July 2013

Efforts to Tear-Down 280 Continue

Keith Burbank

The idea of replacing part of Interstate 280 with a surface boulevard continues to capture the attention of local urban planners. Last month San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) hosted a panel to discuss issues surrounding a proposal to end I-280 in the area of Mariposa and 17th Streets, as way to create a new gateway into the City and reconnect the Potrero Hill, Showplace Square, Mission Bay and South-of-Market neighborhoods.

“We don’t want to replicate Octavia,” said Greg Riessen, transportation planner, San Francisco Planning Department, referring to the boulevard that was created after part of Highway 101 was torn-down. That project has been criticized for creating a difficult to access intersection.

SPUR is a member-supported organization that focuses on urban and regional issues. Most of the meeting’s 150 attendees consisted of the nonprofit’s members; the room was so packed that people had to sit on the floor. Sarah Karlinsky, deputy director, SPUR, moderated the panel, which included Riessen,; Gillian Gillett, director of transportation policy, City and County of San Francisco; and Jacinta McCann, executive vice president, AECOM, a transportation consulting firm.

According to SPUR, by making three “big moves” the City would create green spaces that reconnect Southside neighborhoods. The first big move would be to underground the new high speed rail and Caltrain. With I-280 in place, plans call for Caltrain and high speed rail to run along existing Caltrain tracks, which are at ground level from Mariposa Street to the Fourth and King streets rail yard. Such an approach would force planners to put Mission Bay Boulevard and the intersection of 16th and Seventh streets underground, walling off the adjacent neighborhoods and undermining “…plans to upgrade 16th Street into a viable transit, pedestrian, bicycle and traffic route,” according to a SPUR article published last month. “We need a different solution,” said Gillett. “Well, what do we want? What can we do?”

Riessen believes that the best answer may be to underground the rail. Under this approach, the underground tracks would begin north of Cesar Chavez Street, go under Mission Bay — featuring a Mission Bay station — and travel to the new TransBay Transit Center. This strategy would also enable the City to redevelop the Fourth and King streets rail yard.

 The second big move, and the project’s essence, would be to replace I-280 with a surface boulevard. According to McCann, that would open up access to Mission Creek and the Bay, creating opportunities for public spaces, such as plazas at Mission Creek and Channel Street. The City could also develop its own version of New York City’s High Line— a public park that was once an elevated railroad — if it leaves a fragment of I-280 standing, offering visitors a view of the surrounding area. The goal, in part, is to prompt travelers to say, “This is where I arrived in San Francisco,” McCann said.

Currently, I-280 runs above the Caltrain tracks until Seventh Street. If the interstate stopped near Mariposa, SPUR envisions crossings at 16th, Irwin, Hooper, and Berry streets. Neighborhoods north and west of Mission Creek Channel would have access to the waterway, likely prompting increased visits to Mission Creek Park.

The last big move — and big challenge — is redeveloping the Fourth and King streets rail yard. Caltrain stores railcars in the yard, and uses it as a staging ground for removing garbage and cleaning restrooms, activities that have to be sited somewhere. The Planning Department has evaluated different scenarios for rail yard redevelopment. One possibility involves building office space above the yard, allowing it to remain in use. Alternatively, the yard could be moved, offering a blank slate for redevelopment. Or the rail yard could be moved, and part of I-280 could be replaced with a surface boulevard.

It’s this scenario that provides the most benefits, according to SPUR, including better urban design, greater capacity for development, and higher land values. A report by Economic & Planning Systems indicates that the value of adjacent land increases when a City removes an urban freeway.

According to the panel, one downside to the project would be the loss of the recent investment made to retrofit I-280, work that was completed after the Loma Prieta earthquake.

The next step, according to SPUR, is to complete a study of the different scenarios, which City staff estimate will cost $2 million. According to panelists, the study should include a cost-benefit analysis, as well as an evaluation of the impacts the changes would have on California’s high speed rail system and the electrification of Caltrain, two projects already underway. “We hope that the City of San Francisco, with participation from regional partners and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, will take the first step and study the big moves…” SPUR wrote in its June article.


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