"As we saw this weekend with the filming of the new TV series 'Trauma,' we can close a section of 280 and it doesn't back up all the way to San Bruno," said Mayor Newsom. "I'm committed to actively looking for projects where we can transform our streets into public open space, especially in neighborhoods that have so little of it. Show me another project that gives back more space to our great city than this."
Mayor Newsom painted a grand vision of a ribbon park in the footprint of the current freeway and said the city would rezone much of the area for residential development, much of which would be affordable housing, he claimed. "Think Rock Creek Park for the next century," said Mayor Newsom. "If New York City can convert an old rail line through Manhattan into the Highline Park, surely we can transform our outdated infrastructure into green space."
Caltrans' Kempton said that the agency had considered various freeways that underperformed their transportation function after the successful removal of segments of the Embarcadero Freeway and Central Freeway to Market Street, but said that they weren't seriously thinking about this section of I-280 until Mayor Newsom approached Governor Schwarzenegger late last year.
"We've understood that it was possible to make changes to further segments of the Embarcadero Freeway," said Kempton, "but we didn't see it as a priority until Mayor Newsom made it so. Now, we're only committing to study it, but we know the Obama administration is looking for innovative transportation projects, and I wouldn't be surprised if there are unspent federal stimulus funds from other states that we can apply for in six months, a year from now."
"Highway de-construction can be just as shovel-ready as highway re-construction," said Kempton.
Caltrans will study the freeway removal in two phases, the first from the 101 interchange to King Street, a 2.9 mile segment running through the Excelsior neighborhood and the new Mission Bay developments. Phase 2, from 19th Avenue to the 101 interchange, would include the restoration of Islais Creek  and the construction of greenways along each side, funding for which could come from federal Rails-to-Trails monies. Kempton said Phase 2 was a distant possibility, but that the agency was amenable to "looking at all the possibilities."
Caltrain Director Scanlan said his agency was working with the Mayor to study options for putting Caltrain below grade through the park. "With our application for stimulus funds for the electrification of Caltrain, we need take the opportunity to improve all aspects of the Peninsula Corridor," he said.
Advocates were very supportive of the project. Tom Radulovich, Executive Director of Livable City said:
Removing I-280 and placing the rail line below grade will allow the SoMa street grid to connect to Mission Creek Channel, will connect Mission Bay to Showplace Square, and will connect the Mission Creek Greenway to the Mission Creek Channel Park. I-280 dumps far too much traffic onto the SoMa street grid, and getting rid of I-280 will advance the community-based efforts to make SoMa's streets safer and more livable.
Jason Henderson, Assistant Professor of Geography at San Francisco State University, was more blunt:
It is wonderful that Caltrans is moving forward with this after fifty years of denial. It will liberate the people of the Excelsior from fifty years of being cut off from the rest of San Francisco, not to mention rid the area of excessive noise, soot, and toxins from all those solo commuters. It will also make the potential to redevelop around the Balboa Park BART station much easier and definitely more attractive.
"To think that this mayor could find inspiration in both Washington DC's
Rock Creek Parkway and the long lost Burnham Plan for San Francisco to
come up with such an innovative and literally groundbreaking concept!" said Chris Carlsson, founder of Shaping SF . "What a pleasant surprise!"
SPUR Transportation Policy Director Dave Snyder, who had been briefed on the project before it was announced publicly, was supportive. "With the downtown extension of Caltrain, I-280 becomes a superfluous transportation resource."
SPUR Policy Director Sarah Kurlinsky, who was at the press conference, said, "As we learned in the Market/Octavia planning process, we can extract a lot for affordable housing by using public land formerly occupied by freeways."
Caltrans said it hoped to complete the necessary studies by this fall. Kempton hinted that the precedent set by the state in relaxing CEQA requirements for highway projects slated for stimulus funding could bode well for an expedited timeline. Mayor Newsom said this was a project he wanted to get started before he left office, which could be as soon 2010, if his nascent bid for governor is successful.
"This is the kind of bold thinking that we need in this city, and this state," said Mayor Newsom with a smile.
Happy April Fool's Day, Streetsblog Nation! But wouldn't it be nice?
Flickr photo: iandhd