Mission Creek Bikeway and Greenbelt
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(from the Tube Times, Issue 71, SF Bicycle Coalition)

Imagine walking with your grandparents and your five year-old child from the Mission District to the Giants Ballpark along chaotic Division Street in the shadow of the Central Freeway. Sound like a walk in the park? Of course not, but it could be soon.

If a proposal supported by the SFBC, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, and the Madrina Group is realized, this route could be one of the most enjoyable places to bike or walk in the city. The proposed Mission Creek Bikeway and Greenbelt would transform this old, abandoned rail corridor beneath the Central Freeway into a linear park with lush vegetation, wildflowers, public art, and a paved bicycle expressway.

The proposed greenway would begin at 16th and Harrison Sreets, wind around the nose of Potrero Hill, cross 7th St. and the Caltrain tracks, and continue along the south side of the channel, connecting with the new Giants stadium and the waterfront. At the 8th and Townsend circle, a connecting Bikeway will run along the east side of Townsend St., connecting with the planned BikeStation at the Caltrain Depot. This section will add an intermodal component to the project, as well as contouring the old shoreline of Mission Bay, which was, at one time, literally the Town's End.

This project was envisioned in 1993 by Judy West, a longtime community advocate and executive director of the Madrina Group. Last year the organization, which is dedicated to fighting the deterioration of San Francisco's industrial neighborhoods, sponsored a mural at 16th and Harrison depicting the forgotten waters of Mission Creek, which the bikeway would run along.

According to West, the mural did a tremendous amount to bring attention to the bikeway project. "Art goes with advocacy -- it changes people's awareness and gets them inspired," said West. "It's hard to see a beautiful greenway when you're just looking at the ugly city streets." West imagines a day when sculptures and art installations dot the new greenway, adding historical and cultural perspective to a corridor that was, up until 150 years ago, a navigable creek surrounded by marshlands that flowed into the waters of Mission Bay.

Before European settlers arrived in San Francisco, the site of the present-day mural was a landing point for the Ohlone Indians, who paddled tule reed balsas around the vast San Francisco Bay. During the 18th century, Spanish Missionaries recognized the value of this creek when they established Mission Dolores near its headwaters. In the late 19th century, rail planners took advantage of the creek's flat grade to build the San Jose and San Francisco rail line. Now the waterway is a sewer buried beneath city streets, most of the rails have been ripped up, and the land is used primarily for automobile storage. Its natural history and transportation value have largely been forgotten.

As we enter the 21st century, Mission Bay is on the verge of radical changes. Plans are afoot to redevelop the area from a neglected industrial zone to a waterfront community that will be home to thousands of new residents and the new UCSF campus. Fortunately, the new development is expected to be strongly oriented toward bikes, pedestrians, and transit users. However, the industrial neighborhood to the Southwest of Mission Bay has longstanding transportation problems. Having been designed for cars and trucks, the area is not prepared for the increasing numbers of bikes and pedestrians that accompany the new high-tech businesses moving into the area.

The Mission Creek Greenway project is a huge step toward addressing this need. Such Rail-to-Trail conversions have become important tools for urban planners seeking to provide human-scaled environments in today's car-centered cities. Rail lines recycled into greenways are often a seed that sprouts into tangible economic, social, and environmental benefits to the surrounding community. Groups such as the Northeast Mission Business Association are supporting the Mission Creek plan, in part, because of the many studies that have documented the link between new rail-trails and an invigorated economy.

This year, with support from RTC and SFBC, the Madrina Group applied for planning and design funding for the project from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission's Transportation for Livable Communities program. If approved, the $30,000 grant will be supported by $10,000 in matching funds from the city. The MTC will release the list of funded projects later this month.

In addition to funding, transferring portions of the corridor into public ownership may be the most significant obstacle facing the bikeway. After abandonment in 1991, parts of the rail right-of-way were sold off to different businesses and developers. The city will have to compensate these landowners either financially or by swapping other city-owned property near the corridor. There is precedent for these types of negotiations, but they are only possible with the support of the Mayor and the Board of Supervisors.

Unfortunately, we can never restore Mission Creek to its nascent condition. We can, however, reclaim a historic transportation corridor while honoring the ecological past of this fertile valley that nurtured early settlement in San Francisco.

Trails are essential to any healthy urban ecosystem, and the time is ripe for our elected officials to understand that San Franciscans consider such linear green space a high priority.

If you support the Mission Creek Bikeway, write to the Board of Supervisors and Mayor Brown, requesting that they facilitate the project by dedicating planning funds and directing city agencies to develop a task force to see the bikeway through to construction. If you are interested in volunteering or assisting with this project, contact Leah Shahum with the SFBC at 431-BIKE x-2.

By Josh Hart
Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
California Field Office

for general information, contact: info@missioncreek.org
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