McCoppin Street: From Streetcar Hub to the Central Freeway

The Central Freeway in 2003 missing the damaged upper deck. Flickr photo: ##

Eight years ago, the Central Freeway fell, and the sky didn’t. The neighborhood long obscured by the structure came up for a year-long breath of air during its reconstruction.

Author Carol Lloyd described the transformation in a 2003 San Francisco Chronicle article:

The buildings are familiar, but they look brighter, prettier, somehow. There are big swooshes of empty land, open views down Valencia all the way to Market Street, and a lovely glimpse of the new Victorian/postmodern Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Community Center, perched on the corner of Market and Waller streets. Sunlight is falling on asphalt that has been steeping in urine and shadows for decades. The air doesn’t smell anymore, nor does it vibrate with trucks rattling overhead.

“It was awesome,” said resident Alison Miller. “There was sunlight, and people started to really know their neighbors. You’d look at Valencia Street and think, how could they think of covering up this potentially vibrant neighborhood in the middle of the city?”

For fifty years, the motor-dominated streets around the Central Freeway have felt dangerous and forbidding to walk on, leaving a rift in the Market-Valencia commercial corridor. Even naming the ambiguous cross-section of districts has been a challenge for San Franciscans, who have called it “North Mission,” “SoMa West,” “The Valencia Bottoms,” and even “Deco Ghetto,” though nothing has really stuck.

This year, the neighborhood is finally getting some long-awaited streetscape improvements, including a civic space unofficially dubbed the McCoppin Hub. The name goes back a hundred years to a time when “The Hub” was a major streetcar junction at the intersection of Market and Valencia Streets. It came complete with a cable car powerhouse and railcar repair shops, and even had a drink named in its honor: “Hub Punch”.

McCoppin Street was named after Frank H. McCoppin, San Francisco’s ninth mayor (1867 – 1869) and superintendent of the Market Street Railway.

The cable car powerhouse at “The Hub” existed from 1883 to 1906. Photo: Market Street Railway Archives via Robin Havens
A sign advertising “Hub Punch” just off Market Street circa 1883. Photo: SF Public Library courtesy of Robin Havens
Market and Valencia Streets before the freeway, 1945. Photo: SF Public Library courtesy of Robin Havens
Valencia Street looking north just after the Central Freeway was constructed as a double decker and opened in 1959. The top deck was damaged in the 1989 earthquake and removed in 1996. It was rebuilt as a double-wide freeway from 2003-2006. Flickr photo: ## Fischer##

The powerhouse was removed after the 1906 earthquake, and the double-decker Central Freeway was built one block away in 1959. In its location today are a Travelodge motel, Flax art store and a car parking lot.

After the freeway was damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the upper deck west of Mission Street was deemed unsafe for use. San Franciscans voted twice to remove the stretch before approving a plan in 1999 to rebuild today’s ramp that ends at Market Street.

Alison Miller protested the freeway’s return along with Lynn Valente with a few other residents under the banner of McCoppin Street Neighbors (the North Mission Neighborhood Alliance has since become more prominent). But Valente said she found it wasn’t easy rallying together a “transitional” community where neighbors have few inviting places to get to know one another.

“It’s no man’s land,” said Valente. “[The freeway] is our line. The merchants on the other side aren’t gonna get involved.”

“We had this whole ‘Halt the Ramp’ campaign,” said Miller. “We fought really hard to stop them from rebuilding the only freeway to be rebuilt in San Francisco.”

North of Market Street, the freeway was ultimately replaced with the Octavia Boulevard project, leading to a revitalization of the Hayes Valley neighborhood.

But despite the protests of residents and some supervisors, the city rebuilt it south of Market, under pressure from Caltrans, which manages the state’s freeways, and the result of a ballot measure sponsored by a coalition of driving residents, mainly in the Sunset and Richmond districts.

Building the Central Freeway was “a transportation planning decision that resulted in five decades of negative urban design impacts and blight on the surrounding neighborhood,” said a SF County Transportation Authority (SFCTA) study of alternative design proposals to remove the freeway.

Today, the freeway sits over the neighborhood twice as wide, rather than twice as high. Its reconstruction, when compared to a boulevard alternative, saves two minutes for drivers, at the most, according to the SFCTA study.

“Nobody wanted to see the freeway end at Market Street. Nobody wanted to see the freeway go back up over Valencia or Mission Street,” said Livable City Director Tom Radulovich, who served on the Central Freeway Citizens Advisory Task Force.

“The reality back then was, from the task force at least, the Hayes Valley representatives who lived north of Market really wanted to see the freeway removed further south of Market,” he said. “The Mayor’s Office really just didn’t have enough courage at the time to push back against Caltrans.”

Removing the freeway farther back, he noted, may have even garnered less car congestion than the current layout. “The SoMa street network has a lot more capacity than the north of Market Street network, so there’s a bigger opportunity to deal with the freeway traffic,” he said.

The campaign south of Market also lacked political support from then-Supervisor Chris Daly, who recused himself from voting on the issue due to a conflict of interest: he owned a condo at the corner of Valencia and McCoppin Streets, and removing the freeway would have likely increased his property value.

“It was too political, and Caltrans, they wanted a job,” said Miller. “We got shafted.”

Looking north from McCoppin Street across Market Street where the freeway ramp used to extend into Hayes Valley until 2003. Flickr photo: ##
Octavia Boulevard (at Market), which replaced the rest of the freeway in Hayes Valley. The Vision Boulevard Project would’ve extended the boulevard further back. Flickr photo: ##

Today, the streets around the Central Freeway remain neglected, and neighbors say they have long attracted unwanted activities like drug use, dealing and other crime. Those conditions used to extend all the way into Hayes Valley, said Miller, where “nobody would deliver pizza to your house” before that stretch of freeway was removed.

“Now look at it,” she said. “It’s improved their neighborhood, but ours, I would say, is the same.”

Some McCoppin neighbors may resent – or at least envy – the success Hayes Valley has enjoyed. In Lloyd’s 2003 article, resident Leslie Kossoff said those south of Market Street “got screwed.”

“They’re Oz, and we’re Kansas,” said Kossoff.

“One only need to look at Valencia Street and then cross Market to plainly see the difference,” said Miller. “On one side of Market is a beautiful tree-lined boulevard with a green park, community gardens and a farm, while here we have a dark overpass, filthy sidewalks and nothing but concrete.”

Valente, on the other hand, is pleased by the coming improvements to the neighborhood. The McCoppin Hub, when it sprouts up next year, could finally give neighbors a place to meet one another and help mend the fabric of the community.

“We’re not bitter,” she said. “I’m proud that a small group of us have been successful in getting funding for amenities that will mitigate the effects of the project.”

“I hope that we can keep our eye on the big picture,” said Valente, “and that outside influences might give those of us who live and work here a chance to realize the neighborhood that we have planned and waited for for more than ten years.”

  • Peter M

    Were there any plans drawn up for tearing down the freeway south of Market? It would be interesting to see how it would have worked.

  • JamesF

    Peter, tearing it down further south would have involved a major interchange at Army/Potrero, or even further south on Bayshore. That would have had the effect of funnelling even more traffic onto street level, threatening pedestrians, cyclists and, topically, UCSF shuttles.

    For all the criticisms of freeways, they do a great job of seperating high-volume, high-speed vehicular traffic from our most vulnerable road users.

  • mikesonn

    I’m often amused by you JohnB, but posting against eminent domain in one thread then 5 min later posting praise for the very definition of eminent domain in another is classic!

    @faabfcaf353ca52e40534f2491390542:disqus  I’d also love to see those plans. I’m sure Eric has found and posted them to his flickr. Always a treat to tread through his collection.

  • mikesonn

    I’m often amused by you JohnB, but posting against eminent domain in one thread then 5 min later posting praise for the very definition of eminent domain in another is classic!

    @faabfcaf353ca52e40534f2491390542:disqus  I’d also love to see those plans. I’m sure Eric has found and posted them to his flickr. Always a treat to tread through his collection.

  • Richard Mlynarik

    Truncating at Bryant would work.  (For starters.)

    It’s hinted at here
    but even the suggestion of doing so was terminated with maximum prejudice by the SFCTA and City Hall.

    Given that we still have the same mayor and same SFCTA executive director in SF as we did in 2001, don’t expect much movement on that front any decade soon.

  • JamesF

    Mike, no eminent domain is required in retaining existing freeways. I’ve no idea where you get that idea from.

  • mikesonn

    Yes, freeways were laid out by god’s own hand and have been here since the flood.

  • JamesF

    Mike, Where did I suggest we should build new freeways? Did a time machine whisk us both back to 1955?

  • Charles_Siegel

    “For all the criticisms of freeways, they do a great job of seperating
    high-volume, high-speed vehicular traffic from our most vulnerable road

    That’s why cities with lots of freeways, like Detroit, are so much safer, more walkable, and more livable than cities with few freeways, such as San Francisco.

  • SteveS

    Separating high-volume, high-speed vehicular traffic is actually a very good idea, but the practice of putting it on elevated structures is not, because it creates blight.

    The ideal solution would be a privately-financed toll tunnel connecting the peninsula with the Bay Bridge to replace 280 and 101 within the SF city limits. A second and possibly third tunnel connecting to the Golden Gate would also be good to replace traffic sewers like 19th Ave and Van Ness, if a developer thought there would be enough use to justify the cost there as well.

    The problem is that the political will is not there to replace freeways with toll roads in California, even though this is a much better solution than the congestion pricing zones. And if you try to do this as a publically financed project you end up with a disaster like the Big Dig or the new Bay Bridge as cronyism and incompetent contract management drive the cost into the stratosphere and the completion date decades down the road.

  • Charles_Siegel

    “Separating high-volume, high-speed vehicular traffic is actually a very good idea”

    But slowing down that traffic is a much better idea.  I never thought I would be quoting former Mayor Alioto, but he said it very well when he opposed the plan to extend the Embarcadero Freeway to the Bay Bridge:

    “Slow down and enjoy our beautiful city.”

    Studies have shown that, on the average, people will not spend more than an hour a day traveling.  This is sometimes called the Marchetti Wall or Marchetti Constant. 

    If you speed up traffic, people still spend an hour traveling, but they travel a longer distance; the result is more urban sprawl, more traffic, more greenhouse gas emissions, more energy shortages, higher gas prices.  That is what happens when new freeways are built, on the assumption that separating high-speed traffic is a very good idea.

  • SteveS

    If we had the political will to actually slow down traffic and eliminate wide, high speed arterials that would be great, but so far the freeways we’ve managed to tear down have been replaced with 4+ lane roads with high speed limits that kill people on a regular basis. If they could be replaced by toll tunnels where no pedestrian or cyclist would ever be injured and new parks and paths could be created above that would be a major win in my opinion, particularly if the toll pricing was adequate to disincentivize people from using them for daily, long-distance commutes.

    I would also prefer to see more direct methods used to control sprawl instead of traffic: yes, you can have people sit in gridlock for an hour each day and that will keep development from expanding too far East of Livermore, but it’s hardly the ideal solution from either an environmental or quality of life perspective. I would rather see the elimination on subsidies that encourage sprawl, such as the conversion of highways to self-funding tollways and the replacement of some of the property tax with an acreage tax so we stop encouraging people to live on vast swaths of cheap sprawl land over small patches of expensive urban land.

  • JamesF

    Steve, Replacing freeways with tunnels is prohibitively expensive, especially when you consider that you need a lot of entry and exit tunnels as well.

    So I think such “big digs” are only possible within the downtown area, and might be viable if we could link 101 , 280 and the GGBridge.

    However the trend is to put transit underground instead, which is why almost every major global city has a subway system. SF, with all it’s hills and congestion, is crying out for a real underground rapid transit system but, sadly, it only gets built in incompatible pieces e.g. BART, CS etc.

  • SteveS

    Having to put transit underground is a big part of the problem: you put cars at ground level where they are in conflict with pedestrians and creating an unfriendly en environment for the city and then you make transit spend billions of dollars to get a dedicated RoW underground. Why not flip the equation and make cars pay for that underground infrastructure via tolls, and move them out of conflict with pedestrians at the same time?

    For example, this was Walt Disney’s design for the unbuilt Epcot City: transit, parks and pedestrian paths on the surface, with all commercial and private vehicles in underground tunnels within the city limits. The result is that transit is easy to board and inexpensive to build right on the surface without going down and up two stories every trip, parks and ped/bike paths are everywhere, the surface environment is peaceful and car-free, and cars can get where they’re going quickly, safely and efficiently with a minimum of conflict.

  • JamesF

    Steve, sure it’s a nice idea in principle to “hide” all the cars. and it can work with some “purpose built from scratch” place like Epcot.

    But unless we all live underground too, those cars have to come up to the surface in order to be able to access every block. So you’ve got the same problem as having elevated freeways.

    There’s a reason why all major global cities have put their transit underground. SF’s problem is that it hasn’t invested in that infrastructure, and so now it’s playing it catchup.

    We can’t spend a few decades and a few trillion rebuilding SF from scratch. We have to start from where we are. People love BART and the underground streetcars. They don’t much love anything else.

  • SteveS

    My perspective is that San Francisco is in a position to do things largely “from scratch,” because well-functioning transportation infrastructure is currently nonexistent everywhere except the BART corridor (I would disagree with the idea that San Franciscans love the Muni Metro, although the existing infrastructure could certainly be put to good use by a more competent organization).

    So we can either spend billions of dollars building underground tunnels for transit (if by some miracle our bankrupt city, state and federal governments scrape together grants for the construction, additional vehicles, and ongoing cost), and then proceed to have the SFMTA give away crony contracts, 100%+ cost overruns and delays, and once it’s finally built, continue to completely fail at the business of operating a subway system forcing  further raising of fares, increased delays on the existing lines, and driving away of even more ridership.

    Can you imagine trying to build a real citywide subway system under the MTA, with the same kind of per-mile costs, delays and design issues as the central subway?

    Or we can spend billions of dollars building underground tunnels for cars to replace the remaining freeways within city limits and traffic sewers live 19th Ave., and seek to have private firms take on all the financing risk for the project in exchange for a share of future toll cash flows (which have low volatility and are therefore quite valuable). Then build street-level rapid transit with physically protected crossings and signal priority, and convert neighborhood streets with forced turns to prevent their use for non-neighborhood traffic.

    You even have large opportunities where 280 is already running in a cut and could simply be decked-over, instantly reconnecting the communities harmed by the construction of the cut. Selling lots on part of the deck can offset some off the cost of building it and still allow for a linear park with bike/ped paths on the remainder, as was suggested for a small test area in the Balboa Park plan.

    And of course the massive obstacles present in getting either scenario off the ground are why San Francisco needs to have a lot of short-term focus on bike infrastructure, which can produce immediate results for negligible investment.

  • Anonymous

    Actually it would be better all around  if people would stop pretending that San Francisco is  Amsterdam or Mayberry RFD.  We are not flatter than a pancake nor do we at this juncture share the streets with herds of sheep.  Prop 13 limited taxes and gas taxes are what pay for the streets.  No  street has been built with bicycle tax money.  Mass transit of  any kind can be  either  convenin or  profitBLE  , BUT NOT  BOTH.

  • Anonymous

    And Mass  transit  is  a  great  way to turn minor  problems into city wide disruptions.  We  live  in a transit  bottle neck  where  lots of people can’t live near  their work and they can’t  move  everytime the job does.  Few  Silicon valley companies locate in tall buildings.  So they  wont be  coming to the city in droves. Lots  of  streets here  with out freeways  above them have drug dealers and  homeless.  So don’t  blame the  freeway. Many problems  have no solution, but painting your own house is a start.   What?  You are in a  rent controled building and  the  landlord  can’t  afford paint. Life in the big city is just  one  problem some one else  should solve after  another.         

  • Anonymous

    It would be better if we stop pretending that San Francisco is  Amsterdam or Mayberry RFD.  We are not flatter than a pancake nor do we at this juncture share the streets with herds of sheep. Prop 13 limited taxes and gas taxes  pay for the streets and roads.  Bicycle taxes  have never  paid for a street.  Mass transit  of  any kind  can be  either  convenient  or pay for itself,  but  not both at the same time.  A bus  or  trolley  with 4 people in it  is  no favor to the environment. 

  • mikesonn

    @cf7cd2a7184954f71ead9aadc77ae732:disqus If this were possible, which I don’t believe it is, it would have been done somewhere by now if the money was really there. That kind of investment would take years and years to recoup, no private industry would take that risk.

  • It’s interesting how prevalent the myth is that gas taxes pay for the streets and roads when it simply isn’t true.  On a federal level, only half of road maintenance costs are paid for from gas taxes, the rest is from the general fund that every single taxpayer, whether they own a car or not, contributes to. On a local level, the gas taxes collected fall far short of paying for the road infrastructure, hence the proposed $248 million bond this fall “to fix San Francisco’s streets after decades of neglect.” ( ) If it passes, all taxpayers, even the 30% who don’t own cars in San Francisco, will pay for this bond, heavily subsidizing the car drivers among us.

    Bicycles do a micro-fraction of the damage to our roads that cars, trucks, and buses do.  If only bicycles traversed our streets our expensive roads would last decades with little need for repair, assuming, of course, that roads weren’t constantly being dug up for PG&E and sewer purposes. Tax-paying bicyclists, in fact, subsidize drivers for every mile they drive, not to mention they also subsidize every gallon of gas drivers put in their tanks, via corn, ethanol, and oil company subsidies. Ethanol subsidies amount to $.50 per gallon and oil company subsidies come to $.053 per gallon, so depending on the mixture, bicyclists pay for greater or lesser amounts of car fuel.

    In addition they pay for (or their children will, as they pay off the debt this generation has committed them to) the annual $662 billion military budget, at least half of which goes currently towards two wars and two shadow wars to control Middle East oil supply. This military cost of oil procurement amounts to a $2.51 subsidy for every gallon of gas that goes into American tanks. Federal gas taxes are 19.3 cents a gallon.  It is bicyclists paying more than their fair share of taxes, not car drivers.  Actually, if you are a car driver who pays more taxes than the average American and who drives fewer miles than the average American (probable, if you live in San Francisco), you are better off economically to get as many other people out of cars and onto bicycles as you can because you, too, are wildly subsidizing car driving and gasoline usage far more than you are getting benefit out of it. Even if we as a nation continue our preposterous subsidies of corn, ethanol, oil companies, and military procurement of oil, good bicycle infrastructure that induces more people to leave their cars for bicycles will mean for you as a car driver:  lower road repair costs; less traffic congestion; lower health care costs due to lower obesity and asthma rates; higher local GDP per unit of energy input (an important part of any region’s economic competitiveness in the coming years); increased tourism; and more money spent in the local economy rather than on cars, insurance and oil.

    As to hills in San Francisco, an electric-assist motor can be installed on almost any bicycle that will get 90% of San Francisco’s population (the percentage of SF population not too disabled or too elderly to ride a bicycle or adult tricycle) to the top of Twin Peaks daily, if that’s what is needed.

  • peternatural

    People who don’t bike typically imagine that “hills” are the problem, but they’re not. The worst thing about biking in the city is the car traffic, and lack of separated bike infrastructure.

    And Karen is right, gas taxes are puny and don’t come close to covering road costs. Instead of complaining about bicyclists, try thanking them for subsidizing your ride.

  • Mons

    Peter, So if it’s traffic that’s the problem and not hills, then why not move the bike land off of Fell and onto, say, Hayes or Grove?

  • Where do people pick up this nonsense that gas taxes pay for the roads?

  • Sf commuter

    As an experienced commercial real estate broker active in Silicon Valley I can say your statement “Few Silicon valley companies locate in tall buildings. So they wont be coming to the city in droves” is wrong on two fronts.

    First, substantially all of the 11.8 million SF of new construction in Silicon Valley since the start of the current cycle (1/1/2010) has been 6-8 story office/R&D buildings with 30-40,000 square foot floor plates. While not tall by San Francisco standards, 6-8 stories qualifies as tall for a primarily suburban office market like Silicon Valley that has historically shown a preference for 1-2 story buildings. Drive down HW 101 or 237 and see for yourself.

    Second, most of the largest tech companies operating or headquartered in the Bay Area have substantial footprints (or make their headquarters) in San Francisco. It’s a function of shifting demographics and the battle for talent. Many younger workers strongly prefer to live in an urban or walkable mixed-use environments (whether a higher percentage of them will stay in cities when they have children vs. punting for the sububurbs is another topic of conversation). And not all of them are willing to hop on a bus every day for the hour-plus ride to Menlo Park, Mountain View, or Cupertino. Thow a rock in SOMA or Mid-Market and you’ll hit a building full of tech workers…

  • gary2199

    While I can’t understand why my comments of 4 years ago have attracted any attention now, I can understand that things and contexts do change. I was writing from experience of more than 20 years of commuting from San Francisco to Palo Alto and further south as my then high tech company moved gradually in the direction of San Jose. In that era, the talk seemed to put preasure on people to move to where the jobs were going which undermined the idea of home ownership. Now some percentage of the current high tech jobs may have moved to where some people want to live (and where the tax incentives are) which helps drive up both rental and home prices. I would like to see a comparison of the numbers of Market Street techies versus the number workers in the Apple, Google, or Genetech campuses. The existance of the Google etc buses proves my point that mass transit could not cure the commuter problem. My sticking with the long distance personal vehicle commute all those years, home ownership, and the current demographics have allowed the building that I bought for $100K in the era of 10 percent mortages to gain a current market value of $2.5 million. I win.


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