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December 3, 2017

San Francisco: The Embarcadero

Looking back at the Embarcadero waterfront: Perhaps the best thing that happened as a consequence of the Loma Prieta Earthquake was the demise of the freeway that once dominated this area.

San Francisco has a storied freeway history. There were once grand plans to build a web of cross-city freeways. These plans fell to the determined opposition from the city’s residents. In the end, only the stubs of the planned highways were built. San Francisco remains to this day without a through freeway link between the US Highway 101 to the north and south of the City. Though it is less convenient for drivers, there is little doubt blocking the construction of the cross-city freeways preserved the character of many San Franciscan neighborhoods.

Before the full force of the residential opposition had its impact, the initial stubs of the cross-city freeways were built. One of these was constructed along San Francisco’s Embarcadero. This short stretch of freeway led west from the Bay Bridge along the bay front. The plan was for the Embarcadero Freeway to extend westward to the Golden Gate Bridge. The new freeway, the I-480, would have connected I-80 at the Bay Bridge to US-101 at the Golden Gate Bridge.

The Bay Bridge

Streetcars have returned to San Francisco’s Embarcadero

The section of the Embarcadero Freeway that was constructed showed just how devastating the elevated highway would have been to San Francisco’s waterfront. Double-decked, the highway blocked the light to neighborhood. It separated one of San Francisco’s signature structures, the Ferry Building, from the rest of the downtown. What was otherwise an attractive bayside locale was left seedy and downtrodden.

In 1989 an earthquake centered 60 miles to the south in Loma Prieta damaged the freeway. Rather than repair the freeway segment to nowhere, a controversial decision was made to demolish the structure and rehabilitate the surroundings. Typical of San Francisco politics, the removal of the Embarcadero Freeway, as with its construction, came with both substantial resistance and support. Nevertheless, in 1991 good sense had prevailed; the demolition of the Embarcadero Freeway began. It is now clear that this was a great choice.

Inside the Ferry Building on the upper floor.

The Great Seal of the State of California

San Fancisco’s Ferry terminal

Today the section San Francisco’s Embarcadero were the freeway once stood is vibrant and attractive. The once sketchy waterfront is now a popular place for walkers and roller bladders. Removal of the Embarcadero Freeway opened up views of the Bay Bridge. Businesses have moved in. Mozilla, of Internet browser fame, has corporate offices inside the façade of the old Hills Brothers Coffee Building nearby. Visiting today it is hard to imagine or even remember how dismal the area was when the Embarcadero Freeway was standing. It is difficult to see that there could have been any significant resistance to its removal.

It is hard to imagine that the Embarcadero Freeway once blocked this view.

Mozilla’s offices occupy space in the old Hills Brother’s Coffee building.



  1. Amazing photos!

    Comment by gregsitaly — December 6, 2017 @ 7:32 pm

  2. I actually miss the 480 and the old gritty City from Dirty Harry days. In the years leading up the 89 quake I had a sister living in the Marina and, when visiting, loved the way the 480 would just drop me into the middle of the city. Of course her apartment was flattened and she moved out never to return, but I have fond memories of those pre-quake years.

    Comment by OldScurve — January 1, 2018 @ 6:32 pm

    • Hey Fred, how’s it going?

      Comment by anotherheader — January 1, 2018 @ 7:48 pm

      • Life’s good. Retired a couple of years ago, now flying a little and biking a lot. I hope the new year treats you well.

        Comment by OldScurve — January 1, 2018 @ 10:03 pm

  3. A note of appreciation and nosiness! – Hi, I have always enjoyed your posts, the well written (and researched) commentary and off course the wonderful photographs. As an ex barge man myself (Irish Waterways) I was following your exploits in Western Europe with a lot of interest. I have no knowledge of Piper Boats but I have had my share of heartache with paint finishes and surface contamination as well as indifferent boat yard management. If it is not too pertinent a question, I was wondering how are things with Wanderlust and if you plan to execute more travels for the 2018 cruising season? Best wishes and fair winds, Gabriel (Irish Blog fan!).

    Comment by Gabriel Beirne — February 27, 2018 @ 11:40 am

    • Thanks for the support.

      We are back on the boat hoping to have the repairs made before the season starts in earnest. At this point I have a big back log of pictures and tales from both our boating and other adventures. I just need more time. 🙂

      Comment by anotherheader — March 2, 2018 @ 7:45 am

  4. […] run in regular service on two routes in San Francisco. One route, the E-Embarcadero, runs along the bay front linking the CalTrain commuter rail station to Fisherman’s Wharf. The other line, the F Market […]

    Pingback by San Francisco: Streetcars | Another Header — January 1, 2019 @ 8:38 pm

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