Large-scale waterfront renewal is one of the most dynamic areas of urban design today. New York City just unveiled their first city wide plan for the waterfront in two decades and it’s goal is to reconnect New Yorkers with their waterfront. New Orleans is still struggling with Katrina’s water management policies, bogged down in politics, economics, and regional planning. And, of course, Japan’s recent tsunami is a wake up call for every waterfront city.
Here in San Francisco, the waterfront district between the Ferry Building and Fisherman’s wharf is experiencing a renaissance, primarily due to the removal of the earthquake-damaged Embarcadero Freeway in 1989. Constructed in 1959 at the height of America’s love affair with cars, the elevated Freeway effectively shut off San Francisco from its most important waterfront area for years. Soon after its removal, in 2000, the Ferry Building was rehabilitated while larger piers were constructed for newer ferries. 100 acres of land that had been dominated by the freeway gave way to a new public plaza and waterfront promenade that stretched from South Beach to Fisherman’s Wharf. Views were restored, pedestrian spaces designed, and people returned. The neighborhood blossomed.
In 1997, primarily due to a 1991 earthquake, the Port of San Francisco adopted The Waterfront Land Use Plan (WLUP) to restrict its waterfront to public uses and forbid hotels and high rises on the waterfront. It designates view corridors, public access, open space, urban form, and preservation of historic resources.
However lofty the goals of the WLUP, without significant funding, the City and Port Commission can do little with their aging piers and waterfront infrastructures. Good planning intentions are further complicated by multiple agencies that oversee development: the Planning Commission, the Board of Supervisors, the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), and the State Lands Commission all weigh in on waterfront proposals.
San Francisco’s watery edge is one of the region’s most valuable assets and one of the City’s most important defining features. It gives citizens a unique quality of life and a distinct identity. While the WLUP aims to protects this resource, it has also generated a lot of controversy for a variety of proposed developments, both public and private. The Sierra Club, local businesses, and open-space advocates have all threatened lawsuits in the face of proposed malls, multi-story housing & offices, and chain stores offering private rehabilitation money and public access in exchange for improvements.
Enter the America’s Cup.
This international racing regatta will be held in San Francisco Bay in
2013-14 and its primary supporting structures will be located on the Embarcadero’s docks, just north of the Ferry Building, in the heart of the central waterfront district.
Almost overnight, the dream of a restored San Francisco waterfront seems achievable. With politically-correct funding, appropriately-scaled structures, and environmentally-sustainable uses, the 34th America’s Cup sailing competition offers the City a unique opportunity to improve a significant portion of its waterfront environs. The entire regatta development dovetails perfectly with the WLUP.
What could possibly go wrong?
The City will get funds to improve its docks and infrastructures (including the $25 million Brannan St. Wharf, a public green; $55 million for shoring Piers 30-32; and $7 million to clear Pier 27) and the sailing event authority will get long-term development rights (for Piers 30-32 and Seawall Lot 330). A new $70 million multi-use cruise terminal will be constructed and waterfront sites throughout San Francisco will see several million dollars worth of improvements as a result of the international competition. Crissy Fields, Fort Mason, Alcatraz and Treasure Islands will be upgraded for the sailing event. At about the same time these improvements are constructed, the new Exploratorium Science Museum will be opening.
If sixteen federal, state and local regulatory agencies can fast-track EIR approvals and coordinate the master planning of all these projects, San Francisco will gain jobs, economic activity, and increased maritime use. America’s Cup not only gives San Francisco’s waterfront much-needed visibility and viability, it restores its historic character as a working waterfront.
What should go right?
The secret to this dream will be to make sure the public’s interests are not overwhelmed by private ones. With the need for rapid decisions, local authorities need to make sure that development actions are economically viable, environmentally sustainable, and socially equitable. As citizens, we need to ensure that the natural urbanity and unique cultural resource of our waterfront is not lost in a flood tide of sailing dollars. Or as noted waterfront planner Ann Breen would describe it, we’ll need to keep our waterfront distinctive by choosing the right mix of uses: we need a commercial and residential waterfront, but we also need a recreational and environmental edge, and the waterfront has to work and transport people, while teaching them about its past and our future. The regatta projects represent a lot of urban design for a lot of people.
Will San Francisco be successful? We hope so because it’s an unparalleled opportunity for the right kind of large-scale development. In fact, it’s a catalyst for the entire Bay Area.