The last few minutes of the drive into San Francisco are always special. There is nothing like that fleeting moment, just before entering the city, when the 280 overpass to Brannan Street frames a view of the city’s skyline worthy of a postcard. As an urban planner, the city’s initiative to take the freeway down is exciting. But as a lifelong resident, it is almost disappointing to lose that special vantage point into the city.
What if that view could become a preserved – and celebrated – experience part of the city? Imagine giving that experience to a pedestrian rather than to a car. Rather than simply removing the entire freeway, is there some potential in repurposing some of the existing structure with a more creative spirit? This project reclaims one overpass to create a public amenity that provides the city with a vital pedestrian/bicycle link that will guide its sustainable future.
The HighLink is a vibrant promenade, filled with a natural landscape of recreation areas, gathering spaces, and refuges for wildlife. This new urban space will add value to the adjacent parcels freed by the removal of the freeway, and help shape a cohesive identity for Mission Bay’s further development.
The $4 billion invested in Mission Bay hinges on the success of its connection to the city. That link is ultimately severed by the 20 acre rail yard between it and the city. For that reason, the existing overpass between Brannan Street and Irwin Street has tremendous value – It is the physical link between the inner city and the heart of Mission Bay. With the traffic of 280 removed, this can become a resource for the city’s pedestrian and bicycle networks.
This new connection provides a basis of growth for Mission Bay’s future and sustainable life. It promotes walking and biking as the main transit method between Mission Bay and the inner city, and also provides an instrumental social link between one part of the city and the next. Within that context, this projects defines the parcels suggested by the competition as a series of urban spaces within a cohesive whole. Parcels 1 and 2, adjacent to existing residential towers, are a series of freestanding residential buildings. This allows for a loose network or paths to connect to Mission Bay below and a series of terraced rooftop gardens above. Parcel 3 is defined as the central park of the community. The HighLink wraps around this space and acts as an urban gate, framing the Bay and the new axis along Mission Bay Boulevard. The promenade culminates at parcels 4, 5, and 6 with an enclosed pedestrian street – rich with cafes, boutiques, and public life. The variety of spaces along the pathway create a diverse environment, ensuring an active daily use from all groups in the community.
This lively environment is a resourceful adaptation from the substrate of the existing overpass. Built to withstand heavy traffic, the overpass is already structurally robust. By supplementing that structure with a simple irrigation and drainage network, large trees can line a vegetated pathway of community gardens, grassy fields, and imaginative landscapes. Between Brannan and Irwin, the overpass is structurally independent from the demolished freeway and will require no major changes. A ramp structure will continue the promenade 3 short blocks from Irwin to 16th St, where the HighLink will meet the sidewalk again. The entirety of the HighLink will be universally accessible – All members of the public can safely scale its gently slopped pathway.
The HighLink is both a connection and a destination in itself. But just as important, it renews San Francisco’s identity as a city committed to resourceful sustainability. Rather than simply remove the entirety of the existing freeway, the HighLink accepts the layers of the city over time, and adapts them to productive urban environments. The Highlink ultimately reimagines, reconnects, and restores 280 into an urban environment that is distinctly for the community of San Francisco, and a resource for the further growth of Mission Bay.