The Birth And Life Of The Freeway In Hayes Valley

How do you get around Hayes Valley?

Before today's debates about bike lanes, bulb-outs, parking spaces, taxis and ride-sharing, the answer for many had been a double-decker extension of the Central Freeway that stretched from Octavia into Western Addition. 

Patricia's Green and a condo boom have taken the physical space of the concrete spur. But at one time it was the midpoint of twentieth-century freeway dreams – and many controversies. 

Undated photo of the freeway extension over Market, where Octavia is now. Photo via The San Francisco Chronicle, Michael Macor.

This article is the first in a series looking at the close connections between Hayes Valley transportation decisions over the decades and how they shape many recurring local issues today. 

A Fateful Location

Connected city official Thomas Hayes began developing what he called Hayes' Park as a "suburban resortin the 1850s, with a rail line connecting it down to Market Street and eventually up the hill. But as the areas west of it were developed in the following decades, the neighborhood became enmeshed in the growing web of locally-oriented rail, car and bus lines. 

Its nearness to Market, Van Ness, and large swaths of a growing city population made it a target for regional planners trying to add cars and transport more people between Bay Area counties in the 1900s. 

By the time that the Bay Bridge had opened in 1936, and the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937, ferries were carrying 50 to 60 million people across the Bay annually. Once the bridges were in operation, and as they reached north and east, ferry service declined rapidly until ridership fell off almost completely by the 1950s – and the overall number of commuters boomed.

An example of the many, widely varying freeway proposals from the first half of the twentieth century. Image via the Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association. 

With these new access points came levels of automobile congestion San Francisco had never known. This spike coincided with city leaders wanting to use the boom of the post-war era to propel San Francisco forward economically, in competition with the suburbs getting thrown up everywhere else. 

In the early 1940s, San Francisco city planners had drafted plans for a circumferential expressway along the waterfront, including even more bridges, and expanded connections to San Mateo county. 

The set of rings around denser, older areas figured prominently in L. Deming Tilton’s “Master Plan of 1945” which was commissioned to create a blueprint for community redevelopment and fresh housing stock for returning World War II vets and their families.

The freeway portion of this plan proposed one route along the Embarcadero connecting the Golden Gate Bridge with freeway routes to the south and through the Golden Gate Park Panhandle, and a freeway through the Mission District. These plans were folded into grander schemes before they materialized.

In 1951, as momentum built nationally for an interstate highway system, the San Francisco City Planning Commission borrowed the drafts of the previous decades for its own “Transportation Plan for San Francisco 1951.” 

Historical maps via T-RACES

Like what was happening in other cities across the country, the routes went through industrial areas, low-income and low-density areas to avoid large numbers of well-resourced opponents.

The Hayes Valley area had gone from old-timey suburban resort to a wedge of buildings no home loan officer would put money towards, bordered by industrial, commercial and civic buildings to the west and south. The name "Hayes Valley" itself wasn't in common use at the time. By the time the highway started getting built in the 1950s, the area was a corner of Western Addition that looked like a convenient route north and west.

Meanwhile, as we have covered elsewhere, decades of "redlining" had excluded entire urban neighborhoods from home ownership loans and pushed much of central San Francisco's housing stock towards deterioration. "Central Freeway map" by United States Geological Survey (USGS) / User:SPUI - USGS The National Map, via MSR Maps (formerly TerraServer-USA). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The racial homeownership discrimination practiced in various ways by Bay Area suburbs had left these redlined urban neighborhoods as the main housing option available up for many groups in the post-war era.

Running across industrial SoMa through Market Street, the Central Freeway was constructed and completed by 1959 to bisect the traditional city core from the redlined areas slated for redevelopment to the north and west.

How the freeway and urban renewal fit together. Via Eric Fischer/WalkingSF.

These freeways were intended as the main new transportation mode, in the related plan to raze and redevelop the redlined, mostly-black portions of the Western Addition. 

While much of the razing did happen in the Fillmore area in the 1950s and into the 60s, the freeway plan did not.

A Newfound Unity

In 1955, pockets of organized resistance began to form when the state Division of Highways began more detailed studies and surveys of possible freeway routes through the city.

By around 1959, the Embarcadero Freeway, running along the city’s northern waterfront, was finished up to Broadway. 

The Central Freeway in Hayes Valley was poised to cut through neighborhoods with historic Victorians and through neighborhoods that required displacing low-income African-American and Latino residents.

Perhaps the most iconic photo of the Freeway Revolts, from 1960. Via The San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

Poor renters, wealthy homeowners and people from all races and walks of life found themselves in the path. 

The protests became more organized, particularly as buildings were visibly razed for new freeways and redevelopment, and as former occupants were driven away. 

When the first phase of the new freeway opened in 1959, the Board of Supervisors also voted to cancel seven of the ten other freeways planned for the city, after receiving petitions signed by 30,000 San Franciscans.

In 1959, westward construction on the Embarcadero Freeway and northward construction on the Central Freeway were both stopped by more neighborhood groups, in what was to become known as “The Freeway Revolts”. 

The revolt had worked for many residents in the paths of the plan. It was also a unifying force for neighborhood groups and progressives in later decades. But for Hayes Valley the question was: now what?

The Central Freeway at Fell and Octavia, 1966. Photo from the San Francisco Public Library via FoundSF

At the time Hayes Valley was considered marginal and had little voice in the freeway debates, but the neighborhoods to the north, including Pacific Heights and the Marina District, were active in the revolts and objected to the northern extension of the Central Freeway.

While it wasn't anyone's intent, the stalemate meant that traffic to and from much of northwest San Francisco ended up getting delivered to the surface streets in Hayes Valley.

In an effort to salvage the idea of moving traffic across the city minus the freeway over and under passes, several urban designers offered their ideas. The most creative among them came from the 1966 design by Mario J. Ciampi and Associates, John Carl Warnecke and Associates. Even its sleek tunnel pathways and modern landscaping above them couldn’t persuade an angry and suspicious public. 




1966 sketch from the Ciampi plan Photo via the San Francisco Public Library.

For many, the Embarcadero and Central freeways confirmed their worst fears of urban blight. Check out our detailed look at these plans in our feature from earlier this year.

As we have covered in detail elsewhere, a series of efforts to finish the freeway from Hayes Valley through the Panhandle and north the Golden Gate Bridge were attempted through the early 1960s but ultimately failed to get the political support needed. 

The political tides were turning. Joseph L. Alioto was elected mayor in 1968. He was a former member of the city's urban agency, and no friend to freeway growth. The expansion era was over.

The neighborhoods movement that had found its legs fighting freeways and redevelopment would become intermingled with a wide variety of other progressive causes of the day (as we explored in this interview with contemporaries). Activists became involved in housing and preservation. Voters even approved BART funding in part as a reaction to the freeway expansions.

The dramatic ending of the freeway plans at Haight and Octavia. Photo via the San Francisco Public Library via FoundSF.

The double-decker extension provided freeway access, meanwhile, quickly came to define Hayes Valley. It did provide faster freeway access for drivers because they didn't have to go into Octavia and over Market – although certainly not like the planners had dreamed. 

The troubled decades-long Western Addition redevelopment project continued to be thwarted by chronic urban poverty and a stop-start rebuilding.

By the late 1970s and into the early 1980s, the overpass became known as an eyesore, and as a haven for various types of criminal activity, as various neighbors have told this two-decade Hayes Valley resident.

In the early 1980s, daylight prostitution serving a brisk trucker trade was not uncommon. The Central Freeway structure also proved conducive to drugs sales, with cars frequently stopping underneath it to make purchases. 

San Francisco was also continuing to change. As in the past, waves of people came that decade seeking something different from mainstream America.

Unlike the past, pro-development efforts also realized a high-rise financial center downtown. 


Hickory Street between Octavia and Gough. Central Freeway in background, 1980. Photo by Dave Glass.

The early years of today's preservation and development controversies began to manifest themselves across the city’s neighborhoods, but less so in this less populated, less economically powerful part of the city. 

In the 1980s the opening of Davies Symphony Hall generated some small business and new restaurant activity along Hayes Street, up to Gough Street, beyond that the double decker extension posed a real and metaphorical barrier to economic change.

The double-decker extension started looking like a problematic artifact.

The history of anti-freeway activism, the growth of transit-first as city policy, the street traffic, the crime, the efforts of artists and small business owners opening shops on Hayes Street between Gough and Octavia, the almost-imperceptible growth of the city and many more factors would lead to the extension's removal after the 1989 earthquake.

Stay tuned for our feature in the end of the freeway and the start of "Hayes Valley," next Sunday. 

David Gallagher in comments points us to the aerial map above, from the Earth Sciences & Map Library of the UC Berkeley Library.

Never miss a story.

Subscribe today to get Hoodline delivered straight to your inbox.

Hayes valley the central freeway