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Residents of a downtown loft tell you where to get off

Wednesday, Nov 29 1995
Six years ago the Clock Tower building at the corner of Second and Bryant streets downtown was an old industrial shell, a tall and stately relic encased in the concrete and steel of the ramps leading to and from the Bay Bridge. Then the Loma Prieta earthquake struck, and the ramps were damaged and torn down. Now the newly typographed ClockTower is a tony residential loft building, a palm-treed palace where 1,560 square feet of exposed-brick living space sells for nearly $400,000.

Of course, the new ClockTower owners aren't thrilled with having the highway right next to them. It's noisy; it's trashy; there are all those homeless people. So when the city was thinking about rebuilding some of the demolished ramps, the ClockTower loft owners objected. And the city of San Francisco, to the surprise of federal officials, acquiesced to the ClockTowerans -- which could cost the rest of us millions of dollars in federal highway funds.

Next month, a committee of the Board of Supervisors will be considering different replacement options for the San Francisco roadways that were demolished in the wake of the quake (the Embarcadero, along the waterfront, and the squidlike Terminal Separator Structure, whose ramps used to lead by the ClockTower to and from the Bay Bridge). The option that is most likely to be recommended to the full board for approval is notable in part for what it does not include: any replacement ramps leading from Second Street, where the ClockTower is, to the bridge or Highway 101 South.

At one time, the city seriously considered building new Second Street ramps to ease the rush-hour commute into and out of downtown. But the city has quietly scrapped those plans in the face of a letter-writing campaign by ClockTower homeowners. That could be a $26 million decision, says the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).

"Under our regulations, which is Title 23, in order for federal funds to be eligible you have to replace for a comparable service facility," Bill Wong of the FHWA says. The two replacement options that do include Second Street ramps have already been approved for funding, he adds.

But without the Second Street ramps, Wong says, the FHWA is concerned that "it doesn't provide the so-called comparable service that was provided before the earthquake."

"It's not a done deal," protests Jack Fleck, of the San Francisco Department of Parking and Traffic (DPT), which has come up with the rampless option most likely to be approved by the Board of Supervisors next month. "But kind of tacitly, kind of part of the project plan became that the impact on the ClockTower people would be too great."

In the better part of a decade that has passed since Loma Prieta, San Francisco's process for roadway repair has proved as labyrinthine as the old arteries themselves. Shortly after the quake the idea was to shore up and reopen the damaged Embarcadero Freeway, but that plan was ditched early in 1990 and the roadway was torn down the following summer. At the same time, Caltrans decided that the Terminal Separator Structure (TSS) should be demolished and rebuilt. In June 1993, the TSS construction drawings were complete and Caltrans was ready to go out to bid when the supervisors voted to study other options. By February 1994, the supervisors had voted against replacing the TSS, lumped the replacement options in with those of part of the Embarcadero, and set out on the process of drafting an environmental impact statement (EIS) on the different options, a necessary first step to get the roadways rebuilt. In the meantime, the ClockTower underwent its transformation from scrapheap to showplace, and the lines were drawn.

In 1994, the city held a series of public hearings on the different plans under consideration for quake repair. One of the alternatives, No. 3, included new ramps from Second and Harrison onto 101 South and from the highway down onto an alley South of Market called Stillman Street. The idea was to meet the comparable service requirement for federal funding, particularly during the morning commute, when traffic backs up at the Fourth and Seventh Street exit ramps. But Stillman Street is directly opposite the garage entrance to the ClockTower lofts, and the new loft owners were not amused.

"We would like our city officials to become aware of this area and its new demographics," residents Carol and Tom Burkhart wrote to the city in 1994. "When a city official tells us, as one did at our meeting the other evening, that it is necessary to pour concrete in order to get funds for the Embarcadero project, we are not any more enthusiastic about the potential havoc on our area than the residents of Nob or Russian Hill would be."

"The ClockTower Lofts would like it entered into the public record that we are unequivocally and adamantly opposed to Alternative Three as well as any other proposed alternative which includes the construction of any new freeway ramps onto or over Second Street," John Gott wrote, on behalf of the ClockTower Lofts Homeowners' Association.

"Some of the alternatives planned for this construction seriously threaten the quality of our lives as well as the property value of our homes," ClockTower homeowners Reid Ewing and Rubye Cervelli wrote. "Aren't there laws against too many off-ramps in one area!"

"No tunnel options were considered," ClockTower resident Monica DuClaud complained in another letter to the city. "The removal of the TSS structure has created clear space under which tunnel access to I-280 and/or U.S. 101 could be built."

"Moreover, the city can consider other better methods to solve the same traffic problem. These solutions include improving the public transportation system, encouraging car pooling, better traffic light timing on local streets and improving the reliability of the Muni system, etc.," ClockTower loft owner Johnson Chow wrote. "I do not want to waste $90 million just to open a can of worms and I'd rather spend the money to fix the more troublesome Bay Bridge structure itself."

This summer, the city released its draft EIS/EIR on the Embarcadero and TSS replacement proposals. Two of the five alternatives formally proposed in the report include Second Street ramps -- and are, as the FHWA's Wong says, eligible for federal funding. But the alternative considered most likely to be approved by the Board of Supervisors next month is a sixth one, called the DPT Variant. The DPT's proposal has no ramps at all on Second Street. Instead, the variant proposes widening the off-ramp at Fourth Street to accommodate the overflow traffic and to try to meet the comparable service requirement. Up in Sacramento, where the FHWA has its offices, the variant took them by surprise.

"Unfortunately, this piece of information didn't come about until the last couple of months," Wong says. "It just came up. We had some folks there express their concern about the noise and traffic and whatever." The ClockTower folks? "That's correct," Wong says.

As a result, the FHWA has sent the city back to the drawing board for more information on whether widening the off-ramps at Fourth Street, instead of building a new ramp opposite the ClockTower, will meet the comparable service requirement, Wong says.

Fleck, at the city's DPT, which proposed the variant, says the numbers are there to make the case for federal funds. "We did do a lot of analysis on the impact of not building the ramp in terms of traffic flow," he says. "We made a pretty good analysis."

But Wong disagrees -- and $26 million hangs in the balance.
"They provided some information to us, but it's not been backed up with traffic studies," Wong says. "We need the information from the study based on time delays and congestion at these different intersections. We have to look at the project as a whole.

About The Author

Ellen McGarrahan


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