A cyclist bikes down Folsom Street through the SoMa neighborhood in San Francisco. (Dan Chambers/Special to the S.F. Examiner)

A cyclist bikes down Folsom Street through the SoMa neighborhood in San Francisco. (Dan Chambers/Special to the S.F. Examiner)

Nearly three decades after Loma Prieta earthquake, Folsom Street sees new life

In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake wreaked havoc throughout the Bay Area.

But nearly 27 years later, one part of its legacy — the removal of a controversial freeway — may finally lead to the revitalization of Folsom Street.

Part of Folsom Street runs in the shadow of what was once the Embarcadero Freeway, which was torn down after a bitter public battle ended in the 1989 earthquake that rendered the freeway unsafe.

Down came the freeway. But, now, Folsom Street will rise.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency on Tuesday approved a series of bike and pedestrian changes to Folsom Street, a key approval in a project that aims to transform the roadway into a hub of nightlife and walkability by early 2018.

“This is going to blow Valencia [Street] out of the water,” said Greg Riessen, an SFMTA transportation engineer.

Riessen spoke before the SFMTA board seeking approval for numerous changes, including the widening of Folsom Street’s sidewalks from 2nd to Spear streets to be more walk-friendly, and adding corner “bulb-outs” to intersections to shorten the distance of crossing the street. The street will also be converted to a two-way, in sections, to calm traffic.

That was good news to the Board of Directors’ ears. As it stands now, Folsom Street is more of a car corridor — unsafe and grim — than neighborhood, they said.

“A lot of the sidewalks are so narrow you literally cannot walk,” said SFMTA Board of Directors Vice Chair Cheryl Brinkman.

And per The City’s recent bike-friendly trend, protected bike lanes will run in both directions from Second Street to The Embarcadero. Intersections will see exclusive bicycle signals to prevent bikes from mixing with vehicle traffic.

Muni transit service is also planned for Folsom Street once the changes are complete, according to the SFMTA, and boarding islands for those buses will also be constructed.

There are also beautification elements to the project: New pedestrian-scale lighting, street trees and other landscaping will be created. And all of these changes clock in at just over $15 million, according to the SFMTA.

The approvals are part of the larger Folsom Streetscape Project, which is sponsored by the San Francisco Office of Community Investment and managed by San Francisco Public Works. As part of that project and the construction of the Transbay Terminal, residential towers with ground floor retail will dot Folsom Street.

Soon, Reissen said, there will be new bars, restaurants, grocery stores and more — a thriving business area and neighborhood for walkers and cyclists.

This project wouldn’t be possible if the Embarcadero Freeway remained, according to the SFMTA, as its removal spurred land sales that enabled that development. The freeway traveled over what will soon be the Transbay Transit Center and near The Embarcadero.

Former Mayor Art Agnos, who lobbied to tear down the freeway in the 1980s, said the revitalization of Folsom Street was news to him. At the time, the Board of Supervisors narrowly voted to side with him, but a petition with more than 22,000 signatures circulated to keep it up, Agnos said. In 1986, voters approved a ballot initiative to overturn the board’s decision and preserve the freeway.

Even local San Francisco Chronicle — and, for a time, San Francisco Examiner — columnist Herb Caen penned screeds against the freeway coming down.

“Herb Caen, ironically, who has a section of The Embarcadero named after him, called it a ‘silly idea,’” Agnos said.

But everything changed in 1989: The magnitude-6.9 Loma Prieta temblor struck on Oct. 17.

The Embarcadero Freeway, though still standing, was rendered seismically unsafe and torn down, according to news accounts at the time.

Now, with the new Transbay Terminal and the revitalization of Folsom Street, the Embarcadero Freeway teardown continues to be the “gift that keeps on giving,” Agnos said.

Today, opposition to the Folsom Street project is minimal. Both the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and Walk San Francisco sang the praises of the project at Tuesday’s SFMTA board meeting.

“It makes me very proud to know that the vision that people did not understand years ago now has been fulfilled and is supported by the entire city,” Agnos said.

All San Francisco needed was an earthquake and three decades to come around.

Loma Prieta EarthquakeMuniSFMTATransit

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