SAN FRANCISCO (KRON) – Today’s Embarcadero is a teeming thoroughfare of restaurants, bars, public art, tourists, and breathtaking views.
But only a little more than 30 years ago, a large portion of San Francisco’s waterfront was occupied by a double-decker elevated freeway that took drivers from the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge to Broadway.
The so-called Embarcadero Freeway opened in 1959 and was up for 32 years, separating San Franciscans from the Bay with metal and smog.
If you want to know what it was looked like to drive on the freeway, a sped-up drive-thru is included in the 1982 film “Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance.” It’s also featured in “Bullitt,” “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace,” and “A View to A Kill.”
It was actually the first leg of a proposal to connect the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge via freeway: the Embarcadero Freeway was originally going to be longer, and meet up with a proposed Golden Gate Freeway extending from the Golden Gate Bridge to Van Ness Avenue.
However many San Franciscans didn’t like the idea of freeways along the entire shore, which led to the so-called freeway revolt, which successfully stopped the completion of the freeway network. This is why, for example, Interstate 280 ends at Third Street and didn’t connect with the Embarcadero Freeway.
In the 1980s, opposition to the orphan freeway mounted. The New York Times reported in 1985 that then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein said that “I’m determined that that freeway come down, even if I have to become totally gray-haired in the process.” But despite that and a vote from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to tear down the freeway, San Francisco voters opted to keep the freeway.
Rose Pak, a Chinatown community organizer, advocated for keeping the structure so that traffic would enter San Francisco’s surface streets close to Chinatown, and warned that the community would be adversely affected by the loss of tourism, as the Chronicle reported.
In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake struck San Francisco and damaged the freeway so much that it became closed to traffic. Then-Mayor Art Agnos upset Pak by supporting demolition, and both the freeway and his political career were doomed when demolition began on Feb. 27, 1991.
But not all was lost for Chinatown merchants — the city committed to build a Muni line from south of Market to Chinatown to make up for the lost traffic. The Central Subway is officially set to open later this year and the northernmost station will be called Chinatown-Rose Pak.