Freeway as gateway to the city

The Presidio — a 1,491-acre national park situated between San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge — offers visitors access to stunning views and fascinating historical artifacts. Over the past three centuries it has been controlled by the native Ohlone, Spanish colonists, the Mexican government, the U.S. Army, and finally the federal government.

Golden Gate Bridge as seen from the Presidio

Golden Gate Bridge and the Presidio’s historic Fort Point

By the early 1990s it was clear that the Presidio Parkway, the 1930s roadway traversing the park as the southern access to the Golden Gate Bridge, needed major structural and seismic upgrades. Due to its prominent location, the roadway became the focus of a multidecade design effort aimed at both functional and aesthetic transformation.

Scheduled for completion this year, the parkway has been heralded as a major achievement by industry observers around the country. We spoke with three key members of the project team — Michael Painter, the landscape architect whose vision led the project; José  Luis Moscovich, former San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA) executive director; and Ignacio Barandiaran, head of Arup’s transaction advice business in the Americas — to learn more.


What are the most innovative features of this project?

José Luis: There are design innovations in the project, and then there are process innovations — especially the fact that it’s the first time a major existing urban freeway in California has been replaced using a PPP [public-private partnership] that did not require tolls for financing, while guaranteeing excellent maintenance for three decades.

Within the realm of design innovation, two things come to mind. One is context sensitivity. The context-sensitive design idea that has been floating around for so long finds a tremendous application in this project. It has gone much further than others.

And then there is all the very, very specific functional and aesthetic detail — the kind of stuff that Arup and Mike came up with that makes this a very unique design.

Can you describe some of these details?

Michael: The tunnel design, for one. The tunnels were used primarily to expand park space and reduce traffic noise. This was achieved pretty economically. The Main Post tunnel was basically a minor excavation, and then we covered the whole thing and created a new bluff on the finished side. This connected key existing park areas that had previously been separated — chief among these the Main Post, which historically was the heart of the Presidio, with the waterfront.

Presidio Parkway tunnel construction

Ignacio: Michael, what you’re saying is one of the most ancient principles of architecture: working with the landscape, with the topography. But it’s so often not applied in practice. That’s what makes projects like this particularly valuable.

José Luis: There’s nothing new in those principles, but their application is taken to a much higher degree in this project than in others. And the result speaks for itself. It is more pleasant to drive through those tunnels. The difference in elevation between the north- and southbound lanes makes it seem like you’re not in a sea of asphalt. It’s just a different experience.

Michael: When you’re driving on I-5 not far from Mount Shasta, one of the most beautiful mountains in California, you only see the mountain a few times. It’s like the designers weren’t even aware that view was there. Here, the layout was very consciously done so you see city landscape from the first tunnel portal; coming out of the last portal, you’re looking directly at the dome of the Palace of Fine Arts. The intent was to create a gateway into the city.

Ignacio: Going back to the process question, one of the unique things about this project is that this design came out of a genuine grassroots process. The design vision that Michael first developed came from a community process that was not only very extensive — lots of community design workshops and so on — but more importantly, a bona fide engagement with members of the public. Quite often community outreach is done more as a tick-the-box requirement, whereas here it really drove many important aspects of the design of the project. The end result was a project that had inherently very strong local support.

Not, of course, to diminish the role of Caltrans [California Department of Transportation] and the SFCTA and the other champions of the project. It was the joining up of the roles of the owners and overseers with the grassroots that really created the design.

Quite often community outreach is done more as a tick-the-box requirement, whereas here it really drove many important aspects of the design.

José Luis: We paid a lot of attention to design because of the constituencies involved. It wasn’t just the architecture community that had strong opinions; it was historic preservationists, it was everyone else that comes in the mix when you do a project like this in San Francisco — especially in a national park. And we were dealing with something ancillary to the most iconic bridge in the world.

When other communities get together to dream up what they want for a transportation project, what typically happens is that when the idea gets submitted to the transportation agency, they change it to incorporate all their design guidelines and requirements and the original idea gets lost. It loses its relationship to its context.

That wasn’t the case in this project. On the contrary, it got more and more tailored to what we wanted.

A lot of effort went into getting to that result, and a great deal of that was because we had Michael. I was looking the other day at an original sketch that Michael did for the 1993 report of the Doyle Drive [the former name of the Presidio Parkway] task force, and it looked almost exactly like the final project that we have on the ground today. His vision drove a lot of people forward.

You mentioned that this was a PPP. Can you say more?

José Luis: This had not been done in California before, and it was certainly kind of an earthquake in introducing a new way to deliver massive projects, to control for schedule and for budget. In our own business case, which Arup developed, we showed that the average Caltrans transportation project was experiencing up to 60% cost overruns. So this offered up a new method for dealing with cost and schedule and also ensuring adequate maintenance for the long term.

Ignacio: There are two important factors in terms of how the public perceives these kinds of projects. One is cost and budget while the project is underway. Time and time again we see the public lose faith in government when big projects cost more than they’re supposed to and take a lot longer.

Credit: Proehl Studios

The other aspect is long-term maintenance. The fact that this project will be properly maintained after construction ends due to the PPP agreement is hugely important. That’s something I think is currently missing from how we develop our infrastructure.

What are the implications of this project for other transportation initiatives in the United States? What lessons could people pick up and run with?

Michael: Having a transition from the big freeway that acts as a gateway statement would really enhance a lot of cities.

So what would need to happen for that to be a more standard feature? Is it (a) a recognition that it’s important and (b) transportation departments willing to go through the necessary processes to customize the design?

Michael: Well, it would be nice if there were worldwide standards for this type of roadway, from when you go high speed on a major freeway to a transition speed at 35 to 45 miles an hour to the city streets at 30 miles an hour.

Ignacio: My twelve-year-old son asked me recently exactly about this: how and where do freeways end? He hadn’t seen that before, which is remarkable since freeways are ubiquitous in California cities. I think this anecdote says a lot about how they are not designed to act as gateways into our cities. When Presidio Parkway opened I took him there, and he now has a good idea thanks to Michael’s clear-eyed vision.

We’ve primarily talked about the aesthetic benefits of gateway drives, whereas the standards for transition speed that Michael mentioned are a technical function. Can you say more?

José Luis: The question you’re asking is, what are we achieving with these design changes? Fundamentally, it’s a safe transition from a freeway environment to a city environment. This project has shown how to do that in a way that also produces an elegant design.

And in doing so, in calming the traffic to city street speeds, it’s achieving a much higher degree of community acceptance. One of the big issues at the San Francisco end of this project was traffic — concerns of people being stuck in their driveways in the morning because there was too much traffic, too fast. And there were also issues related to pedestrian and bicycle safety.

So this design was more sensitive in all these respects?

José Luis: Absolutely.

Ignacio: I want to go back to the PPP delivery and design. This is one of the first US PPP projects that has a very high standard of design in terms of not only complexity but also aesthetics. The conventional wisdom is that the PPP delivery model is not compatible with achieving that type of design standard. The project demonstrated that the conventional wisdom is not correct.

This is one of the first US PPP projects that has a very high standard of design in terms of not only complexity but also aesthetics.

José Luis, has the project been received well by Caltrans? You mentioned that this potentially sets a precedent for other California transportation projects.

José Luis: The project is a living reminder that the Caltrans process can be bent to serve a project design, federal criteria, and community goals. It can be very useful to other people who look to the process that we followed and try to emulate it.

There clearly are some unique circumstances. This is a big project from a politically powerful jurisdiction. And you have to remember that Mike Painter was volunteering his services during the time of the Doyle Drive task force. Not every community will have a talented architect that will be able to do that and hold on to the vision all the way to the bitter end. Not every community will have a local champion agency that will take that on and push it through, because it does take quite a bit of pushing.

But having a project as an example of how you can actually get things done within the existing system is really important.

Ignacio: One of the big lessons for me throughout this project is the power of design to create a compelling vision that a wide range of people can rally around. The power of this design is how it works with the landscape and creates uplifting experiences, each different and unique, for people driving on the roadway and people walking in the park over and around it. People who participated in its development, laypersons in the community and the professionals who worked on the project, intuitively understood this. That’s what drove them to say, “Yes, I can put my support behind this.”

Questions or comments for Ignacio Barandiaran, José Luis Moscovich, or Michael Painter? Contact, or

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