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Demolition of one-mile stretch of I-280 part of proposal to link Mission Bay with surrounding area

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The Planning Department has proposed tearing down a one-mile stretch of Interstate 280, near Mariposa Street, to make way for a boulevard that would link Mission Bay and its surrounding neighborhoods. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Mission Bay is San Francisco’s neighborhood of the future.

That’s Mayor Ed Lee’s publicly stated vision. And in public documents, his office said a key to that future may be razing Interstate Highway 280 — now the source of much public ire.

Mission Bay has become home to gleaming new UC San Francisco hospitals, and is the potential new home to what some call the mayor’s “legacy project” — the Golden State Warriors’ Chase Center. The Mission Rock and Pier 70 housing developments could also soon considerably boost the neighborhood’s population.

And one day in the far-flung future, perhaps decades from now, Mission Bay may become the conduit for a second transbay tube that would connect BART and — for the first time — newly electrified Caltrain service to the East Bay.

But the future comes at a cost.

A one-mile portion of Interstate 280 at 16th Street could come down to make way for a boulevard, which would link Mission Bay with its surrounding neighborhoods, say city planners.

The highway’s potential demolition is included in “The Railyard Alternatives and I-280 Boulevard Feasibility Study,” which was released Tuesday by The City. The report explores a plethora of changes to the area.

The study looks at relocating the 4th and King Streets Caltrain railyard, a more than $2.6 billion proposal to connect High Speed Rail and Caltrain to the new Transbay Transit Center, and to create a 1.3-mile tunnel from the transit center to Mission Bay in anticipation of the new transbay tube.

That Transbay Transit Center is now under construction in South of Market, and is seen as a vital connection for high speed rail in California, set to open in 2017.

Gil Kelley, director of citywide planning at the Planning Department, presented the plan Tuesday night to nearly 150 neighbors, who packed an auditorium at the Potrero Hill Recreation Center. The project is still in early phases — preliminary designs may not arrive for at least a year.

Still, opposition is already brewing over the possibility of tearing down a portion of I-280.

Future Transit Connections

Boos and hisses rang through the rec center as Kelley discussed the proposal to raze I-280.

Details were sparse about the proposal, however. Kelley said the concepts were “mix and match,” and did not depend on each other to come to fruition.

Though many defended I-280 as vital for drivers, it was recently listed as one of the Bay Area’s most congested freeways by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

“A lot of the congestion on 280 is commuters, people by themselves in their cars,” said Tony Kelly, a long-time Potrero Hill community activist. “These people should really be in high-speed rail,” he said.

The railyard alternatives plan also explores tunneling from the Transbay Transit Center to Mission Bay, which later could serve as the beginning of a new transbay tube under the bay to Alameda.

Additionally, it looks potential alternatives to possibly run Caltrain along 3rd Street for a combined Caltrain/Muni station, as part of the downtown extension of the Transbay Transit Center.

Teardown Opposition Grows

Removing a portion of I-280 was the most controversial part of this plan prior to the meeting, and that sentiment intensified Tuesday night.

Surrounded by angry neighbors at the rec center, former Mayor Art Agnos — no stranger to fighting development, as evidenced by the recent “No Wall on the Waterfront” campaign — told the San Francisco Examiner he will personally combat any effort to tear down I-280.

In 2014, Agnos and now-Supervisor Aaron Peskin blocked a luxury housing development along the Embarcadero, and passed a ballot measure calling for voter approval of all height-limit increases along the waterfront.

Agnos promised a similar fight against tearing down I-280.

“I’m going to make the [No Wall on the Waterfront] fight look like a minor league skirmish,” he said.

It’s a switch in position for a former mayor who, in the 1990s, not only tore down the Embarcadero Freeway, but played a key role in tearing down the Central Freeway at Octavia Street as well.

“Listen,” he said, “there’s no one in this city who has demolished more freeways than I have.” But tearing down I-280 “will absolutely choke all of this area.”
Many at the meeting defended the freeway, including a resident of The City’s south side, John Lewis, who said he and his husband depend on I-280 to drive to visit his ailing mother-in-law in the East Bay.

Future Neighborhood

Enhancing transit isn’t the only reason to tear down I-280, according to the mayor’s office.

The controversial portion of I-280 and Caltrain Railyard together occupy 30 acres of land, which city officials note is valuable for future development.

That’s the argument laid out by the mayor’s office in a 2013 memo to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

“San Francisco’s traditional downtown job center is almost completely built out,” wrote Gillian Gillett, the mayor’s transportation policy director.

In light of that, future economic development should take place at the current site of I-280 and the Caltrain railyard, Gillett wrote.

“These sites also become the catalyst for the next round of center city job creation,” she continued, “in the same ways that the removal of the Embarcadero Freeway and the former Central Freeway elevated off-ramp became economic catalysts.”

It also aids The City’s goal of adding 190,000 jobs in the next 30 years, she wrote, which would be further bolstered by new regional transit —like high speed rail.

“The payoff,” Gillett argued, “is a continued dynamic region that allows people to live closer to work and makes commuting easier for those that do not. This vision increases the wealth of the region.”

Tony Kelly, the community activist, said Hayes Valley and the Embarcadero are reminders of what can happen when a freeway is removed to beautify a neighborhood and boost its economy.

“It could be brilliant,” he said, “but it could be a total disaster.”