[Carfreeliving] Let's rubble -- longing for next Big One
apt at thornley.com
Wed Nov 30 11:47:04 MST 2005
Don't know if you caught it, but Tim Holt's musings on possible
improvements brought by the next Big One ran in last Sunday's
Chronicle (front page of the Insight section), he sends thanks to all
for your suggestions . . .
Let's rubble -- longing for next Big One
Quakes have a way of reshaping things
by Tim Holt
SF Chronicle, Sunday, November 27, 2005
Another Big One is coming: U.S. Geological Survey says an earthquake
on the order of Loma Prieta, or greater, is likely to shake the Bay
Area by 2032.
What many view as an inevitable disaster scenario -- toppled
freeways, crumbled buildings, cracked pavement -- others see as an
In this view, the San Andreas and Hayward faults are agents of urban
renewal, their destructive force having a positive impact on the
urban landscape. For starters, look what Loma Prieta did to open up
San Francisco's waterfront.
"You're lucky you've got those earthquakes." That's what one San
Francisco city planner says he hears when he goes to conferences
around the country and tells fellow planners about the improvements
made after the 1989 quake.
Nearly every major U.S. city has a legacy of neighborhood-gouging
freeways from the 1950s and '60s, structures now universally
recognized as monuments to bad planning.
In an earthquake-prone city like San Francisco, as Loma Prieta
proved, they don't have to be permanent scars on the landscape.
When the next Big One hits, Robin Levitt is among those hoping a few
more of the city's freeways crumble. Levitt is the architect and
neighborhood activist who led a successful campaign in the late 1990s
to replace the quake-damaged Central Freeway with an open,
pedestrian-friendly boulevard just north of Market Street.
Today, Levitt proudly points out that what had been a "no man's land"
under the old freeway has been transformed into the four-block-long
Octavia Boulevard, what Levitt grandly describes as a "Parisian
boulevard" treatment where cars share space with cyclists and
The cars are separated from the slower traffic by 5-foot-wide median
strips landscaped with trees and plants -- another step in the
"greening" of the city.
"In Europe, you don't have freeways running through cities, cutting
up neighborhoods, the way they do here," Levitt notes. "In this
country, we're finally learning that we can move people through
cities without running freeways through them, that we can start to
give the city back to the people who live here."
When the next earth-shaker hits, Levitt would like to see more of the
Central Freeway go down, so that Octavia can be extended and Van Ness
Avenue and Mission and Valencia streets can emerge from under the
shadow of the existing overpass -- an idea that the Board of
Supervisors itself has tentatively endorsed.
And let's be honest, don't some of the city's drearier edifices --
the institutional slab known as the Hall of Justice on Bryant Street,
or the Federal Building on Golden Gate Avenue -- make you yearn for
the next earthquake? If so, you can take heart from the fact that
they both sit on soggy, unstable ground.
Author Grey Brechin ("Imperial San Francisco") is among those who
think the next earthquake could improve the city's landscape. He
points out that key parts of the city -- including the Civic Center,
the Financial District, South of Market, and the Mission District --
sit on long-buried bay inlets, creeks, marshes and lakes.
Buildings sited over these underground bodies of water are sitting on
unstable infill materials -- soggy, shaky foundations referred to as
"liquefaction" zones by seismologists. They not only tend to form big
sinkholes during an earthquake, but also amplify ground motion.
In the aftermath of the 1906 and 1989 earthquakes, you could identify
the location of these subterranean water sources by noting the
pattern of toppled and badly damaged buildings, especially South of
Market. That region lost a lot of brick warehouses in 1989, many of
which have since been replaced by live/work lofts.
The next time around, Brechin suggests, don't repeat this futile
pattern of rebuilding on unstable ground. Instead, follow the path
suggested by nature and open up the creeks and develop parkways along
This would have the added benefit of avoiding development in areas
prone to flooding. And, as Brechin points out, any clearing of these
generally low-lying flood zones will help prepare the city for the
gradually rising ocean levels associated with global warming.
There is one major problem with this idea: The city's underground
creeks are used as sewage trunk lines, so that any creek restoration
program would require a major investment in new sewer lines. It's
also unlikely that San Franciscans would support restoration of one
creek in particular, Hayes Valley Creek, which flows under Civic
As for other likely targets of urban renewal, what about that Lego on
steroids, Sutro Tower? If that topples, Brechin suggests resurrecting
sculptor Benny Bufano's idea of a monumental statue of St. Francis of
Assisi on Mount Sutro. Or architect Bernard Maybeck's proposal for a
copy of the Acropolis -- a symbol of wisdom and civilization
replacing the structure that currently beams us "Desperate
Although he'd hardly want to go on record favoring a San Francisco
earthquake, at least one of Mayor Gavin Newsom's programs could get a
big boost from the next Big One.
As part of his new $11 million "Better Streets" initiative, the
mayor's aides have been pointing out that there is ' a lot of
underutilized pavement in the city -- isolated, undeveloped dead-end
streets, for example, or those extra-wide streets out in the Sunset
District -- some 560 acres by current City Hall estimates.
The pocket parks and community gardens the mayor wants to create
could, with a little pick-and-shovel work, replace some of the
pavement that cracks in the next earthquake.
One Planning Department employee also mentioned the idea of
redesigning earthquake-damaged streets to create "slow streets," or
what the Dutch call "woonerfs."
These are resident-friendly streets that restrict traffic to narrow
thoroughfares, while giving pedestrians wide sidewalks with natural
landscaping and street furniture -- along the lines of Octavia's
"Parisian boulevard" treatment. These more sophisticated street
revamps don't come cheap however, costing on the order of $500,000
Then again, why wait for the next Big One? Boston didn't wait for a
natural disaster to underground two miles of waterfront freeway and
begin replacing its former route with a long swath of parks, public
plazas, shops and housing. Seattle is considering a similar project
along its waterfront.
San Francisco may well have to live with its ugly buildings, at least
until the next big shaker, but the transformation of public spaces --
the liberation of neighborhood streets, the opening up of urban
vistas, the tearing up and greening of superfluous pavement -- can
Thanks to the last major earthquake, there are positive examples of
this kind of improvement on both sides of the bay. (Loma Prieta's
shaking also helped heal the neighborhood around the damaged Cypress
Freeway in Oakland.)
Not only would such projects help return the city to the people who
live here, as Levitt advocates, but they could also make it safer in
the next earthquake.
For one thing, there would be fewer elevated freeways to come
tumbling down. And when was the last time anyone was buried in the
rubble of a community garden?
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