Shake Up in San Fran
The most important moment in San Francisco's recent history didn't last much longer than . . . a moment, John King says. It was the 15-second Loma Prieta earthquake on Oct. 17, 1989. And only now, 15 years later, can we fully appreciate how much the earthquake changed the city — and, surprisingly, how much it changed things for the better, says King, the San Francisco Chronicle's urban design critic.
Of course, the earthquake itself was a terrifying and terrible event. Twelve people died in San Francisco; across the bay in Oakland another 42 died when a single freeway collapsed. But ultimately, says King, the earthquake had a good effect: "Loma Prieta shattered the status quo," including the political stalemate between developers who wanted to build big things and neighborhood activists committed to stopping anything big.
Suddenly, with two freeways damaged (the disliked Central and loathed Embarcadero freeways), San Francisco was faced with decisions it couldn't evade. Build back the freeways or tear them down? If you tore them down, what should be done with the land nearby? And how would these changes, particularly along the waterfront, affect the entire city? In the years to come, says King, the city made nearly all the right decisions. It is replacing the Century Freeway with a tree-lined boulevard, which King calls "a roadway designed to improve rather than tear apart neighborhood life — and the first of its kind built in urban America in 50 years."
But the critical decision was to demolish the Embarcadero, which had blocked the city from its waterfront for half a century, and create a master plan for the area. Sure enough, once the freeway was down, the liberated waterfront sprouted new developments, the most obvious of which is a baseball park for the Giants. But the genius, says King, lay in the plan itself, which balanced commerce with public access. In every case, the city allowed good developments to go forward but demanded something in return for the public: a waterfront walkway, a plaza or some other open space.
And it isn't just the waterfront that has benefited. Once citizens grasped that big need not be brutish and that there could be something in new developments for them, the forces of creative redevelopment were unleashed. Result: The Union Square retail district is expanding, museums are investing in bold designs, and the lovely but neglected area around city hall is being renovated. "And the most stunning change lies ahead," King writes. "A city that fought high-rises for decades will now see a residential neighborhood of towers rising in an area near the Bay Bridge once slashed apart by freeway ramps." Posted 11/1/2004
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