprochement would be tested in three rounds of ballot-box planning for the Central Freeway.