Hairball Study Coughs Up Ideas, Memories

The_hairball.jpgClick to enlarge. Bird’s-eye view of the hairball shows how much real estate it takes up and how it creates a daunting barrier between neighborhoods. Photo:

“You can’t get there from here” is a joke phrase, but trying to travel through the Highway 101 freeway maze at Cesar Chavez/Potrero/Bayshore is no laughing matter. Four neighborhoods meet at the maze, known as the “hairball”: Potrero Hill, Bayview, Bernal Heights, and the Mission. But moving from one to another without a car is scary indeed.

Now, city officials are teaming up with residents to plan a redesign of the aging structure that could encourage neighbors to visit one another on foot and by bicycle. A Planning Department award, announced in September, will fund a study
of the maze to tap into the ideas of locals who have to live with it.
As the freeway approaches the end of its natural life, neighbors fear
that without an alternative plan, Caltrans will simply replace the old
freeway with basically the same design.

Potrero was reconfigured in 2005, from six car lanes to four, with new left-turn pockets, bike lanes, and crosswalk enhancements. Bayshore and eastern Cesar Chavez are both slated to be restriped with bike lanes as part of the citywide bike plan. Western Cesar Chavez has inspired an ambitious Planning Department redesign that will create a landscaped median and changes similar to those on Potrero. All four roadways, however, feed into the notorious churning maze, leaving cyclists and pedestrians dashing across on and off-ramps and skulking along dark, threatening pathways.

The hairball wasn’t always so forbidding. Bonnie Ora Sherk, president and founding director of Crossroads Community (The Farm), recalls holding musical offerings, poetry readings, art installations, dance performances, and public gatherings there. She planted lush gardens with local school children in the 1970s in the belly of the maze, the site under which the Islais, Precita, and Serpentine Creeks converge. Crossroads Community was so named by Sherk to be a place for people from the four surrounding communities to come together where the freeway had severed them.

Adjacent to the freeway interchange were multiple gardens on state and private land. In the complex of The Farm buildings was The Raw Egg Animal Theater, the indoor/outdoor home of the farm animals who lived at The Farm and a spectacular school-without-walls for all ages. The Farm, including the interchange, was one of the first alternative art spaces in the country and also a thriving multicultural community environmental education center. It inspired Potrero del Sol Park.

“We have an excellent opportunity now to transform the current dilapidated, unsafe, and scary maze into a healthy place for people, other species, and even cars,” Sherk said. “It can reconnect people to the currently hidden ecological resources so prevalent at the site.”

pinkcushions.jpgAn art installation tucked in the freeway maze last summer featured hidden objects, paintings, and these hand-sewn custom pink cushions on the bleak Bayshore/Potrero connector. By Cameron Kelly. Photo by Carrie Galles.

The maze, opened in 1974, was intended to connect with the proposed Army Street (old name of Cesar Chavez) freeway to the Southern Crossing Bridge. The freeway revolt stopped that project, but the design of the interchange still reflects the original intention, making it much more complicated and extensive than is necessary.

The Planning Department study funding comes from a pot of Caltrans environmental justice grants. Other similar grants address mobility issues on Indian reservations and low-income communities in small towns and cities throughout the state. The Cesar Chavez/hairball funding amounts to $250,000. Another grant of $247,050 funds environmental reviews for Eastern Neighborhoods transportation projects. Andres Power of the Planning Department expects community meetings to begin in spring 2010.

“We were all very excited to hear that the city had been awarded this important grant from Caltrans,” he said. “The community and various agencies have been working tirelessly on a redesign for Cesar Chavez Street west of the hairball, but we always knew that a design that stopped at the freeway was not the best we could do. With these Caltrans funds, we’ll be able to think about connections through the hairball for people, cyclists, and vehicles all the way to the Bay.”

Homeless people have long found refuge under the freeway ramps, and advocates for a better hairball must grapple with the question of how a redesign would affect these residents. The presence of their encampments in the maze has already led to some false solutions. Just sweeping the area of campers won’t make it more welcoming. A completely deserted dark walkway is hardly more inviting than a dark walkway lined with shopping carts and their owners.

Proposals that focus on removing homeless people also play into divisions between some neighbors who may demonize poor people and others who resent any changes that smack of gentrification. The issue of what to do with a wide swath of dead space hostile to non-motorized travelers gets lost.

The problem isn’t the homeless encampment. It’s the lack of foot traffic and the secluded nature of the pathways, which make walking or cycling through feel creepy and unsafe, especially after dark. Opening up the passages and encouraging their use for people traveling from one neighborhood to another would mean that, at last, you can get there from here.

  • How do you suggest making them more encouraging? Or did I miss that part? Just saying that having more people walking on it will make it safer doesn’t mean that you can just drop people on the street to make other people feel more secure. Kind of a good example of circle logic.

  • ZA

    Yep, my neighborhood.

    Regarding the homeless who live in areas no human should, they need services. That way pedestrians who might use the few access points through the hairball don’t have to confront broken glass, effluent, and worse.

    Too bad burying the automotive traffic is a non-starter, there’d be too much flooding during the winter months.

    Whatever is decided for ‘the Hairball’ has to take into account what that may mean for the Alemany Maze, the San Jose Ave exit, Bayshore Blvd, and ultimately how much impact I-280 can absorb.

  • julie

    As a recent resident of that neighborhood, I’ll attest to what an ugly passage that is. Homeless people, trash, poo, ammonia smell aside, it’s also trecherous to get there, and trecherous on the other side. I crossed from Potrero to Bayshore, wrong way on sidewalks most of the way, then backstreets to Farmers Market early Saturday mornings, wouldn’t want to try during rush hour.

  • John C

    How about something bolder — simplify the hairball by rolling back I-280 to terminate at the 101 interchange. Just because the Bayview / Mission / Potrero residents weren’t sufficiently connected enough when the freeways were run through the city doesn’t mean that the freeway’s existence is needed or at all good for the city.

    Imagine if the Cesar Chavez freeway had been built, how it would have impacted the area between Bernal heights and the Mission. It’s obviously horrible, just like our existing urban freeways are horrible today.

  • ZA

    Another thing to consider.

    This project has been 80 years in the making.

    Whatever we decide to do will probably have to be suitable for the next 80 years. On that time scale, we had better plan for the Bay reclaiming Mission Creek, certainly making the foundations of the existing elevated highway moister than they are now.

  • @John C

    I would love to tear 280 down back to the 101 interchange, but that wouldn’t in and of itself change the hairball, since the interchange is well South of the hairball.


    I imagine specific examples of proposed alternatives are forthcoming. In my mind it’s best to keep it simple. Open C Chav straight up under the 101 overpass. Wide sidewalks and clear sightlines would make it more obvious that it’s possible to cross through here. Right now, anyone walking on the sidewalk along C Chav literally sees a wall in their path.

    The crazy on/off-ramps are redundant and their gentle, speed-encouraging curves take up too much space. All you need is an on and off ramp on each side of C Chav to provide access to 101. Improve the land that frees up as a park or sell it to developers to pay for the project. Either would be an immense improvement.

  • @Josh, I’m not saying it’s a bad idea. Just the column was going somewhere, then it just ended. I haven’t walked it so I can’t really comment on the situation. I was just reading looking for some suggestions and then got the cart before the horse.

    It looks like a mess. And improving sight lines would be a major first step along with better lighting. But ideas need to at least be on the table before Caltrans tries to ram down a remake of the status quo or it’ll be the same old for another 75 years.

  • John C

    @Josh, wow, you’re right — I had assumed the intersection was so complicated because that’s where 101 meets 280. There’s no excuse for the 101 ramps alone to remain such a mess!

  • Ever try riding West to East on this crapola? Either you need to cross 2 lanes of traffic exiting onto 101 to get to the marginal bike path, which stops at another high speed street, cross that, then get dumped off onto a one way street that brings you back into the mess.

    I blow it off, take the left hand lane of CC and do the hole shot under the hairball. Not fun.

    Coming back, the bike path is preferred to the hole shot, but you still have to cross a section of potholes apparently imported from Baghdad, which happen to be the onramp for 101N, to get to the bike path, whence you can begin dodging shopping carts. At the end, you get an insulting crosswalk with a light cycle that can stretch 2 minutes.

    Why bother riding on that crap? It’s the primary route from the Outer Mission/Bernal/Noe/Glen Park to 22nd St Caltrain. The alternative involves going to 23rd and back via Kansas to make a sketchy left onto CC just East of the Hairball – unless you prefer crossing Potrero Hill’s 22% grades

  • I agree the interchange is a disaster for pedestrians, but the 1970s reconstruction was not about the Southern Crossing. The Army Street Freeway was part of the 1948, 1949, and 1955 versions of the Southern Crossing plans, but was dropped from 1956 and later versions of the plan, after the I-280 connection between US 101 and Cesar Chavez was planned. The 1960s and 1970s versions of the bridge would have connected to a different disaster, the Hunters Point Freeway.

  • those dudes

    agreed its a messy and overly complex interchange. but don’t expect more people to suddenly start walking here no matter how elegant a design – there is really nothing to walk too or from on any side of this interchange.

  • none

    More people may or may not walk there, but it’s a major bicycle route as it’s a pass between hills–among other places, it’s a good route to get to the Peninsula from the mission or anywhere northwest of the mission or even downtown. Though the route is scary–either the crazy paths with crossings and backwards crossings, or the freeway ramp either under from CC or over from Potrero.

    So… what designs have been proposed by individuals? Surely they must exist. The diamond idea sounds neat except it doesn’t handle Potrero well.

  • Would a skateboard park fit? Something with approaching gnarly skateboard dedicated lanes would draw a fearless and friendly demographic.

  • ZA

    @those dudes – actually, there are a handful of spots down Bayshore and just off Cesar Chavez that could really do better with more foot traffic.

    Considering how the SOMA warehouse district has been transformed, equally big changes could happen on Bayshore and east Cesar Chavez…if we want it, and can do something about the barriers to pedestrians (and cyclists).

    On the other hand, as one of the last light industrial districts left in SF, there’s a lot of benefit that gives the city’s economy too.

  • Please let people know that a clue to solving these issues is systemic design; ie, wholistic, ecological thinking, planning, and doing, (and being), that incorporates local resources: human, ecological, economic, historic, technological, aesthetic – past and present – incorporating them into the future plans.

    That translates into creating places with systemically integrated community programs/activities; that changes the energy of a place and results in WHOLE EXPERIENCES for people. Relevant, site and culturally-sensitive, place-based design, implementation, use, and maintenance.

    That is what A Living Library does: A.L.L. systems integrated: biological, cultural, technological: involving children, youth, and adults in research, planning, design, implementation, use, maintenance, management, communications.

    Integrated processes create safe and beautiful, cost-effective, healthy places.

    One of the most powerful ecological resources in this place is the natural water: the extraordinary resource of the Islais Creek , and the enormous amount of good fresh water, underground, in the area.

    Another powerful resource is the people from diverse cultures.

    The Islais comes in from the Bay and meets the Precita and Serpentine Creeks under the 101 interchange. We can and should create a dramatic, healthy and beautiful southern entrance to SF in this area; This is where a magnificent pond and windmill could serve as a Beacon and Southern Entrance to the neighborhoods, while taking advantage of the daily westerly wind that comes in from the ocean.

    A sculptural windmill could bring forth the water and help irrigate the newly developed riparian vegetation along the whole Chavez corridor, while mitigating flooding, creating a beautiful and expressive, narrative landscape, calming traffic, and educating people about where they are.

    An enlarged sewer pipe under Chavez is not the answer to the problem of flooding in the area of Chavez and nearby streets. We ought to use the water more creatively and positively, rather than wasting it by mixing it with human waste, and then treating it expensively before releasing it to the Bay. Big mistake !

    Additionally, the whole Chavez corridor serves as the Northermost Frame of the Islais Creek Watershed.

    The Islais Creek Watershed links at least 9 communities in Southwest and Southeast SF: Mission, Bernal, Potrero, Bayview, Excelsior, Sunnyside, Glen Park, Noe Valley and affords fantastic opportunities for linking, transforming, integrating and making – SAFE, HEALTHY, BEAUTIFUL, EDUCATIONAL, INTERESTING (among other attributes) – places for people on foot, bikes, wheelchairs, in cars – not to mention multiple other species of plants and animals; reattracting wildlife.

    I could add much, much more about these opportunities for all San Franciscans, especially the many who live in, or pass through these neighborhoods ……………..

    Bonnie Ora Sherk
    Founder & Director
    Life Frames, Inc. & A Living Library

    A Living Library with all sectors of community, incorporates local resources and transforms them to become vibrant, content-rich, ecological learning landscapes; each Branch linked to another.

  • greg

    Massive (underground) traffic circle with a park on top.

  • Jennifer

    For those who say there’s nothing to walk to, I’d like to point out that Mission Bay is here and will no doubt inspire building further south. There is a great opportunity to connect it to these neighborhoods with a great walking path and a functioning bike path.

  • Larry Wilson

    I really don’t think that area is going to produce much walking. The other side is a warehouse and distribution district and is likely to remain so (and, really, the city needs an area to provide those functions). So the distances that one would need to walk to get anywhere that many people will want to go to, is much farther than even avid walkers normally want to walk. And Mission Bay is out of the question. I can see some bike traffic for those who want to go to Caltrain but even that is not going to be huge. There is definite room for improvement, but unless there is a way to underground the roadway, I don’t think this is going to become (or needs to be) a major pedestrian thoroughfare.

  • Yeah yeah, old post. But when you google ‘sf hairball’ it’s one of the first things that comes up.

    Speaking as a Seattlelite who just moved here, I’ve been very impressed so far with how bikable SF is, even compared to bike friendly Seattle. That is, until I hit this mess.

    Why bike through there? Personally, I was heading down to the weekly flea market on Alemany. It was extremely easy going until I hit this mess. It’s like all of a sudden you hit this labyrinth of highways that effectively cuts off all non-car traffic. Do I go on the sidewalk? Do I cross here and circle back or do I stay on this side? Do these crosswalk buttons even work? Why are the bicycle markings so tiny?

    This fucking urban planning disaster easily doubled the length of my trip, and is quite possibly one of the least bike friendly areas I’ve ever had to deal with. Even Seattle’s industrial district is vastly better.


  • Fran Taylor

    What perfect timing for you to drag this post out of the cobwebs, so we can update the information. A year later, Planning is in the midst of a flurry of activity concerning the hairball and the eastern stretch of Cesar Chavez. In December, two walking tours that drew neighbors and officials from several affected city departments and Caltrans demonstrated firsthand the difficulties cyclists and pedestrians have navigating this freeway maze and surrounding streets. Nothing like scaring a bureaucrat with dashing across an offramp filled with whizzing cars to make the problem real!

    Focus groups, including workers along the eastern stretch, echoed the inaccessibility concerns cited during the walking tours. Participants also decried the lack of Muni service, especially galling as a huge Muni yard gets constructed near the 280 interchange. How will all those new Muni workers get to work if Muni doesn’t go there?

    A bike tour of the area and a community meeting are both coming up but not yet scheduled. Keep your eyes peeled for more information on Streetsblog.


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