Editor’s Note: The following is the text that will be placed on a pylon at Pier 14,a public pier which is being dedicated to Former Mayor Art Agnos today at 11 a.m.
“The world breaks everyone and many are stronger afterwards at the broken places.”
Mayor Art Agnos quoted these Ernest Hemingway lines as he addressed San Franciscans gathered to begin the demolition of the double-decker freeway that blighted San Francisco’s waterfront for 33 years. The October 17, 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake weakened the freeway; state highway officials wanted to repair and strengthen it for continued use. Mayor Agnos advocated demolition of the 40 foot high freeway wall that blocked San Francisco from its historic waterfront and replace it with a magnificent new ground-level boulevard.
Mayor Agnos’ leadership to reopen the waterfront became the most controversial issue in the city’s entire successful earthquake recovery. While opponents filled city hall in its largest protests, the mayor’s plan won the City’s Board of Supervisors’ approval by a single vote. Election petitions were immediately circulated to overturn the historic vote and instead mandate the reopening of the double-decker freeway. Mayor Agnos lobbied concessions from the federal government to cover a substantial part of the cost for the new city Boulevard, while also winning admission from state officials that a repair would be more costly than first proposed by them. As the mayor forged ahead and the demolition plan became a reality, opponents dropped their citywide election ballot petitions.
To assure citizen involvement in one of the biggest planning initiatives in modern San Francisco history, Mayor Agnos appointed the “best and brightest” representatives to a diverse citizen’s panel to develop recommendations for a new waterfront. It included environmentalists, planners, neighborhood and business leaders. Their effort was critical because never before had any city demolished a major freeway which was part of the state highway system.
Mayor Agnos responded to determined critics of the plan who threatened retaliation at the polls by referring to his inaugural message that cited his heritage as a Greek-American and the ancient Citizen Oath of Athens “I promise upon my honor to leave the city better than I found it.”
The new plan revived a dream of a new waterfront public transit system, and Mayor Agnos promoted the inclusion of the city’s historic trolley car fleet of colorful cars from sister cities around the world to carry residents and visitors from one end of Market Street all the way to Fisherman’s Wharf.
The city’s waterfront would no longer be relegated to a “drive over” status as motorists sped by on the high-speed freeway, and where low-rent hotels virtually leaned against its concrete wall. Instead it would become a new neighborhood, with affordable housing and homeownership, new restaurants, a farmers market, new offices to house well-paying jobs, new public parks and recreation as well as the first-ever pedestrian piers for a view on the Bay itself. Those hopes were realized, along with a plan Mayor Agnos introduced for a new major league baseball park at the water’s edge where spectators could see homeruns splash into San Francisco.
Today the Embarcadero is one of the great waterfronts of any city in the world. “San Francisco has done what most cities can only dream of: It has reunited its citizens with their waterfront,” hailed one national magazine.
One major political decision released enormous economic and social energy to create new urban value without costly annexations. It was the impetus for new financial and development investment that has taken place since 1992 and will continue for the rest of this century.
This pedestrian pier commemorates the achievement of Mayor Agnos in leaving our city stronger and better than he found it.