A couple of electric scooters are tied to the railing of a forlorn-looking sidewalk on the overpass above a busy freeway.
Several city council members want Berkeley to pursue a federal grant to study a project to improve the University Avenue overpass above Interstate 80 to better connect the city with its waterfront. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

The roaring, congested, 10-lane Eastshore Freeway has been Berkeley’s de facto western border for generations.

Now some city officials and residents say it’s time to rethink Interstate 80, and the barrier it forms between Berkeley and its waterfront. Their visions range from the merely ambitious to the down-right audacious: One proposal calls for transforming the aging and utilitarian University Avenue overpass into a freeway-topping park, while another group wants to dig miles of tunnels along the waterfront to move the entire interstate underground.

Fueling these ideas is a recognition of the often-destructive role freeways have played in many American cities, as well as a new $1 billion federal grant program — created as part of the infrastructure law championed by the Biden administration — that doles out funding for projects to address their inequitable impacts.

Councilmember Rigel Robinson wants Berkeley to seek a grant from the program called Reconnecting Communities to study a redesign of the University Avenue overpass. In its current form, Robinson said, the freeway severs the Berkeley Marina from the rest of the city while limiting West Berkeley residents’ access to park space.

“Better connecting the city proper to our waterfront through a highway lid project or something similar may seem fantastical,” he said, “but cities all over the country have demonstrated that these projects can work, and can bring communities together, and bridge their residents to their most beautiful natural resources.”

His referral asking city staff to apply for a grant is now before Berkeley’s Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Commission, as well as the Transportation and Infrastructure Commission. Going after that money would be the first step in a years-long planning process to determine what could be built and how much it would cost.

Urban designer Geeti Silwal thinks Berkeley shouldn’t stop at one overpass. Along with architect David Trachtenberg and transportation planner Anthony Bruzzone, Silwal wants to move Interstate 80 below ground for its entire two-mile route between Gilman Street and Ashby Avenue — much like Seattle did with the Alaska Way Viaduct freeway, and Berkeley did with BART more than half a century ago.

The vision Silwal’s group wants the city to study would represent a massive infrastructure project with a multi-billion-dollar price tag. But she said it would be revolutionary for Berkeley’s waterfront.

“We think it’s a crucial step to move us as residents of cities closer to making cities for people, rather than for automobiles,” Silwal told the Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Commission at a recent meeting.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, then-Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf and others ride an AC Transit bus in Oakland, with Buttigieg peering out the window.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg looks out the window of an AC Transit bus toward Interstate 980, which separates West Oakland from downtown, during a 2022 tour with U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee and then-Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf. The Department of Transportation later awarded Oakland a $680,000 grant to study removing the freeway. Credit: Amir Aziz

Federal transportation officials have so far awarded $185 million from the Reconnecting Communities program to study or help build dozens of projects.

In cities across the country, freeways serving predominantly white suburban commuters were routed through Black and Latino communities, leaving residents to contend with hulking structures that isolated their neighborhoods and air pollution from passing vehicles. Supporters of making changes to Interstate 80 say residents of West Berkeley have borne those impacts for decades.

Still, Berkeley as a whole was not divided and disrupted by freeways to the extent other cities were — such as Oakland, where thousands of homes were cleared to build three freeway routes that contribute to residential segregation and pollution. Parks commissioner and landscape architect Brennan Cox told Silwal that gives him pause when considering seeking a grant for Interstate 80.

“I know that’s raining on the parade here, but I could name five places in the Bay Area that I think deserve funds” more than Berkeley, Cox said.

Oakland received a $680,000 grant from the Reconnecting Communities program to study a proposal to turn Interstate 980, which carves a half-mile trench between West Oakland and downtown, into a surface street. Advocates for that vision note that despite its size and impact on surrounding neighborhoods, 980 is one of the Bay Area’s least-used freeways.

That’s not the case with Interstate 80 in Berkeley. Masses of San Francisco-bound commuters from as far away as suburban Sacramento creep along in its notorious traffic each day, joined by trucks traveling to and from the Port of Oakland, making it one of the most congested freeways in the Bay Area.

But Interstate 80 is showing its age, and Silwal’s group notes its waterfront setting makes it vulnerable to sea level rise.

Caltrans, which manages the freeway and will need to sign off on any of Berkeley’s grand ideas, is currently building a $75 million project to redesign Interstate 80’s Gilman Street interchange.

The state highway agency has also developed a plan of its own to rebuild the University Avenue interchange, which calls for adding roundabouts and a taller overpass. But while the redesign has been in the works for several years, Caltrans spokeswoman Janis Mara said the agency does not have the $102 million that a 2019 estimate found the project would cost.

Mara declined to comment on the potential for Berkeley to seek a grant from the Reconnecting Communities program.

People stand in a park, while behind them cars drive into a tunnel topped with green space.
People admire the views from the Presidio Tunnel Tops, a 14-acre park that sits atop seven lanes of Highway 101 near the Golden Gate Bridge. The park links the former Army base’s parade ground with the waterfront at Crissy Field, but has become a destination in its own right. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Robinson’s referral — which is co-sponsored by West Berkeley councilmembers Rashi Kesarwani and Terry Taplin, as well as Mark Humbert — states that a federal grant could allow Berkeley to assess whether Caltrans’ plans for the interchange would “go far enough to advance the city’s goals of sustainability, green space, and public access to the waterfront.”

Robinson suggested Berkeley’s effort could draw inspiration from San Francisco’s new Presidio Tunnel Tops park across the bay.

The lush 14-acre park, which opened last summer atop Highway 101, connects the former Army base’s stately parade grounds with the waterfront at Crissy Field — and has become a destination in its own right for dog walkers, picnicking families and tourists drawn to its postcard vistas of the Golden Gate Bridge. The whooshing sound from seven lanes of freeway traffic below is ever-present, though not loud enough to drown out the chirping birds drawn to its gardens of native plants.

While the Golden Gate view wouldn’t be quite so close to West Berkeley, that’s the kind of experience Robinson said could be possible at the University Avenue overpass if the city can line up the funding to make it happen.

“This grant is an invitation to dream big,” he said, “and to ask ourselves what the ideal crossing and configuration is for an interchange like this — not just what has been possible up to this point.”

A vista of the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin Headlands, with shrubs and grass from a park in the foreground.
The Presidio Tunnel Tops park opened last year in San Francisco and boasts postcard-worthy views of the Golden Gate Bridge, plus gardens of native plants. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Nico Savidge joined Berkeleyside in 2021 as a senior reporter covering city hall. Born and raised in Berkeley, he got his start in journalism at Youth Radio as a high-schooler in the mid-2000s. Since then,...