Freeway fight
A community joins together to stop a behemoth highway ramp from slicing and endangering its neighborhood.

By Rachel Brahinsky

WHEN THE BULLDOZERS ate into the Fell Street arm of San Francisco's Central Freeway last spring, the demolition opened up views and let light into the surrounding neighborhood in a dramatic way. For residents of a small area known as the North Mission, it was a welcome change.

The streets were no longer shadowed by cement and car traffic. It felt safer to walk around at night. The air was cleaner. Without the hulking freeway overpass that once crossed over Valencia Street, the neighborhood suddenly seemed livable.

But it was never meant to last. As part of a construction plan approved by voters back in 1999 the North Mission portion of the earthquake-damaged freeway is being rebuilt with a massive ramp that will cut through the neighborhood and spill about 4,200 cars an hour onto Market Street.

Today, as construction moves forward, many neighbors believe it's too late to "halt the ramp," as their window signs say, but they haven't stopped fighting.

If the freeway is built as planned, they charge, it will be because neighborhoods pitted themselves against each other in a planning war that should never have been locked in at the ballot box.

Supporters of the soon-to-be-expanded Octavia Street, which will be called Octavia Boulevard, campaigned on the concept of the old freeway being replaced by a ground-level street. But they failed to emphasize that the plan includes a large freeway ramp, which will funnel cars off of Highway 101 and onto the boulevard.

"There's a perception that this is going to help people," resident Alison Miller said. "But most people who voted for the Octavia Boulevard had no idea [part of the freeway] would be rebuilt."

Miller and others have formed the North Mission Neighborhood Alliance to fight the ramp, but they aren't just looking out for the North Mission. Instead, they see themselves as the caretakers of a rich San Francisco heritage of defending livable neighborhoods that goes back at least as far as the 1950s, when the original freeway plan was written. The idea back then was to crisscross the city with a web of elevated highways from the ocean to the bay. Activists fought off the plan in much of the city (see "The Great Freeway Revolt," 3/24/04).

The final remnant of the Central Freeway will probably soon be parked outside Miller's door. And transportation planners say it doesn't have to be that way.

Boulevard or freeway?

Most San Franciscans remember the seemingly endless freeway ballot wars of the late 1990s. Voters were asked three years in a row whether to retrofit or tear down the elevated road, which had been damaged by the 1989 Loma Prieta quake. Residents of the west side clamored for its replacement – angling for quick access to and from Highway 101.

When city hall failed to act, frustrated west-siders put a measure on the November 1997 ballot calling for the freeway to be retrofit; it passed. A year later a competing measure called for it to be demolished and replaced with a tree-lined boulevard through Hayes Valley; it also passed. Then, in 1999, voters faced the same two choices again.

While working on the ballot plan, some tried to move the freeway ramp farther east down Duboce Street, but were unsuccessful. In the end, the boulevard plan, which includes the new freeway ramp, won. Essentially, the core pro-boulevard activists were focused on the freeway's impact on Hayes Valley residents and shoppers, and they've said they squeezed all they could from Caltrans, the state highway agency, which has always been reluctant to give up even an inch of roadway.

There's no question the city is getting a lot out of the deal. A pedestrian-friendly street will replace part of the ugly freeway, and 750 to 900 units of housing (about half of which will be affordable to low-income families) are planned for former freeway land in Hayes Valley that was given to the city by Caltrans to help finance the deal.

Project boosters insist it was the best the city could get. "We managed to get the state to give us those parcels and cut a deal where the state would pay for the ramp," Jose Luis Moscovich, director of the city's Transportation Authority, told us. "We convinced them to put $45,000 into it. If you stop that right now, that money goes into another [Caltrans] project. We would like to see as little freeway mileage in the city as possible, but it has to be thought through."

Still, North Mission residents point out that the greater costs of the project can't be measured in financial terms. They worry about the impact of car exhaust on their children and the danger to pedestrians walking under the dark ramps at night. They are aggravated by the disturbing odd-hour noises from the construction of the project, which requires Caltrans to install massive cement columns before laying a five-lane road above. They say Caltrans typically ignores their concerns about construction, leaving them feeling marginalized.

On top of that, it's all happening to a community that's unquestionably working class. According to census data provided to us by a project opponent, the median annual income in two of the census tracts that make up the North Mission is $26,228 and $44,541, respectively – and the vast majority of residents are renters.

But neither the mayor nor members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, many of whom might normally be sympathetic to these concerns, have been swayed. Moscovich's agency issued a February report showing that stopping the project and moving the ramp would likely cost $170-$230 million. Caltrans has also threatened to take back the land it gave the city.

And then there's the political pressure, felt perhaps most acutely by Sups. Tony Hall and Jake McGoldrick, whose constituencies don't want to add even seconds to their commute.

Which is why when Sup. Bevan Dufty introduced a resolution that would have asked the state to consider stopping construction, it was voted down 7-3.

McGoldrick said he didn't want to miss a chance to build affordable housing. "It's painful, but it's just really late," he said. "We've achieved so much there. It would be a shame to go back."

Tweaking the design

It's hard to imagine anything that could stop the ramp at this late date. Yet the design contradicts city planners' vision for the area. The Planning Department, after years of talks with residents, has suggested the place would be far more livable with less freeway mileage and recommends installing dense housing where the freeway now stands.

It also contradicts the better sense of transportation planners close to the project, who warn that the intersection between the ramp and Market Street will potentially be unsafe.

"There are different standards for highways and city streets," said Jeff Tumlin, a transportation planner who helped with the ramp study. And there are many important, as yet unanswered questions, Tumlin said: "Have we done everything we can to ensure motor vehicles will be driving at a safe urban speed once they reach Market Street? Will the F-Market be delayed? Will bike lanes be safe?"

With all of this in mind, board members are considering a resolution by Sup. Tom Ammiano calling for the new ramp to be torn down when the 1950s roadbed of a connected portion of the freeway needs to be redone, which is expected to be in the next 10 years. In the meantime, the resolution (which was approved by the Board of Supervisors' Land Use Committee April 26) calls for the city to create a sensible, livable land-use plan for the area.

For now, residents continue fighting to make the project as pedestrian friendly as possible. The latest disagreement with Caltrans is over the placement of the massive freeway columns. Some converge on the sidewalks – which, they contend, may be illegal.

And they live with the grim reality that if their warnings are correct, people will likely be injured once the ramp is done. "Once this thing gets built," Miller said, "and 4,000 cars an hour are going onto Market Street and someone gets killed – that's when people will wonder, 'Why did they do this?' ... We're just going to keep fighting till the last bolt goes in."

Go to for more information on the North Mission Neighborhood Alliance.

E-mail Rachel Brahinsky

April 28, 2004