Mission District leaders expressed concern Wednesday night that the possible demolition of the remaining Central Freeway could spur greater gentrification and displacement, if the city acts without community input.
At a panel put on by the San Francisco Latinx Democratic Club and moderated by San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority board director Stephanie Cajina, speakers representing Latinx, indigenous and Chinese communities lambasted the city for historically pushing transit projects without popular support.
“People have already decided what it’s going to be, without input from us,” said Erick Arguello, the president of Calle 24 Latino Cultural District and a panelist on Wednesday.
Calle 24 was one of dozens of organizations that wrote a letter to the Planning Department in December last year, after they learned that state officials and the agency had renewed conversations about dismantling the section of the Central Freeway known as the Bayshore viaduct, which connects the Bayshore Freeway to Hayes Valley.
The objection was not to the removal of the freeway, per se, but rather to discussions about demolition “without the inclusion of the indigenous communities and communities of color stakeholders,” the letter read.
“We have to remind people that we have to be at that table,” Travis-Allen said. “We want to be hand-in-glove in the decision making.”
Discussions about tearing down the Central Freeway have percolated in San Francisco for decades, but intensified last year after state Sen. Scott Wiener penned a letter to the California Department of Transportation, asking it to study the removal of the freeway. Specifically, Sen. Wiener asked CalTrans to evaluate “an alternative that involves demolishing the existing structure and replacing it with a surface boulevard, maximizing land-use potential for housing on state-owned parcels.”
The idea that city officials have preordained goals and merely seek community outreach to “check off a box” was a repeated theme during last night’s panel. Mary Travis-Allen, advisory board president for the newly-created American Indian Cultural District in the Mission, below 16th Street and centered on Julian Avenue, said public input was not truly valuable if suggestions were solicited only to fit premade city plans.
“The accountability of the city is not there,” Travis-Allen said, who has three decades of experience working at SFMTA as a senior operations manager.
Travis-Allen recalled one planner who insisted on designing a bus route, only to find that it stopped at a dead-end street. The mistake could have been avoided if the planner garnered resident expertise, but “no one listened.”
Recently, Mission residents levied similar complaints about parking plans in the northeast Mission and for a bike lane on Valencia Street. Though less than 18 percent of survey respondents approved a center bike lane on Valencia Street, it is set to be installed this month.
But infrastructure impacts can reverberate widely. Malcolm Yeung, the executive director of Chinatown Community Development Center, said some Chinatown business owners still view the removal of the Embarcadero Freeway after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake as a “turning point” for the neighborhood.
Since the demolition, some 30 to 40 percent of business in Chinatown immediately declined, Yeung said. When the freeway’s demolition was initially proposed, activist Rose Pak called on 950 businesses in Chinatown to shut down for the afternoon and protest City Hall. Still, the Board of Supervisors voted 6-5 to tear it down.
It’s like the city “doesn’t want to listen to you, but to roll over you,” Yeung said.
The same could happen with the Central Freeway, panelists said, affecting the American Indian Cultural District, the Leather LGBTQ Cultural District, and the SOMA Pilipinas District.
Freeway construction has historically caused displacement by dividing poorer neighborhoods and communities of color from the rest of the city. But demolishing freeways could have a similar effect: A 2019 study, which looked at effects of replacing the Cypress Freeway in West Oakland with the street-level boulevard Mandela Parkway, suggested that while emissions had decreased, property values went up, and more Black residents moved out.
“We could be hurt all over again,” Arguello from Calle 24 said. He urged planners to not “exploit” redlining history to justify freeway removal without first studying impacts.
“Don’t use the same tools that have failed you,” Travis-Allen added.
The speakers suggested that city planners lessen potential harm by viewing community outreach as a catalyst for a new project, rather than a delay in the planning process. “If you’ve been jilted over and over again, you’d want to dot every i, cross every t. That slows down the process,” Yeung said.
While panelists were reluctant to name the exact next steps for the freeway — after all, it’s unclear if it will indeed come down, and other community stakeholders’ input is important, too, they said — but they wouldn’t mind seeing some affordable housing developments.
For now, the fight to continue outreach and education continues. “Roll up the sleeves, we’ll work with you,” Arguello said.