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'A monstrous mistake': Remembering the ugliest thing San Francisco ever built
San Francisco, California, USA
Andrew Chamings
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San Francisco, California, Waterfront, Freeway, Protests, Cities, Transportation, Earthquake
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2021-03-07 01:23:24
2021-03-07 01:30:36
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Ken McLaughlin / Hearst Bay Area
The plan was simple: Connect the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge via a freeway. It was the 1950s and everyone loved freeways. What could go wrong? Nearly everything.

The Embarcadero Freeway is widely considered one of the biggest mistakes the city ever made. For 32 years, a concrete monstrosity barricaded San Franciscans from the bay waters, shrouded the iconic Ferry Building in smog and made lots of residents very mad. Photographs of it now look like a very different, unsightly city. And while (nearly) everyone hated it, it took an earthquake to tear it down.

Here's the story of the ugliest thing San Francisco ever built (until the Salesforce Tower).


Postwar America was a concrete-spewing monster, and California led the way in the freeway binge.

San Francisco, a tight city of dense housing and many, many hills, does not lend itself to sprawling highways, but that didn't stop city officials making big infrastructure plans.

Top of the wish list for city officials was an artery connecting the city's two famous bridges, and this would start with a double-decker freeway running from the Bay Bridge up the eastern shore of the city.

Despite there being public outcry before it was even built, in 1959 the first section of what was named California State Route 480 was opened. Drivers could now swoop off the Bay Bridge and find themselves on Broadway in North Beach and Chinatown in a matter of minutes.

The Chronicle didn't mince its words in editorials published that year, referring to the new thoroughfare as a "hideous monstrosity" and "such an evil."

"A few jackhammers and a wrecking ball or two could in practically no time at all beat this monstrous mistake into concrete chunks of a size convenient for hauling away," the paper wrote two weeks after its opening.

To get an idea of how the route worked, this time-lapse footage from the experimental 1982 movie "Koyaanisqatsi" shows a driver taking the freeway north and exiting on the Washington Street ramp that was added in 1965 (to a mesmerizing Philip Glass soundtrack).

But less than a decade after Eisenhower's freeway utopia started laying concrete tendrils throughout America, an emerging environmental movement grew in California alongside the counterculture shift of the '60s.

"The Freeway Revolt" pitted environmentalists and residents, outraged by the idea of their neighborhoods being cut in two with an expressway, against city and state planners keen to realize a modern vision of mass transit in America.

Freeway plans for San Francisco didn't stop at joining the two bridges. A crosstown tunnel and freeway right down the middle of the Panhandle were also drawn up. Opposition across the city culminated on May 17, 1964, when a throng of 200,000 protesters rallied in Golden Gate Park against any new freeways.

Alongside Beat poet Kenneth Rexroth, folk singer Malvina Reynolds sang her newly written anti-freeway protest song "Cement Octopus" to the crowd. Lyrics included, "There's a cement octopus sits in Sacramento, I think. Gets red tape to eat, gasoline taxes to drink," and, "That octopus grows like a science-fiction blight, The Bay and the Ferry Building are out of sight."

The protests worked, and in 1966 the Crosstown Tunnel, the Golden Gate Freeway and the Panhandle Freeway were all rejected by the city. But the two-story tentacle on the Embarcadero, slithering up San Francisco's eastern shore, still defiled the city.

Calls to tear it down continued throughout the '70s and '80s, but a proposal was surprisingly voted down by the public in 1986, in no small part due to the sway of influential Chinatown community leader Rose Pak, who saw the freeway as integral to the economy of the historic neighborhood. Bar and strip club owners on Broadway who had seen a boon from weekend tourists driving into North Beach also lobbied to save it.

In the end it was an act of God, not politics or protest songs, that finally closed the freeway. On Oct. 17, 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake shook the city (and game three of the World Series), and caused severe damage to the freeway.

The ramps were shuttered by the city for inspection, and Caltrans looked into plans to retrofit the structure, but those who had longed for the freeway's removal saw an opportunity. (That earthquake also saw the demise of the portion of the Central
Project Mentioned:
Salesforce Tower
San Francisco, California
Headquarters, Office Building
Organization Mentioned:
San Francisco, California, USA
Software, Technology, Internet Services