Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Octavia Boulevard and the "transit-rich" mythology

The official mythology about Octavia Blvd. seems to resist all attempts at injecting reality into the discussion. From today's Examiner:

The northern stretch of the Central Freeway was damaged beyond repair by the quake and torn down in 1992. In 1995, a city task force recommended replacing remaining stretches with a surface boulevard. After fights at the ballot box, in 1999 voters approved tearing down the freeway north of Market Street. That cleared the way for a renaissance of the Hayes Valley neighborhood. 

Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, whose district includes Hayes Valley and who worked as a legislative aide on early efforts to demolish the freeway, said it’s “very dubious” whether demolition would have proceeded without the 1989 temblor. “The cracks caused by the Loma Prieta [earthquake] in our freeway infrastructure prompted cracks in our policy of relying on freeways altogether,” Mirkarimi said.

Why am I not surprised that Mirkarimi was active in the campaign to take down the Central Freeway? But the reality to anyone with eyes to see: a lot of the freeway traffic that used to go over the neighborhood is now coming through the heart of Hayes Valley on Octavia Blvd. Octavia Blvd. is now a perpetual traffic jam, with few businesses located on that street between Hayes and Market Street. 

Essentially all the city has done is bring freeway traffic onto the surface streets of the neighborhood. People like Mirkarimi are still congratulating themselves for tearing down the Central Freeway overpass, but they seem to forget why the overpass was built in the first place---to keep all that East-West traffic off the surface streets in the heart of the city:

The Hayes Valley and Upper Market neighborhoods remain sprinkled by weedy lots left vacant since the Central Freeway was torn down after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, but signs of revival are emerging. City officials took more than eight years to craft a rebuilding plan for those lots, known as the Market-Octavia Plan, which was finalized last year before the recession put a dent in planned reconstruction efforts.

After the freeway was demolished, the state gave the land the overpass used to occupy to the city. Instead of simply developing these parcels with housing and retail space, the Big Thinkers in the Planning Department hatched the grandiose Market and Octavia Plan that encompasses a much larger part of the middle of the city, from Turk Street on the North to 16th Street in the Mission on the South. 

The whole point of the M/O Plan is to encourage population density in that huge chunk of the city, which requires changing city zoning laws on density, building heights---40-story highrises at Market and Van Ness!---and eliminating setbacks/backyards to give developers incentives. 

And, of course, the new regs limit the amount of parking developers can include in new buildings, thus encouraging the thousands of new residents to take Muni and ride bikes---that's why the Bicycle Coalition supports the Plan---as per the city's offical "transit corridors" doctrine:

But replacement of freeway with surface road along Octavia Boulevard has provided an early manifestation of posthighway land-use policies that could eventually lead to a rehabilitated, transit-rich community. Octavia Boulevard was rebuilt in a way that divides faster-moving from slower-moving traffic with rows of trees in its center. 

“It’s still an arterial,” said Gabriel Metcalf of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association. “But it provides a transition between the car-centered space of the highway and the pedestrian-centered space of The City.” As San Francisco recovers from the recession, Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi said he expects Hayes Valley---which was “in the doldrums” when it was “eclipsed by the freeway”---to continue flourishing into a transit-oriented neighborhood housing a mandated mix of income levels.

Octavia Blvd. represents "posthighway land use"? Octavia Blvd. is in effect a highway connecting the freeway with Fell Street and Oak Street. Why bringing the freeway traffic to the surface streets of the area is progress is something the Octavia Blvd. boosters have yet to explain.

How does Octavia Blvd. represent a step toward a "transit-rich" neighborhood? There are no buses that run on Octavia itself, and the Muni lines that do run through the area---the #6, the #7, the #21, and the #71---now have to cross a street that's often choked with traffic. 

And why would pedestrians do anything but hurry across Octavia Blvd? The #21 line goes right up Hayes Street, but the bike people would like to clog up Hayes by making it a two-way street between Van Ness and Gough.

Can anyone really think that people would want to stroll on Octavia Blvd. between Hayes and Market Street? It's a lot like walking next to a freeway.

And it's simply inaccurate to portray the side streets/frontage roads along Octavia as dividing "faster-moving from slower-moving traffic with rows of trees in its center." Those streets are mostly used by cyclists and people who live in the area.

Tearing down the Embarcadero freeway really did lead to a lot of positive changes for that part of town---though the political bargain included the ongoing central subway boondoggle---but the same can't be said for the demolition of the Central Freeway overpass in Hayes Valley.

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