Chance to Improve Freeway Undercrossings in San Francisco

I-280 cuts through neighborhoods. Photo via Ben Caldwell
I-280 cuts through neighborhoods. Photo via Ben Caldwell

It just got easier for San Francisco to do something productive with land under and next to freeways.

With the governor’s signature secured, Assembly Bill No. 857, is now law. That means the space under and next to freeways that pass through San Francisco will be offered on a “right of first refusal” basis by Caltrans to the city. San Francisco will be able to create parks and open spaces on “underutilized lands owned by Caltrans under and adjacent to highways 80, 101, and 280,” according to a statement from Assemblemember Phil Ting, who authored the legislation.

According to a release from Ting’s office, the city has already picked several Caltrans parcels as potential lease sites under AB 857, including:

  • Alemany Maze (Highway 101/I-280 Interchange) adjacent to Bernal Heights, Portola and Bayview
  • Showplace Square (under Highway 101) in the Mission District
  • The Hairball (under Highway 101) near Cesar Chavez Street, adjacent to Bernal Heights, the Mission, and Potrero Hill
  • under I-80 in Central SOMA
  • off-ramps from I-280 to Balboa Park and City College.

Ting, along with State Senator Scott Wiener, and parks advocates, celebrated Governor Jerry Brown’s signing of the bill during a ceremony yesterday at SF City Hall.

Assemblymember Phil Ting at an event yesterday celebrating the passage of AB-857. Image: SFGovTV
Assemblymember Phil Ting at an event yesterday celebrating the passage of AB-857. Image: SFGovTV

“We’re trying to re-discover urbanism,” said Wiener, who co-sponsored the bill, at the event. “We have all of these freeway overpasses that really cause problems… This bill will enable us to create new parks and really invigorate these neighborhoods.”

Of course, there are already examples of formerly derelict freeway underpass or adjacent spaces that have been transformed into livable spaces. But they weren’t easy or cheap to do. “Without this bill, San Francisco faces prohibitively expensive lease costs,” wrote Ting in a prepared statement. “The popular SOMA West Skate Park and Dog Play Area was built on Caltrans land under Highway 101 leased for 20 years at the market rate, or $4.8 million.” AB 857 allows San Francisco to lease up to ten Caltrans highway right-of-way parcels at 30 percent of the market rate

Mayor Ed Lee, who also spoke at the event, said he wants to see new projects emulate Mission Creek Park around I-280. “You’ll see people walking their dogs and kayaking…. you’ll see the best example we have today of how we turned [around] space that had been very negative for all the residents down there.”

Mission Creek Park. Photo: Mission Bay Parks
Mission Creek Park. Photo: Mission Bay Parks
A Bocce court in Progress Park in Dogpatch. Photo: SF Parks Alliance
A bocce court in Progress Park in Dogpatch. Photo: SF Parks Alliance

Julie Christensen of the Dogpatch and Northwest Potrero Hill Green Benefit District, extolled Progress Park, built on a formerly derelict parcel between Indiana and I-280.

“It was done with spit and leftovers from the neighborhoods–people turned a chain-link-fence-surrounded, weed-choked lot into a place where neighbors can come,” Christensen said.

She said the freeways split up and ruined neighborhoods twice–once, when they were built, and a second time, when Caltrans fenced off the land around them and underneath and they were “consigned to less than optimal uses,” to put it mildly.

We can’t fix the first problem, she said, but we can fix the second one by lighting, enlivening, and restoring those spaces. This new law will now make it much easier and less expensive to do so.

The "Hairball" bike path. AB-857 should make it much easier for SF to make use of these spaces, for parks and, possibly, navigation centers. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
The “Hairball” bike path. AB-857 should make it much easier for SF to make use of these spaces, for parks and, possibly, navigation centers. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
  • Eric Johnson

    I’m baffled as to what parcels “off-ramps from I-280 to Balboa Park and City College” might refer to.

  • Boo

    I believe there were talks about removing some of the off ramps so maybe they mean repurposing that land?

  • Eric Johnson

    Hi Boo,
    They’re considering removing the northbound on ramp at Geneva, next to BART. They’re also looking at changing the alignment of the southbound off ramp at Ocean, next to City College. Neither of these spots would be very suitable for park space. The space between the BART station and the freeway has been considered for a kiss and ride lane.

  • Bruce

    Separately, they’ve talked about decking over the freeway adjacent to the BART station between Ocean and Geneva. Unfortunately that would be astoundingly expensive.

  • Eric Johnson

    The freeway deck was the centerpiece of the Better Neighborhoods 2000 plan, which is part of the Planning Code, i.e., the law. There was a consultant report in 2012 (or so) that said it would cost $1 billion (IIRC), a number I thought was ridiculously exaggerated. Other cities have built these for far less. But the report was enough to make the powers that be abandon the freeway deck. There’s no plan B or even a desire to look for a plan B, even though the problems that the freeway deck were meant to address are still there. The city has always regarded Balboa station area as a dumping ground and the one effort to turn that around, the Better Neighborhoods plan, is dead dead dead.

  • Bert

    Wow, that bike lane going past those tents for homeless people.
    Gentrification at its finest.

  • Bernard Finucane

    Bikes are cheaper than cars, so bike lanes are an ideal means of transportation for the homeless. Better transportation may even help them out of the homelessness trap.

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