01 February 2016

The edge between crazy and brilliant ideas: the case for reconnecting SoMa by tearing down I-80

Sometimes great ideas arrive a little bit too late for their time. But sometimes that great idea can spark an actional step forward. What if we built a new freeway linking I-280 to I-80 through SoMa, and then tore down I-80 further west to open up SoMa and reconnect it like it once was before the 1950s. Removing the great dividing line that is I-80 through SoMa could rekindle a neighborhood, but the devil is it would take dividing another part. Would it be worth it?
Green parcels open up new land, while the orange lines show where a SoMa Link connects I-80 to I-280. Image: Screen cap from GavVerma drove video.
SoMa Link Proposal. Image base map: My Maps by Google

This 1970s rendering of a Yerba Buena Sports Arena would have had the arena in the place of Moscone South along Howard between 3rd and 4th streets. Image: Eric Fischer

The edge between what gets built and what is a curious unbuilt proposal is a thin line. Moscone Center may have included an arena while the BART system may have never happened without narrowly passing with the 60% required vote.

The future of Mission Bay's I-280, the Downtown Rail Extension (DTX), and the Fourth and King railyard are the focus of with Railyard Alternatives and I-280 Boulevard Study (RAB). I've covered the DTX alignment alternatives before, and a bit about a future HSR railyard. However, I'd like to focus on the removal of freeways this time. The study, and several other folks have proposed removing the freeway north of 16th St, or even Cesar Chavez, which means taking down 0.85 miles or 2 miles of the freeway, and converting much of it into a boulevard. Much of the benefit of removing the freeway would be to connect the growing Mission Bay and Design District (Potrero Flats) neighborhoods with new street connections.

View of Brannan and 5th Street where freeway could pass. The iconic red Coca Cola billboard sign would not be affected. Image: Sean Whitney "Pinterest Development at 505 Brannan" via Vimeo
But what if we might bet better off tearing down a different freeway, and keeping the I-280. Instead, what if two bigger neighborhoods were reconnected while maintaining freeway access from the Bay Bridge to points south in San Francisco and beyond into the Peninsula? Wouldn't a freeway removal that maintains regional connectivity, but also benefits more local residents, affecting a wider population, and with greater development potential be the better choice? Let's examine a proposal that may just do that.

First I'll lay out the proposal, address the "that's crazy and stupid", and finally go into the great opportunities, obstacles, and benefits.

The proposal

The SoMa Link Proposal
  • Remove the 1950s section of I-80 between the Fifth Street exit/entrance to the Central Freeway. 
  • Maintain access between Highway 101 and I-80 and the Bay Bridge, by connecting I-280 to I-80 at Fifth Street. 
  • Redevelop the vacated I-80 parcels to:
    • Pay for the 280-80 link
    • Fund creation of new parks
    • Develop a majority of parcels through sale and lease of vacated land
As shown in the map below, by removing 0.85 miles of I-80 in SoMa you would gain 27.5 acres of land. To achieve this, I-280 would be extended 0.40 miles from its current terminus at Sixth and Townsend to I-80 at Fifth and Bryant. A little over 7 acres of land would need to be acquired for the new freeway connection. Effectively the SoMa link would net a minimum 20 acres of land with only adding 2,100 feet of new freeway.

Note, the connecting of I-280 to I-80 was proposed before back in the 1974. This alternative for connecting the two highways would have gone down Sixth Street in what appears to possibly be a double decker freeway.
Image: Eric Fischer

That's crazy!
The SoMa Link proposal has many compelling elements, but let's look at some of its drawbacks and parse them out. There are several.

We Don't Build Freeways in San Francisco - We Tear Them Down
Well yes, it does seem a bit wild to build new freeway to eliminate freeway. However there is precedent with the Central Freeway removal, which was torn down from Fell and Laguna all the way back to Van Ness and Division (0.65 miles), but was rebuilt for 0.35 miles to reach Market Street and enable Octavia Boulevard and Patricia's Green park. Similarly, Providence, RI tore down and relocated a portion of I-195 and opened up 20 acres to new downtown development. We'd be gaining in the big picture.