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City Planners Fend Off Anger About Proposed I-280 Demolition

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"It's just an idea," directors tells grumbling Potrero Hill crowd

The natives are getting restless about an idea circulating in the San Francisco Planning Department to demolish the northernmost stretch of the Interstate 280, starting at Mariposa Street.

But Gil Kelley, director of citywide planning, was quick to assure the 150 or so grumbling citizens who crowded into the Potrero Hill Recreation Center center last night (an overflow crowd in the small room) that it’s only an idea, and nobody is firing up the wrecking balls just yet.

"We don’t yet have a proposal," Kelley said. "We’re at the very beginning of the process. The freeway idea is just one part of this study, and we honestly haven’t considered the details of it yet." Every time Kelley mentioned the freeway, the crowd hissed. "Yes, I hear the hissing," he said.

The Railyard Alternatives and I-280 Boulevard Feasibility Study is mostly about finding room on the city’s street grid for various incoming railway projects, including high-speed rail and a new, electrified Caltrain. The latter point is the one relevant to 280: Caltrain plans to convert their current, lumbering old diesel models to a slick, modern electrified system, with work beginning possibly as early as this year.

That will mean more trains running more frequently along the city’s east side, so Planning proposes moving the tracks underground to prevent traffic snarls. But that would mean tunneling under the final stretch of I-280, where the supports are only 30 feet apart—not enough room for a boring machine—and extend 100 feet underground.

Widening the supports would cost a fortune and encroach on nearby parcels, so just knocking that part down and replacing it with a ground-level boulevard is ultimately cheaper and easier. It would also free up space for new development.

Kelley was quick to remind everyone that that's not the only plan being considered. The city might, for example, reroute Caltrain a few blocks east, underneath Third Street.

But the rec center crowd was stuck on the idea that the freeway is coming down. "What’s going to happen to those eight lanes of freeway traffic when they become a boulevard?" one neighbor asked. Kelley answered: "Excellent question. We’re looking into that."

Gillian Gillett, the mayor’s director of transportation, threw in her two cents, pointing out that the present location of the freeway breaks up the street grid, and removing it would allow the city to lay out new street connections, improving traffic flow. "The whole point of the project is to give you more transit," Gillett said.

On the slate in the same railway plan are proposals to connect Caltrain to the under-construction Transbay Transit Center, possibly via an underwater tunnel that skirts the Embarcadero, and proposals for what to do with the present railway station on 4th Street if it ceases being Caltrain’s terminus. The railyard is 21 acres of land in a prime neighborhood, and might make an attractive site for future development.