The Gould Evans San Francisco studio is located near the Highway 101 Central Freeway overpass: a noisy, smoggy, car-centric barrier between the SOMA and Mission neighborhoods. In 2018, we started brainstorming ideas for integrating the overpass to better serve the neighborhood. And, because Covid-19 is exacerbating the need for safe, equitable open public space – we’re seeing this piece of urban infrastructure through a new lens. How can a freeway be rethought to reduce our city’s carbon footprint? What does a truly integrated, equitable public space look like? And, what aspects does it need to make all members of the community feel welcome?
Last week, we posed these questions to a virtual audience of over 200 at San Francisco Design Week. Joined by San Francisco’s Planning Director Rich Hillis, Bob Baum and Sean Zaudke of Gould Evans presented design ideas for the Central Freeway overpass and gathered feedback from community stakeholders.
The design involves removing portions of the ¾ mile stretch of freeway near the I-80 / US-101 to the intersection of Market and Octavia street – allowing for greater sunlight penetration, greening and reduced wind conditions. An elevated pathway then weaves between the upper and lower levels creating new vistas of the city – connecting the north and south ends. The 90’ ft width and linear shape increases movement and to some extent limits large gatherings, creating a set of “urban lungs” for an otherwise dense area. Opportunities for sports, playgrounds, community arts programs and local food trucks exist throughout.
A commuter rail on the lower level, and solar and wind generators on the upper pathway pavilions, harness the power of sustainable design to help reduce our city’s carbon footprint. On the lower level, the Mission Creek that historically flowed through this area is unearthed and restored. The resulting site, a visually artful landmark, supports ecological and physical wellness.
Historically, repurposing and reintegrating industrial infrastructure leads to dynamic and walkable new neighborhoods. Octavia Boulevard, for example, was transformed from an overpass into a surface boulevard as part of the Central Freeway replacement project. The change contributed greatly to the Hayes Valley renaissance. We predict a similar renaissance is possible by transforming the Central Freeway overpass, and suggest an idea for an “Innovation District” located at the East end of the elevated park, near the I-80 / US-101 interchange and the Design District. The district could include special zoning incentives for companies and organizations focused on research around regenerative cities. The connective nodes created by the upper and lower moments alongside the north and south could also result in opportunities for socially equitable mixed-use housing and green-rooftops; benefiting all members of the public.
Of course, this is a conceptual idea; community feedback and extensive studies need to be conducted before moving forward. However, recently – looming issues surrounding residential density, affordability, limited public transit and limited public space opportunities have become critical problems to contend with in San Francisco. Now more than ever, we should consider alternative ways to rethink our urban infrastructure to improve the public realm and keep our citizens safe and healthy.