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Future of Embarcadero Freeway Divides San Francisco : Cityscape: Many call the quake-damaged structure ugly and want it razed. But a powerful group of merchants favors reopening it.


SAN FRANCISCO — When he looks at the elevated Embarcadero Freeway, Mayor Art Agnos sees an opportunity to tear down an aging eyesore and replace it with a sunken parkway that would more befit one of the most scenic parts of a most scenic city.

When Chinatown merchants look at Agnos' plan, all they see is red.

Agnos' proposal to raze the double-deck waterfront freeway, which has been closed to traffic and propped up with timbers since last October's earthquake, has renewed an old argument over what to do with a highway San Francisco never wanted but now may be unable to live without.

Merchants from the city's northeast corner--Fisherman's Wharf, North Beach and especially Chinatown--argue that the Embarcadero is essential to bring customers and commuters into the city.

Chinatown community leaders say they will illustrate their displeasure with the idea of losing the freeway by closing down their neighborhood shops Monday and flooding City Hall with protesters while the Board of Supervisors takes up the issue.

"It is the first time in 205 years of Chinese history in the United States that we've had any kind of protest or movement," said Rose Pak, blunt-talking spokeswoman for the Chinese Chamber of Commerce. "Shutting down business is a very strong political statement. It's unheard of."

She said 600 of Chinatown's 850 business owners had agreed by Thursday to close their doors from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. Monday. She said this is a measure of how important the freeway is to merchants, who report an estimated 30% decline in customers since the highway was closed by the earthquake.

Agnos, supported by preservationists who never liked the freeway and newspaper editorial writers who have come to hate it, nonetheless plans to ask the state to replace the 65-foot-high freeway with a tree-lined boulevard that would reacquaint the city's Financial District with its historic waterfront.

"San Francisco has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity--a chance to remove one of the worst blights on the face of any American city," he said in announcing his plan.

He has likened the freeway to a recalled automobile whose safety was called into question by the Oct. 17 Loma Prieta Earthquake.

"Now," he said, "San Francisco is faced with the choice of spending more money on a defective and hopelessly unsightly model or trading up for a new and improved version."

The existing model snakes off the west end of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and slithers through a new forest of high-rise office towers that have slowly replaced the warehouses and wholesale fruit markets that once butted up against the city's northern waterfront.

Originally, the Embarcadero was intended to connect the Bay and Golden Gate bridges by running along the city's northeast shoreline--and coursing through such treasured areas as the Embarcadero, Fisherman's Wharf and the Marina.

Public resistance in the 1950s stopped construction in mid-span, but what had already been built was allowed to open. Many San Franciscans have hated it ever since--for killing views of the bay, hiding the historic Ferry Building, and for just being a freeway.

San Franciscans have long resisted freeways, an attitude visible in any one of several unfinished projects--including sections of the Embarcadero Freeway itself--that curiously dead-end in mid-air.

Agnos' plan would make the Embarcadero Freeway a long off-ramp spilling traffic onto a wide, tree-lined boulevard. This surface-level road would slide underground in front of the Ferry Building, built in 1898 and once the busiest transit station in the United States, to accommodate ferry commuters and reintegrate the venerable structure into downtown.

An underground off-ramp would shunt some traffic to streets leading directly to Chinatown before the main road would resurface and connect with an existing waterfront street called The Embarcadero.

Agnos estimates the project would cost $120 million and take four years to construct. He said this is about 2 1/2 times the estimated cost of merely repairing the old freeway, a job that could be finished by the end of the year.

However, he said 86% of the cost of the new project--about $103 million--could come from the money Congress allocated to repair earthquake-damaged roads and freeways. Such funding would require federal approval, as well as the completion of detailed environmental review documents.

Critics of the plan contend an environmental review will find that the new expressway would jam traffic on side streets downtown and extend the lines of cars waiting to squeeze onto the Bay Bridge.

Those fears were supported by an independent consultant hired by the city, who estimated in a report released Thursday that the new expressway would be able to accommodate 25% fewer cars waiting to get on to the bridge. The excess would back up onto city streets.

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