SF Mayor’s Office Unveils Bold Proposal to Turn Freeway and Rail Yards into Neighborhoods; Urges Caltrain to Swap Railyards

At a SPUR forum in San Francisco on Thursday January 10, Gillian Gillett, the San Francisco Mayor’s Transportation Policy Director, unveiled more details of an audacious proposal to turn over 30 acres of railyards and freeway shadow into $228 million worth of land for mixed use neighborhoods with housing, offices, entertainment, and hotels, based on a new study dated December 24, 2012.

The fast-growing new Mission Bay area is cut off from SOMA and Potrero Hill by the Caltrain railyards, the rail right-of-way, and Highway 280 (see a photo of the dreary-looking right of way, above).

San Francisco would love to bring Bus Rapid Transit down 16th street to Mission Bay, connecting to BART and other Muni lines. But the 16th street at-grade crossing is nearing gridlock today; more trains from electrified Caltrain and high speed rail will make grade separation a necessity. With the freeway in place and the tracks above ground, the road would need to go under the tracks, creating an environment even more hostile to walking and biking, and even larger concrete barriers separating neighborhoods even further.

“So,”, said Gillett, “let’s be San Francisco and take down the freeway.” The crowd in the packed room gasped and laughed. With the successful transformation of the Embarcadero and the Central Freeway to Octavia Boulevard, the bold plan might just work.

Removing the freeway past Mariposa might enable more options to iron out the expensive, train-slowing stair-step alignment of the Downtown Extension of the Caltrain tracks to Transbay terminal. The picture below shows alternative alignments brainstormed at a 2011 design charette convened by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority. The quickly sketched alignment proposals also have problems, but perhaps further study would find feasible alternatives that at least partly smooth out the kinks in the curve.

And turning the railyards into mixed use neighborhoods would create value that could be used to help pay for the Downtown Extension of the rail line to Transbay Terminal. Currently, the DTX is in the queue for federal New Starts funding, but it won’t get to the head of the line until around 2022. And the project funding plan calls for additional High Speed Rail funds and other sources that aren’t yet available.

By generating more local funding with real estate value, San Francisco hopes to be able to get DTX done faster. This would be very valuable for local transit – extending Caltrain to Transbay terminal could double ridership.

The new railyards study conducted by Economics and Planning Systems envisions buildings ranging from 85′ midrize up to a 450′ high rise landmark tower, with residences, active ground floor uses, a connected street grid across the site, connecting neighborhoods on each side, and new open space areas. EPS studied the potential for developing the railyards with and without taking down the freeway. They found that the version of the plan without the freeway generated more real estate value because it would support 60% more residences (since it is unappealing to have homes next to a freeway), and the value of the residential and office space would be higher if it wasn’t next to a freeway.

This bold vision is just the beginning. To make it a reality, San Francisco will need public feedback on these land use ideas, a more robust analysis of how to finance the site, cooperation with Caltrans on taking down the freeway, and cooperation with Caltrain and the High Speed Rail Authority around changes to the rail yards and the train tracks, and work to validate changes to the Downtown Extension Alignment.

San Francisco asks Caltrain to swap railyards

In order to achieve this vision, San Francisco is asking Caltrain to swap rail storage at 4th and King for other locations on side tracks within existing rights of way.  This request was described in a memo to MTC Executive Director Steve Heminger in a response to a request for San Francisco’s policy position on the Caltrain electrification environmental review process.

San Francisco is asking Caltrain to electrify less of the railyards at 4th and King to enable the City to make progress on its land use plans.  The benefit to Caltrain would include increased ridership from a station area even richer with jobs and residences, as well as an “opportunity to create real estate value which can be used to fund transit and Caltrain investments.”

The memo acknowledges Caltrain’s concerns about keeping to the schedule and budget for Caltrain electrification, and making sure that there is a practical location to store trains. “We stand ready to work with Caltrain to reduce any potential delays and share the costs.”

If Caltrain does not agree to limit the electrification of the railyards, San Francisco will ask Caltrain to study the environmental impact of the increased train service on  the neighborhoods surrounding 4th and King, which are much more populous than nearly a decade ago when studies were done for the last version of Caltrain’s electrification plans.

Seamus Murphy, Caltrain’s director of government and community affairs, said that Caltrain would like to work with San Francisco on a solution that enabled the city to use land productively, as long they can find viable places to store the trains, and don’t have a major impact on Caltrain’s electrification schedule.

Hopefully the City of San Francisco and Caltrain can find a solution that enables San Francisco to turn the railyards into neighborhoods, finds practical train storage space for Caltrain, and helps to pay for needed transit investments.

A lot of work needs to be done to vet the ideas for land development scenarios, freeway removal, and DTX change.  San Francisco’s bold vision to integrate land use planning, transportation, and project funding, creating substantial new neighborhoods and reconnecting parts of the city severed by a freeway.