Learning from San Francisco to avoid waterfront missteps

by: Graham Johnson Updated:

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SEATTLE - When the Alaskan Way Viaduct is demolished in 2016 Seattle’s waterfront will begin to be transformed.

And we can glimpse our future now by visiting San Francisco which began taking down its waterfront freeway 22 years ago.

 The Embarcadero waterfront is where San Francisco meets the bay and where people meet one another.

 Locals bring their kids, tourists their cameras and big events like the America's Cup attract people from all over.

 Alex Tolkach, of San Francisco, shopped the farmer's market in the iconic ferry building and he recalled when this waterfront was very different.

“It was a ghost town,” he said.

 For decades the elevated Embarcadero Freeway divided the city from the water, much as Seattle's Alaskan Way Viaduct does today.

 “Thank goodness for the Loma Prieta Earthquake,” Tolkach said.

 That 1989 earthquake seriously damaged the freeway. The feds offered $65 million to fix it but Mayor Art Agnos had a different plan.

 Agnos decided to use the money to tear down what he called the "hideous freeway" which he described as “a scar on the face of the city.”

 Demolition began in 1991. Over the years, the city sold bonds to build up the boulevard and the parks beside it.

 Now, the Embarcadero is thriving.               

 “This is a magnificent, successful addition to San Francisco and for all the people who come to visit,” said Agnos.

 Yet, it's far from perfect, crossing the Embarcadero on foot can take a while.

 There are several transit options but in many places it feels mostly like a wide roadway where traffic is often a mess.

  “I don't drive because traffic can get really, really bad on the Embarcadero,” said Justin Weist, a San Francisco resident.

 “It is a bit of a pain, I wouldn't try to kid anybody but we say it's worth it,” Agnos said. “People are more important than cars.”

 A plaque now stands on the waterfront in Agnos's honor.

 But in the early 90s, the mayor's decision to tear down the freeway was so controversial he was voted out.

 Now, there's a new debate. This time it's over a large waterfront development.

 The Golden State Warriors propose a new basketball arena and shopping center on a pier.

 The Port of San Francisco said a rigorous review will make sure the construction adds to the Embarcadero's vibrancy.

 “It's different people, different activities, an eclectic kind of character that San Francisco is already known for,” said Dian Oshima, Waterfront Planning Director at the San Francisco Port Department.

 Former mayor Agnos is among those fighting the project. He believes it would overwhelm the waterfront.

 “I never dreamed 25 years ago, when I was mayor and made a controversial decision to demolish that freeway that I would be back 25 years later, fighting to protect that newly restored waterfront from predatory developers,” Agnos said.

 He predicts Seattle will someday face similar fights because taking down a freeway opens views and raises property values.

 Planning has started for Seattle's waterfront redevelopment with construction to begin in 2016.

 The city plans to tax downtown property owners to help pay for it.