After the Freeway

After the Freeway

San Francisco is known for removing urban freeways. Most famous is the waterfront Embarcadero Freeway, damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. A few miles up Market Street, however, the 1992 removal of a portion of the earthquake damaged, elevated Central Freeway spurred an even more remarkable transformation.

The Central Freeway was a stub that connected several arterial streets and San Francisco’s Civic Center neighborhood to Interstate 80 and Highway 101. An unsightly overhead structure, it cut through the middle of Hayes Valley, shadowing a dense urban neighborhood not far from San Francisco City Hall.

In 2005, the portion of the Central Freeway north of Market Street was replaced with Octavia Boulevard—four lanes of through traffic with planted medians and slower lanes for local traffic and bicycles. In 2007 the San Francisco Planning Department’s Market-Octavia Plan was enacted to preserve existing neighborhood character, ensure increased density in a mixture of housing types, set standards for ground floor uses, and plan for amenities like street improvements and recreational facilities.

Patricia’s Green, a small park located where Octavia Boulevard meets the neighborhood’s main commercial strip, Hayes Street, is the center of the neighborhood. Children fill the playground and the green space hosts events such as craft fairs and evening film festivals that would have been unthinkable when a freeway ran overhead.


Adjacent to the Green is Proxy, a gathering of temporary modular buildings that house a host of food vendors. It is an interim project developed, designed, and financed by local architecture firm Envelope A+D. Proxy originally held a three-year lease with the City of San Francisco, but the Board of Supervisors gave it an eight-year extension until the site is developed as affordable housing. The project includes rotating public programming and temporary facilities that range from a mini golf course to a movie screen, currently under construction.

Many other parts of San Francisco have seen contentious battles waged over nearly every new proposed construction project, including a recent fight to enact a housing moratorium in the Mission District. However, the Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association has been supportive of housing development and eager to see good design from some of the Bay Area’s best architects. The neighborhood has been well served by this collaborative attitude from a design perspective. The guidelines set in the neighborhood plan resulted in active ground floors and a lively streetscape.

The most recent addition to the neighborhood is Stanley Saitowitz’s concrete and glass 8 Octavia at the intersection of Octavia Boulevard and Market Street. Saitowitz describes the form as responsive to the context by mirroring the cornice line of the Free Baptist Church across the street. The 47-unit, mixed-use building developed by DDG and DM Development opened in 2014 and promptly sold out.

Located on Oak Street between Octavia Boulevard and Laguna Street, a site that was once a freeway ramp is the nearly complete Avalon Hayes Valley. Developed by Avalon Communities and designed by Pyatok Architects with associate architects Owen Kennerly and Jon Worden, the 182-unit, block-long building abuts a new alley on the north. The design picks up on the rhythm of the surrounding neighborhood. Units are advertised starting at $2,910 per month for a 445-square-foot studio (yearly, about half of the median San Franciscan’s annual income). Now, what was once one of San Francisco’s more affordable neighborhoods is one of its priciest.

San Francisco has many regulations that attempt to shape the city into what the populace thinks it should be. This includes design guidelines, one- and two-family residential zoning, tough historic preservation rules, and neighborhood notification requirements for planning approvals. Today, Hayes Valley is a very attractive place to live, partly due to this regulatory environment.


The flip side of regulations, however, is that San Francisco as a whole has failed to deal with a chronic housing shortage. The issue dates back the 1980s and the beginning of a population rebound in the Bay Area. Some 10,000 people per year—combined with a lag in housing construction—exacerbated demand with this latest boom, leading to skyrocketing rents and sale prices. The working and middle class people who have remained in Hayes Valley and other San Francisco neighborhoods usually owe their presence to strong tenant protections and rent control.

In an attempt to address a rapidly increasing cost of living, the Market-Octavia Plan set aside parcels for the development of 100 percent permanently affordable housing. A 16-unit project on Octavia Boulevard developed by West Bay Housing and designed by Ellipsis A+D and Ignition Architecture, Octavia Court was the first to open in 2011. Richardson Apartments, 120 studios for formerly homeless adults developed by Community Housing Partnership and Mercy Housing, followed in 2012. David Baker Architects won an AIA National Housing Award for their design of the project.

Yet with the demand for new housing fueled by both a tech boom and a revitalized neighborhood, it is hard for affordable housing to keep up. The city desperately needs a housing strategy that allows more units to be built in larger areas of the city at a lower cost. If the city continues down the path it is on today, San Francisco will be a luxury enclave with little of the diversity that makes it so attractive in the first place.

Across the street from Richardson Apartments, condo units at 300 Ivy (developed by Pocket Development and also designed by David Baker) sold for over $1,000-per-square-foot in late 2013, a city record at the time for non high-rise new construction. The ground floor features a high-end restaurant. Sitting over a plate prepared by the James Beard award-winning chef, the San Francisco of elevated freeways already seems a vision of the past.