The I-980 swath


Interstate 980 is a huge convenience for drivers. I appreciate it every time I drive around town. But its construction was a major injury to Oakland’s neighborhood fabric, splitting West Oakland from downtown harshly and irrevocably. Every time I walk over 980, as here on the 14th Street overcrossing, I ask, Did they really need to hack out all this space for the freeway? Farther north, where the road becomes route 24, it’s narrower and they left a fringe of homes on Martin Luther King bordering the highway. But on 980, the excavation took out a full city block between Castro and Brush streets.

Maybe the difference was the sand. I-980 is built in the Merritt Sand, which underlies downtown and West Oakland up as far as Grand Avenue. The ancient dune sands probably can’t sustain a steep slope on the sides of the freeway. And the builders had to dig deep to make room for the overcrossings—most of the other freeways are not below grade. A narrower roadway, with tall vertical soundwalls on either side (like the new part of the Nimitz farther west in Bay mud), would not be as safe during earthquake shaking, and without room for the vegetation it would be a dreary place indeed. Bad as it is, it could have been worse.

4 Responses to “The I-980 swath”

  1. Nick P. Says:

    Interesting–I never considered what the landscape would have looked like pre-980. I’d love to see some pix of the area before the freeway was built.

  2. Andrew Says:

    You know what they say: behind every great achievement is a great crime.

  3. Anthony Says:

    Before 980, 24 dumped out onto surface streets – the block of houses between Castro and Brush was taken out earlier (though maybe there were houses on the “freeway side” of those two streets?)

    The neighborhoods were already divided, as it was pretty difficult to cross – it’s probably safer now that you don’t have to worry as much about people making turns or not stopping for lights.

    It would have been possible to build walls instead of slopes, but it would have been much more expensive – grading is cheap, structures are not.

  4. Matt of Uptown Says:

    Why is 980 so wide? That’s a question I can help answer. The practice of redlining by financial institutions, the American Housing Act of 1949, and the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 are why 980 is so wide. Banks redlined West Oakland and the neighborhood declined because individuals had to finance improvements and purchase of property out of pocket. Urban renewal then came along and allowed local jurisdictions to declare an area “blighted”, and gave them money to force sales of property, level the existing structures, and then build whatever they liked. In 1956 the highway act provided dollar for dollar matching to build roadways. These roadways were often overbuilt to eliminate as much old, “blighted” housing stock as possible. In the last few years there has been talk about reducing 980’s footprint or making it a tunnel with a park above all in order to reconnect Downtown with West Oakland.

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