Four people sit in chairs on a stage with the banner San Francisco Latinx Democratic Club behind them.
Erick Arguello, Mary Travis-Allen, Malcom Yeung on a panel about the Central Freeway. Photo taken by Annika Hom, April 19, 2023.

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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.    


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REPORTER. Annika Hom is our inequality reporter through our partnership with Report for America. Annika was born and raised in the Bay Area. She previously interned at SF Weekly and the Boston Globe where she focused on local news and immigration. She is a proud Chinese and Filipina American. She has a twin brother that (contrary to soap opera tropes) is not evil.

Follow her on Twitter at @AnnikaHom.

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  1. Freeway construction is racist because freeways are zoned adjacent to low income communities filled with people of color. Freeway dismantling is racist because it increases property values where people of color live. Improving neighborhoods is racist because it’s scientifically proven white people like nice neighborhoods. Open invite community meetings are racist when too many white community members attend.

  2. The question is how to strengthen major points of unity rather than exploiting minor differences in opinion? This case being: To simply say the Central Freeway demolition won’t cause harm is not useful if it doesn’t come with atonement. We are no longer learning from past harms of racist policies/developments, we are LIVING the long term effects. NO to projects that credit developers guilty of displacement and have zero community benefit.

  3. Isn’t Erik Arguello (and his Calle24) the person (group) who decried the installation of bike racks in “his” neighborhood, who backed (if not instigated) the removal of those beautiful ficus nitida trees* on 24th St?

    *I see huge old ficus nitida trees all around the city. They are not “pushing up the sidewalk” nor dropping limbs on pedestrians, as was claimed by proponents of removal.

    1. Erick didn’t instigate but gathered over 2000 Signatures to save our focus tree’s on 24th St. I know because I was one of them; spending hours collecting those signature. Also got our own arborist to prove that 77 trees that were designated to be cut down were still healthy and only 33 were cut down and saved.

  4. This is some laughable SF nonsense. We know highways divide neighborhoods and ruin areas nearby. Which is evident as that whole area is a blight on the city. And this group is whining because they weren’t consulted enough? And are worried that it might make the area better like Mandala in Oakland? What is their goal? Keep SF gross? Who supports these groups? Nonsense like this is what’s wrong with SF. Tear down the highway and make SF a great place to live for all.

  5. Oh here we go again. SF provincialism means every single damn person has to be handheld through a public comment period. 🙄

  6. I’ve lived here my whole life and seen the effects of what happened when they demolished the waterfront freeway after the earthquake. It effected the China town community, and they still haven’t recovered. Same with Market/Octavia. Many got displaced.

    Can’t we learn from the history of what has already happened before, and how it effects BIPOC communities. Take my word for it that this will bring more displacement and gentrification.

    1. The problem isn’t the freeway coming down. The freeway is a conduit of traffic and pollution of all types and makes everyone who has to work and live near it miserable and sick. The actual reason why property values go up when freeways come down is that fat cat real-estate developers have stalled housing construction for so long that it hasn’t kept up with population growth. When blight is removed the area becomes desirable housing.

      It is beyond disgusting that anyone thinks we should preserve a freeway because it keeps the housing costs down under it. These places are almost literal sewers. Figure out solutions to price gouging rather than stopping a city from removing harmful and obsolete infrastructure.

    2. Displacement and gentrification is caused by a severe lack of housing supply, not by the notion of a piece of shit dead end urban freeway being torn down. Build more housing and displacement is reduced. There’s overwhelming evidence of this. These freeways were literally built in the first place through places where more poor people and minorities lived. The idea that getting rid of these things — which objectively cause significant air pollution, noise pollution, and create unsafe street conditions for anyone outside of a vehicle — is bad is absurd to the point of being delusional.

      1. Maybe you should learn to read the article before responding – there is a recent 2019 study citing the impacts of freeway removals having displacement impacts on low income communities. Freeways were used to separate communities, and now removals are being used to displace communities.

  7. This is hilarious. The Embarcadero freeway never should have been there and certainly was not responsible for Chinatown flourishing. And all those complaints about taking it down were blatantly blown away and unjustified. I can’t believe someone is revising history for that one

  8. So…just to get things straight…

    The folks in this article have historically claimed that building highways through urban areas is racist.

    They’re now saying that tearing down the same highways is racist.

    Cool, cool.

  9. Can “progressive” organizations please ask themselves why it is that they continue to find themselves on the pro-car and status quo side of every urban planning discussion in SF these days?

  10. How horrible, we already have a lot of traffic on our streets. And by demolishing any other freeway, it’ll create much more. Caused by SFMTA and the so called red lines and bikes, that in the end don’t use them. Look at Mission Street and Line 14!

  11. I used to live in Hayes Valley during the late 80s/early 90s. Taking down the double-decker freeway that crossed Market Street at Octavia made sense. The Loma Preita earthquake was a factor, to some degree. I had doubts at first, but overall it helped that area immensely. This Central Freeway demolition idea however is NOT an apples-to-apples comparison. It would be disastrous for all of San Francisco.

    1. You don’t have a shred of evidence (because it doesn’t exist) to support the assertion that tearing down a dead end urban freeway will be disastrous. And your entire point here is “it was good to get the freeways out of my neighborhood but it’s bad to get the freeways out of other neighborhoods.”

  12. This is ridiculous bullshit. The freeway and its surrounding parking lots are a blight on the city. I live under the freeway, and it sucks. Tear it down.

  13. The racial injustice was tearing down the Hayes Valley portion of the Central Freeway while leaving Western SOMA and the North Mission divided.

    When city funded nonprofit cultural districts make noises like this, without involving anyone who actually lives in the neighborhoods, then we know that this the typical script of raising objections that can be bought off with project’s “community benefits” that solely accrue to connected nonprofits.

    1. agree 100% – nobody here seems to remember that the entire Central Freeway was supposed to be removed back to I-80 opening up way more land for parks/housing that instead is underused warehouses, parking lots, and dangerous exhaust-inducing roadways like Division. The community/neighbors living in the freeway shadow should get specific benefits from its removal, but the status quo is racist.

  14. If there needs to be some mitigation as a result, that makes sense to me (within reason). The claim by C24 seems rich given that they will gladly dominate the debate around housing in the Mission. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone wishing the Embarcadero freeway and the Central Freeway around Hayes Valley hadn’t come down. The fumbles by SFMTA are a fair point, hopefully unintended consequences can be planned for here.