Proposal to raze I-280 linked to train and real estate deals

State plans to facilitate more trains by further isolating Mission Bay led to the proposal to tear down I-280 at 16th Street.

It's a bold idea, discussed for years behind closed doors and recently announced in a strangely understated and pro-growth way: Tear down the last mile of Interstate 280 and replace it with an wide boulevard – reminiscent of the removal of the Central and Embarcadero freeways – in order to facilitate the extension of electrified Caltrain and high-speed rail tracks into the Transbay Terminal.

For almost three years, city planners have been discussing the idea and drawing up closely guarded plans to tear down the freeway, discussions sparked by the state's Environmental Impact Reports on electrifying the Caltrain tracks and bringing high-speed trains into town. With an increasing number of trains traveling those tracks, access to the rapidly growing Mission Bay area from the west on 16th Street would turn into a traffic nightmare, either with long waits for an at-grade train crossing or the creation of ugly and uninviting underpasses for cars and bikes.

Mayor Ed Lee and other top politicians have long sought to bring those trains downtown in Transbay Terminal through a still-unfunded tunnel, rather than having them stop at the existing Caltrain station at 4th and King streets. But the existence of the I-280 pilings made it structurally impossible to send the train underground before it got to 16th street.

So the idea was raised to raze the elevated 280 freeway and better integrate Mission Bay and the Potrero Hill/Showplace Square area, where Kaiser plans to build a huge new medical facility, creating a bike- and pedestrian-friendly corridor without the shadow of an antiquated freeway overhead.

“If you get the freeway out of the way, it's a ton of space,” said Greg Riessen, the city planner who developed and studied the idea. “The whole corridor of the freeway is blocking the ability to do anything else.”

But it wasn't until the political class and their capitalist partners also realized the enormous development potential of the idea – raising money that could be used to fund the train tunnel – that it was finally floated as a public trial balloon for the first time this week. The Chron's Matier & Ross led their Sunday column with a short item on the idea, apparently tipped off to its quiet debut a couple weeks earlier.

The city's Transportation Policy Director Gillian Gillett unveiled the idea in a Jan. 7 letter to the Municipal Transportation Commission, repeating it Jan. 10 at a forum on high-speed rail held at the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association. The letter was a response to the MTC's request for information on “San Francisco's policy goals and objectives regarding the much-needed electrification of Caltrain.”

Yet rather than deal directly with that issue, the letter said the answer “must be broadened to address the need for growth in the downtown and South of Market areas,” which it said requires funding to bring the trains into Transbay Terminal and to then let developers have at the 21 acres of land surrounding the existing Caltrain station, where transportation officials planned to store the trains.

“We need to create a faster and cheaper DTX [Downtown Extension project] alignment, realize the full value of the 4th & King Streets Railyard site, and eliminate the intrusiveness of I-280 in Mission Bay by terminating it at 16th Street and replacing it with a boulevard, based on the lessons learned from the removal of the Embarcadero Freeway to create a new Rincon Hill neighborhood, and the Central Freeway to create the new Market-Octavia neighborhood. Reenvisioning Caltrain electrification and the DTX could increase ridership, reduce costs considerably and create additional real estate value that would, in turn, provide for both more jobs to create revenue for both Caltrain and DTX and attract investment,” Gillett wrote.

She calls current plans to electrify Caltrain “shortsighted because it reduces the City's ability to meet its regional job growth allocations, because more than 20 acres are covered with trains, and it eliminates an important opportunity to create real estate value which can be used to fund transit and Caltrain investments,” she wrote.

The letter doesn't address where the increasing number of trains coming into San Francisco would be stored if the railyard is turned into luxury condos and commercial spaces, which has long been a goal of SPUR and other pro-development cheerleaders. High-speed rail officials have suggested Brisbane, but sources say city officials there have balked at the idea. Although Gillett hasn't returned our calls with follow-up questions, the Mayor's Office seems to see such logistical questions as secondary to this cash-cow idea.

So a staff-level proposal to solve a transportation challenge with an elegant multi-modal solution that follows in the city's tradition of tearing down freeways has morphed into a real estate deal. Quentin Kopp, the father of high-speed rail in California, has already derided the Transbay Terminal project (which is funded by the sale of state land surrounding the site to office tower developers) as little more than a real estate deal, and now the city is apparently seeking to extend that deal further into Mission Bay.

Former Mayor Art Agnos, who worked on both the Embarcadero and Central freeway tear-downs, told us, “In general, I really support the concept of demolishing freeways that bisect the city.”

Yet he said there are many key details and questions that need to be addressed, particularly given the Mayor's Office support for the new Warriors arena on the Central Waterfront, a project whose unaddressed traffic impacts would be exacerbated by an intensification of development at the Caltrain station, into Mission Bay, and further south.

“It could drown the city, this tsunami of cars, particularly with all the development planned all the way down to Hunters Point,” Agnos said. “I like the idea, but we need a serious discussion of the details, particularly with all these development proposals.”



development dollars it would bring, and so can be justified.

Even so, I'd like to know for sure that the HST will be built all the way thru to LA and SF before destroying a vital infrastructural artery.

Posted by anon on Jan. 23, 2013 @ 4:12 pm

Uh oh!!

Should we be nervous? It would appear that this might be a large-scale development proposal that the SFBG would support. Or is that simply not possible?

Posted by Guest on Jan. 23, 2013 @ 4:58 pm

oppose building anything there except subsidized housing for one-legged, lesbians of color.

Posted by anon on Jan. 23, 2013 @ 5:23 pm

/race-baiting troll

Posted by lillipublicans on Jan. 23, 2013 @ 5:41 pm
Posted by anon on Jan. 23, 2013 @ 5:59 pm

and a tired act. Most one legged lesbians of color (with or without piercings or died hair) could kick your ass.

Posted by Eddie on Jan. 23, 2013 @ 7:44 pm
Posted by Guest on Jan. 24, 2013 @ 6:52 am

Uh no, actually it's not either of those things. It's just racist, ignorant and where do you guys come from?
Actually...I think I may have met you a couple weeks ago, now that I think about it, you were the realtor guy whose clothes were too tight, you had stubby little fingers and worked in your mom's office, but she was out all day with her Pacific Heights connections and you sat at the desk looking at internet porn and leaving racist comments on SFBG.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 26, 2013 @ 7:46 pm

The idea isn't so bad, the problem will be the traffic, people that use cars for transportation will never change it for trains, that is the reality.

Posted by address on Dec. 23, 2013 @ 4:26 am
Posted by Lucretia Snapples on Jan. 23, 2013 @ 6:01 pm
Posted by anon on Jan. 23, 2013 @ 6:07 pm

Basically shutting down that freeway. This idea that choking off traffic routes will result in more people taking the bike or train is ludicrous.

Posted by Lucretia Snapples on Jan. 23, 2013 @ 5:13 pm

Why not just put the trains underground?

Posted by anon on Jan. 23, 2013 @ 6:00 pm

As I wrote, the deep pilings from the freeway make it so you can't tunnel there.

Posted by steven on Jan. 23, 2013 @ 6:23 pm

then I'd be willing to bet a way can be found to depress the trains.

Or why can't the HST simply use the existing CalTrain right of way?

Posted by Guest on Jan. 23, 2013 @ 6:54 pm

Dude, the point is that the freeway get RAZED! That means it gets eliminated. Both the Freeway and train get undergrounded. There is plenty of room. Art Agnos proposed it 25 years ago. It is much easier today, because of better technology and materials & design knowledge. Both 101 & 280 should be undergrounded. Caltrain should be converted to BRT.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 29, 2013 @ 4:23 pm

as well. Turn the Bay Bridge into a bike and pedestrian-only thoroughfare with local craft booths perched jauntily along its length! Imagine how much more attractive the Golden Gate will be once the menace of its vehicle traffic is done away with!!

Posted by Lucretia Snapples on Jan. 23, 2013 @ 6:30 pm
Posted by Guest on Jan. 23, 2013 @ 6:50 pm

this is a great idea and the complaints are the same as those when we demolished the Oak/Fell ramps and the Embarcadero. A nice boulevard (I'd personally like to see the freeway razed either north of Cesar Chavez or even east of 101) would provide plenty of travel options to people needing to access the neighborhoods, especially since there are only 3 exits east of 101. Using 280 to get downtown during the heavy commute hours is already a waste of time and gas as you sit on the glorified exit ramps for 15 minutes if you're lucky and still have to drive around to find parking.

and frankly who cares if its a glorified real estate deal. how the hell else are you going to pay for all the land remediation, the public improvements, and reconfiguration of the roadway? we don't get to mint trillion dollar coins here in town.

Posted by aml on Jan. 24, 2013 @ 7:24 am

The problem right now is all the traffic that has to go thru SF to get somewhere else, because we never finished the original freeway plan.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 24, 2013 @ 8:12 am

You are right on that point. The "haters" of redevelopment are the same folks who live and vote in San Francisco who came here because they love the city the way it is and want to preserve the spirit and lifestyle. The "haters" out-number the the land-owner/developers class. We are concerned when SFMTA puts spying cameras and recording devices on public transit systems and then try to forces us onto them. If you are concerned, fight back by protecting the right to appeal these projects by telling your Supervisor to vote against Wiener's proposal to cripple CEQA protections and sign the Stop SFMTA petition: Follow this and other stories on

Posted by Guest on Jan. 24, 2013 @ 12:02 pm

because they oppose progress. The idea of freezing a place in time makes no sense. Well, maybe in the Orient somewhere, but not here.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 24, 2013 @ 12:17 pm

at all is because of the way this city has in the past successfully stopped development and frozen itself in time. Tourists don't come here to look at ugly glass towers. We have a beautiful city because we have been able to preserve it when most cities have been unable to preserve the very things that made them beautiful and livable in the first place.

San Francisco as a result of activism is now a unique beautiful place and as always, she is under attack from thieves, liars, rats and scoundrels who want to chop her up and sell her to the highest out of town bidder. If this city would have been developed as was originally planned after World War 2, we would be surrounded by one big ugly, sterile, impersonal concrete jungle and we would have lots of freeways. The real estate here would be worthless compared to what it is worth now. So because of the desirability of this Victorian city frozen in time as you put it, real estate is higher than anywhere else in the country...

So we still have to contend with the pro- development land schemers, whose business it is to deceive. Those who have fought against the corrupt and the rich and the privileged classes of the ruling elite have challenged the system and won and yes they are as progressive as one can be.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 26, 2013 @ 8:24 pm

Keep them coming.

Posted by Eddie on Jan. 26, 2013 @ 8:42 pm

SF is the most decrepit wanna-be world class city in the world. For 150 years it was good, but ever since the 1970s or so, it has stagnated. Protectionist NIMBYs are killing the vitality of this city. Anywhere else in the world has world-class architecture. SF has about 10 buildings in total. Everything else is DESIGN-BY-COMMITTEE in order to be the least "offensive" to the NIMBYs, yet fails to achieve any significance. Pure crap.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 29, 2013 @ 4:28 pm

CEQA isn't being crippled: CEQA presently uses a "level of service" criterion which mades the absurd assertion that any expansion in vehicle capacity is good for the environment, since a fixed number of cars will zip to their destinations at the posted speed limit with a minimum of gas-guzzling brake taps. Obviously reality is very different, since increases in auto infrastructure result in more people driving.

Posted by djconnel on Jan. 26, 2013 @ 8:27 pm

But LOS is a rough proxy for transit delay which is an environmental impact. It would be better to adopt realistic standards against which to evaluate the impacts of projects on transit speeds. But that is not what is in play here. What is in play is blowing through project specific CEQA with a 'streamlined' process that charges to fees based on the costs to mitigate impacts in the aggregate but with no assessment of nor mitigation of project-specific delays.

Auto LOS is not important, transit delay is. Even bike lanes that remove auto capacity need to test for transit delay as an unintended environmental impact of good policy. More folks will take reliable rapid transit than will bike. And when they do shift from driving to transit, then cycling will be safer.

Posted by marcos on Jan. 26, 2013 @ 8:51 pm

Just because there is a transit line somewhere does not mean that new residents from adjacent densification will take that transit anywhere.

The developers don't give a shit, because after the occupancy certificate is issued or after they sit on their craptacular construction for 10 years to avoid defective workmanship lawsuits, they'll be gone, having pocketed their profits, and the taxpayers and residents will be on the hook to cover the socialized, externalized downside costs to that development.

So the trade off for removing the freeway has to be balanced against the TOD equation that itself does not balance without massive social subsidy.

Posted by socram on Jan. 24, 2013 @ 8:00 am

Nice try tho, but you need to change your parrot lines too.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 24, 2013 @ 8:09 am

I wish I was parroting others, but those who would tend to be the sources of anti-development thought are coopted into the growth machine. There is nobody left to parrot.

Posted by marcos on Jan. 24, 2013 @ 12:36 pm

it could be time to reconsider how valid and viable that voice is.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 24, 2013 @ 12:41 pm

But all of you pro developer types are better at shouting over anyone with opposing views. But when you sit all day your realtors desk leaving comments such as these, what else have you?

Posted by Guest on Jan. 26, 2013 @ 8:08 pm

Tokyo's success with rail is largely due to the railway company diversifying into real estate holdings:

CAHSRA should seize this opportunity to adopt this successful (and profitable) business model.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 24, 2013 @ 12:11 pm

because they could sell off their vast landbanks. There are superb exemples of mixed-use development over train station, and I'd recommend people look at the London Bridge train station development in London, including the Shard - now Europe's tallest building.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 24, 2013 @ 12:19 pm

No need to tear down 280.

In any case this sounds like a great way of killing Caltrain. First service will be shut down for years while they teardown the freeway. Next, service will be reduced because of the lack of platform space in the new Transbay terminal.

Afterwards, people will be begging BART to take over the Caltrain right-of-way.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 24, 2013 @ 1:38 pm

Gabriel Metcalfe approaches orgasm at the thought.

Posted by marcos on Jan. 24, 2013 @ 1:50 pm

all the airport connections have been BART, even tho CalTrain and Amtrak were closer to SFO and OAK.

CalTrain should be subsumed under BART. It's over-engineered. Why are Amtrak staff and trains running a commuter railroad that stops every 2 miles?

Posted by Guest on Jan. 24, 2013 @ 2:03 pm

CalTrain operations were taken over by TransitAmerica about six months ago. All capital equipment is owned by CalTrain/Caltrans directly.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 25, 2013 @ 4:55 am

Oh yes, let's take down some more freeway ramps, since taking down the Central Freeway in Hayes Valley worked out so well, with 50,000 cars now coming through the middle of the neighborhood on Octavia Blvd. and jamming up side streets.

Gillett is an anti-car bike gal and on SPUR's board of directors. And she used to be one of Wiener's assistants. Wiener, like the Bicycle Coalition and WalMart, would like to "reform" CEQA to death to limit the public's ability to oppose City Hall's favorite projects. SPUR, Mayor Lee, and the city's establishment support the Central Subway boondoggle and high-speed rail, the granddaddy of all boondoggles.

Maybe CalTrain can bury its trains in the high-speed rail tunnel, since high-speed rail will never be built, as the several lawsuits now pending against that dumb project will demonstrate in the next few years.

Just amazing how planning and transportation policy in San Francisco, supposedly a sophisticated city, is dominated by people who are simply stupid.

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Posted by Turnkey Solution on Mar. 10, 2013 @ 11:31 pm

I'm all for this as long as affordable housing is built. Every where I look, especially in Mission Bay, luxury housing/condos are being built. The last thing San Francisco needs is more luxury housing.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 01, 2013 @ 12:36 am

rate housing. The amrket will do that.

But to build "cheap" homes in a place that is not cheap requires someone else to be willing to subsidize them.

Why should I pay more tax or whatever so that you can have a cheap home in a town that isn't cheap?

Isn't the real problem that you want to live in SF but cannot afford it? And that is your problem, not mine.

Move to a place where the economy suits you better.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 01, 2013 @ 6:39 am

If the public holds the key to discretionary land use entitlements that are highly profitable, the Supreme Court says that jurisdictions may leverage those entitlements for public benefits, including affordable housing, so long as the project makes a fair (6-8%) rate of return.

If developers can't abide by that, they can go build elsewhere. Problem?

Posted by marcos on Apr. 01, 2013 @ 7:09 am

And yes, I am aware that SF often misses out on business and project investment because of it's high taxes and invasive regulations.

However, the question here was about building BMR housing and, other than the setasides that are effectively extorted as bribes to get projects done, there can be no new build of BMR unless we the taxpayers approve higher taxes to pay for it.

As I recall, the last BMR bond issue failed.

However, the condo bypass proposal may allow some more BMR housing, so I feel sure you support that, caring as you do so much about the under-housed.

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Posted by bad credit loans on Nov. 08, 2013 @ 9:53 pm

Yes. Reminiscent.

Actually, exactly the same. Once again people are to be brought on board by their kneejerk sense that "freeways are bad" to lobby and bow to the developer's bidding.

When government is in the hands of the corrupt, pretty much every government action is to be closely scrutinized.

Building the freeways was wrong. Tearing them down is wrong.

Why is it that wealthy developers profit every time government takes action?

Why is it that every time public amenities such as Cal Train are "improved," that they are a little bit further destroyed?

Posted by Guest on Apr. 01, 2013 @ 6:52 am

desire and benefit from, e.g. homes, jobs, entertainment, retail etc.

Developments only work because the demand is there for what is being developed.

If people want space devoted to new condo's rather than freeways, then so be it.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 01, 2013 @ 7:20 am

This idea of tearing down freeways shows how Barbaric and Sickening these Stupid Failures(Politicians and Freeway Revolters alike)are. They give no consideration to those who rely on this Public Tarnsitway corridor to exit and enter the City. I say lets tear these abnormal fools down before they end up killing million more commuters by forcing them to detour onto residential streets or "tight pansed" jammed 101/80 into the city(very disgusting-Does not have to end up like this).

Posted by Guest on Jun. 07, 2013 @ 1:53 pm