San Francisco's Embarcadero: A glimpse of Seattle's future?


by JOE FRYER / KING 5 News

Posted on May 22, 2012 at 10:56 PM

Updated Thursday, May 24 at 11:29 AM

SAN FRANCISCO -– For the past two decades, a giant swath of the waterfront here has gradually matured into a vibrant destination filled with shops, restaurants and other tourist attractions. 

Many will tell you it was the destruction of the Embarcadero freeway -– a two-tiered elevated highway, similar to Seattle's Alaskan Way Viaduct -– that cleared the way for this urban renaissance. 

"If the freeway were still here, we just wouldn't have a business," said Mike Oliva of Cabrio Taxi, a San Francisco pedicab business that now gets about 90 percent of its business from the waterfront. 

Seattle city planners hope the Emerald City experiences a similar transformation once the Viaduct is gone. 

Much like Seattle's Viaduct, the Embarcadero freeway was built along San Francisco's waterfront in the 1950s. But a freeway revolt kept the controversial project from becoming as big as originally planned. 

"There was more than a handful of San Franciscans who wanted it taken down," said Doug Wright, who was deputy mayor in the late 1980s and early 1990s. 

But for decades, efforts to get rid of the freeway failed, blocked by businesses that were concerned drivers would not be able to reach them.  Plans to destroy the freeway were even put to a public vote in the mid-1980s, but residents decided to keep the giant structure.

Then, in October 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake essentially overruled San Francisco's voters. The 6.9 quake severely damaged the freeway and forced then-Mayor Art Agnos to either repair it or take it down for good.

Despite protests, he opted to take it down.

"The position that Mayor Agnos took was pretty strong and pretty brave politically," Wright said. 

The demolition did create major headaches for businesses near the Embarcadero freeway, including Al Falchi's Waterfront Restaurant.

"Actually it wasn't bad when it was up. It was just horrible when it came down," Falchi said. "It was almost a disaster, it almost put me and everybody else out of business."

Waterfront development

Agnos said he believes the decision to tear down the freeway kept him from getting reelected, but he now calls it the best decision he made as mayor.

The waterfront development, known as the Embarcadero, is anchored by the renovated Ferry Building, which is a transit hub and iconic image for the area.

"It's become a civic center on the waterfront," said Diane Oshima, with the Port of San Francisco. "It's more than just something for visitors and tourists. It's really something that San Franciscans have embraced."

Directly south of the Embarcadero, the San Francisco Giants built a new stadium in 2000.

"Because of the ballpark, they remodeled all of the buildings around here -– including mine," said Joel Harris with a smile. 

And on the north end, Boudin Bakery poured money into a huge renovation, building a 25,000-square-foot facility for making and selling sourdough bread. Sales at the new building are ten times greater than before it opened, the company said. 

"We would've never done that if the freeway was still there," said Boudin's Dan Giraudo.

Where'd the traffic go?

Truly fascinating is what happened to the 70,000 vehicles that once used the Embarcadero freeway each day. Rather than building an underground tunnel, like Seattle plans to do, San Francisco replaced the two-tiered freeway with a city boulevard, two lanes in each direction with a streetcar line running down the middle.

"A lot of people were against it at first because they thought it's going to be so hard to get around," said Harry Hendricks, a San Francisco resident. 

While the traffic situation along the Embarcadero is not perfect -- several traffic lights slow cars and cause backups -- many believe the setup works. 

"It flows pretty good," Olivia said. "It gets a little backed up occasionally, but it's never that bad."
About 40,000 vehicles now travel that stretch of the Embarcadero each day. Many other commuters abandoned their cars and jumped on the old-fashioned streetcars, which average 20,000 riders a day along the Embarcadero. 

Others took to their bicycles or buses.

And Wright, the former deputy mayor, thinks a few stuck with their cars but skipped the Embarcadero. 

"They found alternate routes that were more direct, perhaps slightly slower," Wright said.

Experts in San Francisco said they would not recommend that Seattle skip its plans for a deep-bore tunnel, noting there is a big difference between the two elevated freeways.

Seattle's Viaduct is a major throughway for drivers traveling north and south, whereas the old Embarcadero freeway was more of an on-off ramp to other major roads, making it a bit easier to live without.

"My guess is that Seattle would have a much harder time trying to meet that need," Oshima said. 

But nearly everything else happening along San Francisco's waterfront might look appealing to Seattle, which is hoping to create a similar destination along Puget Sound.

"Just go for it. Tear that thing down and you'll love it," Olivia said.  "Whatever grows in Seattle is a lot better than a double-decker freeway."

Plans to develop Seattle's waterfront, once the Viaduct is gone in 2016, are already in the works. It all hinges on finding funding to replace the city's aging seawall. A 30-year property-tax bond to fund the project may go before voters this November.

Last month, the Seattle City Council was given a cost estimate of $300 million to replace the wall, along with a few more surface improvements.