Feb. 22, 1991


Easy thrills on Embarcadero

By Michael Collier

The Tribune

SAN FRANCISCO - In its final days, the earthquake-damaged Embarcadero Freeway may be more admired as an urban playground than it ever was as a freeway. Roller skaters, pedestrians, sweethearts and graffiti artists are sneaking onto the closed roadway for a last hurrah before the.double-decked concrete monstrosity succumbs to a wrecking crew this week.

"It will be a sad day when this is torn down," said David Miles, as he whizzed across the abandoned mile-long route with three other skaters during a lunch break last week. His panorama,:the Bay Bridge and Alcatraz Island, the San Francisco Ferry Building, the Transamerica Pyramid and Coit Tower.

"When I'm up here, it's like I'm in a postcard," said Miles, 34, of San Francisco. "It's electrifying. It's almost better than Disneyland. Where else can you go for a ride like this?"

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        Rolling from left: Kieth Presting, David Miles, Suzie Tignor and James Johnson

Once the freeway is leveled, it may not be missed much. The imposing structure was a boon to thousands of commuters, but was reviled by many as a first-class eyesore marring one of America's most scenic, waterfronts.

For more than three decades after it opened in, 1957, the Embarcadero Freeway fueled controversy. In 1986, its future landed on the ballot. San Franciscans voted to keep it standing. But the 7.1 magnitude Lorna Prieta quake dealt it the death blow three years later, when the quake severely damaged support columns that tie the two decks together.

San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos plans to replace the freeway with a $135 million sunken express way. The new thoroughfare will not be completed for at least five years. Agnos and other officials will mark the end of the freeway with a public ceremony Wednesday. The wrecking begins the next morning. Demolition is expected to last about four months, said Caltrans spokesman Lisa Murphy.

With the freeway's end near, its use as a recreational novelty has surged. Only a trickle of curious people made their way onto the road in the first months after the quake. In the past few weeks, dozens have been doing it each day.

Caltrans officials say there is little risk the damaged freeway will collapse. The highway agency is issuing permits to people who want to take photographs from the upper deck.

For everyone else, the freeway is technically off-limits, but trespassing laws usually aren't enforced against people who climb over the concrete barricades and chain-link fences guarding on and off ramps.

California Highway Patrol officers have issued about 50 citations to trespassers, but the lawbreakers are typically let off with a warning, said CHP Lt. Marvin. Brown."1 don't blame people for going up there," added Brown.

Two men who took a hike on the upper deck last week said they wanted to walk on the empty roadway because they had so much fun strolling on the Bay Bridge the day before it was reopened following repairs to earth quake damage. "This is historic," said one of the men, a BART employee who declined to give his name. "I had to do this before they tear it down."

A group of KGO Radio advertising salesmen, dressed in business suits, had the same motive when they mounted the upper deck during the noon hour. Various graffiti artists have scrawled statements on the concrete, but one work stands out. An anonymous artist painted dozens of four-foot-long sperm on the pavement, heading south toward the Bay Bridge.

Suzie Tignor, gliding along the freeway on Rollerblade-type skates, said she finds solace on the elevated roadway. "It's calm," she said. "There's always a threat of getting caught up here, but it's a very inspiring place."

The final decision to tear down the fractured freeway was not made until late last year, and the process of getting rid of the structure has been painfully slow since then.

Still, skater Miles thinks it's all happening too fast. "I'm surprised they're tearing this down so soon," he said, getting ready for another spin along the skyway.


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