Quake cracked freeway-focused policy

The tectonic shift in the Santa Cruz Mountains in 1989 led to a corresponding shift in San Francisco’s transportation landscape, prompting the replacement of freeways with boulevards and freeing up land for new buildings and homes.

Cracks that emerged in freeways during the Oct. 17, 1989, Loma Prieta earthquake added fuel to anti-highway sentiments in San Francisco, leading to the demolition of roadways and a new downtown skyline taking shape.

The earthquake-damaged Embarcadero Freeway, which ran between the Bay Bridge and North Beach, was not repaired after the quake.

In the process of tearing it down, a lattice of ramps that connected it with the Bay Bridge was also removed.

Then San Francisco Redevelopment Agency began wooing developers to build shops, office space and homes on state land that was cleared when those ramps and connectors were removed.

Several empty lots that emerged from the shadows of the old freeway ring the future Transbay Transit Center, and the redevelopment will help fund a multibillion-dollar upgrade to the hub.

The transit center rebuild will continue an alteration of the area that started just after the quake.

San Francisco lawmakers’ controversial decision to demolish the damaged Embarcadero Freeway prompted waterfront improvements that included parkland; construction of new piers, buildings and shops; the rehabilitation of the landmark Ferry Building; and the construction of what is now AT&T Park.

“The waterfront is now one of the best urban places in the world — after 150 years, we’re starting to reconnect with the Bay,” said Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of the land-use think-tank San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association. “Loma Prieta helped San Francisco enormously by taking down the Embarcadero Freeway, but we get the credit for figuring out what to put in its place.”

In addition to transit center plans are proposed zoning changes designed to extend San Francisco’s downtown south toward the transit  terminal, where high-density skyscrapers are expected to be built.

Farther outside the downtown area lies development that sprouted from another demolished freeway.

The northern stretch of the Central Freeway was damaged beyond repair by the quake and torn down in 1992. In 1995, a city task force recommended replacing remaining stretches with a surface boulevard.

After fights at the ballot box, in 1999 voters approved tearing down the freeway north of Market Street. That cleared the way for a renaissance of the Hayes Valley neighborhood.

Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, whose district includes Hayes Valley and who worked as a legislative aide on early efforts to demolish the freeway, said it’s “very dubious” whether demolition would have proceeded without the 1989 temblor.

“The cracks caused by the Loma Prieta [earthquake] in our freeway infrastructure prompted cracks in our policy of relying on freeways altogether,” Mirkarimi said.

Signs of transit-rich future coming forth

The Hayes Valley and Upper Market neighborhoods remain sprinkled by weedy lots left vacant since the Central Freeway was torn down after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, but signs of revival are emerging.

City officials took more than eight years to craft a rebuilding plan for those lots, known as the Market-Octavia Plan, which was finalized last year before the recession put a dent in planned reconstruction efforts.

But replacement of freeway with surface road along Octavia Boulevard has provided an early manifestation of posthighway land-use policies that could eventually lead to a rehabilitated, transit-rich community.

Octavia Boulevard was rebuilt in a way that divides faster-moving from slower-moving traffic with rows of trees in its center.

“It’s still an arterial,” said Gabriel Metcalf of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association. “But it provides a transition between the car-centered space of the highway and the pedestrian-centered space of The City.”

As San Francisco recovers from the recession, Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi said he expects Hayes Valley — which was “in the doldrums” when it was “eclipsed by the freeway” — to continue flourishing into a transit-oriented neighborhood housing a mandated mix of income levels.

The next big one

The Loma Prieta earthquake struck in the Santa Cruz Mountains on the San Andreas fault Oct. 17, 1989.

6.9 Magnitude of quake
51 Aftershocks on Oct. 17, 1989
16 Aftershocks on day after quake
20 Aftershocks in weeks following
67 percent Chance of similar or more destructive temblor striking Bay Area from 1990 to 2020

Building to build

Some lots left vacant by the Embarcadero Freeway’s demise will be redeveloped to help fund reconstruction of the Transbay Transit Center.

10 Blocks of former freeway land being prepared for redevelopment

39 Residential buildings between four and 55 stories planned on those lots

$1.6 billion Expected cost to rebuild Transbay Transit Center

1,200 feet Potential height of office tower redevelopment anchor

850 feet Height of Transamerica Pyramid — currently The City’s tallest building

Temblor tidbit: The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, with an epicenter in the Santa Cruz Mountains, rattled the greater Bay Area for about
15 seconds. The 1906 earthquake — centered near San Francisco — shook for much longer, with estimates ranging from 45 to 60 seconds.

For The Examiner's complete Loma Prieta anniversary coverage, go to http://www.sfexaminer.com/loma-prieta/

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