Nobody’s nostalgic for the freeway to nowhere

Nostalgia over easy was the order of the day at Sinbad’s, a waterfront restaurant in the shadow of the Ferry Building. The talk turned to fern bars, and fast cars, and long lunches in places like Paoli’s. Remember the ’80s? The men had narrower ties and the women had shorter skirts. “Hey,” somebody said. “Remember the Embarcadero Freeway?”

San Franciscans wince at the memory. It was the elevated freeway to nowhere, gray as a prison, ugly as sin. It ran right in front of the Ferry Building, which not long ago was a building with a past and no future.

The wrecking balls went to work on the freeway on Feb. 27, 1991, just 20 years ago last Sunday. The foes of the freeway threw a big party with music and Champagne toasts. Twenty years! It should have been an anniversary to remember, but I forgot about it myself.

“I have a hard time believing that thing was ever here,” said Rex Clack, a maritime attorney, who used to use it as a shortcut from the waterfront to Broadway. He remembers the dark look of the street under the concrete legs of a double-decked freeway, roaring with traffic. Now the Embarcadero is a showpiece: open to the sky, lined with palm trees, the city on one side, the bay on the other. Colorful streetcars run down the middle.

You would think now that everybody would have seen what the Embarcadero could have become without the freeway. Think again.

The battle over the freeway is a cautionary tale of how San Francisco let the state impose highways that scarred the city in the name of progress, and then dithered over what to do next as opposing forces battled to a standstill.

The Embarcadero Freeway opened in 1958, part of an engineering dream – or nightmare – to ring the city with freeways. It was supposed to link the Bay Bridge with the Golden Gate, but a citizens revolt halted it at Broadway.

Civic-minded people hated the Embarcadero Freeway, but 60,000 cars a day used it. If it were torn down, what then? Why, said the dreamers, a boulevard, a parkway, views of the water.

In 1986, a proposal to tear down the freeway and build the boulevard went to the voters. As it turned out, the Embarcadero had a lot of friends: the public voted to keep the freeway by a large margin. Even Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, Mr. San Francisco himself, voted for the freeway.


2 Responses to “Nobody’s nostalgic for the freeway to nowhere”
  1. Clint says:

    I remember the blight of the Embarcadero Freeway very well, having lived in SF 1970-78, 81-82. Now I live in Manhattan where we have misled do-gooders who think urban-blight eyesores like this should hang around as “parks.” (See Highline Park, NYC).

  2. Mitch says:

    The freeway wasn’t that bad , in fact I think they should’ve kept it the way it was & finished it . If San Franciscans were not such idiots we would’ve had a faster transportation system all over the city.