San Francisco has a storied freeway history. There were once grand plans to build a web of cross-city freeways. These plans fell to the determined opposition from the city’s residents. In the end, only the stubs of the planned highways were built. San Francisco remains to this day without a through freeway link between the US Highway 101 to the north and south of the City. Though it is less convenient for drivers, there is little doubt blocking the construction of the cross-city freeways preserved the character of many San Franciscan neighborhoods.
Before the full force of the residential opposition had its impact, the initial stubs of the cross-city freeways were built. One of these was constructed along San Francisco’s Embarcadero. This short stretch of freeway led west from the Bay Bridge along the bay front. The plan was for the Embarcadero Freeway to extend westward to the Golden Gate Bridge. The new freeway, the I-480, would have connected I-80 at the Bay Bridge to US-101 at the Golden Gate Bridge.
The section of the Embarcadero Freeway that was constructed showed just how devastating the elevated highway would have been to San Francisco’s waterfront. Double-decked, the highway blocked the light to neighborhood. It separated one of San Francisco’s signature structures, the Ferry Building, from the rest of the downtown. What was otherwise an attractive bayside locale was left seedy and downtrodden.
In 1989 an earthquake centered 60 miles to the south in Loma Prieta damaged the freeway. Rather than repair the freeway segment to nowhere, a controversial decision was made to demolish the structure and rehabilitate the surroundings. Typical of San Francisco politics, the removal of the Embarcadero Freeway, as with its construction, came with both substantial resistance and support. Nevertheless, in 1991 good sense had prevailed; the demolition of the Embarcadero Freeway began. It is now clear that this was a great choice.
Today the section San Francisco’s Embarcadero were the freeway once stood is vibrant and attractive. The once sketchy waterfront is now a popular place for walkers and roller bladders. Removal of the Embarcadero Freeway opened up views of the Bay Bridge. Businesses have moved in. Mozilla, of Internet browser fame, has corporate offices inside the façade of the old Hills Brothers Coffee Building nearby. Visiting today it is hard to imagine or even remember how dismal the area was when the Embarcadero Freeway was standing. It is difficult to see that there could have been any significant resistance to its removal.