A buzzing water­front re­flects San Francisco's mar­itime past

Where San Francisco - - Contents - By Renee Brincks

LONG BE­FORE VIS­I­TORS were cruis­ing from San Francisco to Sausal­ito via scenic ferry rides, cargo ships car­ried com­modi­ties to the grow­ing coastal city. Be­fore crews con­structed the fa­mous Ferry Build­ing and piers that wel­comed those ships, en­trepreneurs filled in shore­line and col­lected berthing fees from fish­ing boats. And in 1848, back be­fore San Francisco’s pop­u­la­tion was big enough to keep many fish­ing fleets in busi­ness, the sea­side vil­lage recorded just eight ves­sel calls.

The Ferry Plaza Farm­ers' Mar­ket con­trib­uted to the re­al­iza­tion that the water­front could be vi­tal again.

The state es­tab­lished the Port of San Francisco in 1863; to­day, 154 years later, the Port over­sees 7.5 miles of wharves, piers and sea­wall that es­tab­lish the city’s modern shore­line. Many down­town struc­tures are built on land cre­ated by the sea­wall’s con­struc­tion. Be­tween Fish­er­man’s Wharf and AT&T Park, the sea­wall dou­bles as a pub­lic prom­e­nade pop­u­lar with walk­ers, run­ners and bi­cy­clists.

Some of the city’s most ex­cit­ing vis­i­tor des­ti­na­tions, like the Ex­plorato­rium sci­ence mu­seum, a cruise ship ter­mi­nal and an un­der- con­struc­tion sports arena, have popped up along or near that prom­e­nade, but the cen­tral water­front didn’t al­ways draw vis­i­tors. In the late 1800s, it was a hub of trade and trans­porta­tion. Ships on San Francisco Bay car­ried ev­ery­thing from gold to mail to sugar, and the Ferry Build­ing at the foot of Mar­ket Street first wel­comed pas­sen­gers in 1898.

Less than a decade later, the 1906 earth­quake and fire dev­as­tated the city. Be­cause San Francisco was so im­por­tant to the sugar in­dus­try, Hawai­ian ship­ping com­pa­nies sup­ported re­con­struc­tion ef­forts— and some down­town build­ings still fea­ture the pineap­ples carved into their cor­nices by builders. The Ferry Build­ing sur­vived the dis­as­ter, how­ever, and soon served as many as 50,000 com­muters per day.

“Be­fore the great bridges were built in the 1930s, the Ferry Build­ing was the busiest ter­mi­nal in the whole coun­try— busier than Grand Cen­tral Sta­tion or Penn Sta­tion. It was the sec­ond-busiest ter­mi­nal in the whole world,” says Nolte.

De­mand for ferry transport dropped af­ter the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges paved the way for au­to­mo­biles. Con­struc­tion of the two-tiered Em­bar­cadero Free­way fol­lowed, cut­ting the Ferry Build­ing off from the city. As cargo ship­ping moved south, the cen­tral water­front be­came quiet.

The Em­bar­cadero Free­way came down af­ter the 1989 earth­quake, and its re­moval trig­gered a shore­line re­nais­sance. A suc­cess­ful one-time har­vest fes­ti­val near the Ferry Build­ing in­spired a weekly farm­ers mar­ket, com­plete with cook­ing demon­stra­tions and ed­u­ca­tional pro­grams. That mar­ket’s pop­u­lar­ity caught the at­ten­tion of the de­vel­op­ers who re­stored the Ferry Build­ing and filled the stalls with lo­cal food pur­vey­ors. To­day, up to 30,000 peo­ple sam­ple sea­sonal pro­duce at the Sat­ur­day Ferry Plaza Farm­ers Mar­ket, and thou­sands more shop at off­shoots there each Tues­day and Thurs­day.

“The mar­ket con­trib­uted to the re­al­iza­tion that the water­front could be vi­tal again,” says Dave Stock­dale, for­merly of the Cen­ter for Ur­ban Ed­u­ca­tion about Sus­tain­able Agri­cul­ture (CUESA), the or­ga­ni­za­tion that co­or­di­nates the mar­ket. “This demon­strated that, yes, peo­ple would come out here, and they would hang out and have a good time.”

Twenty- eight years later, San Francisco’s shore­line again buzzes with ac­tiv­ity. On week­ends, the E- Em­bar­cadero, the city’s new­est his­toric streetcar line, takes rid­ers along the water­front to des­ti­na­tions in­clud­ing Fish­er­man’s Wharf, Pier 39, the Ex­plorato­rium and AT&T Park. Con­struc­tion made the west­ern side of Fish­er­man’s Wharf friend­lier for pedes­tri­ans and cy­clists. Wharf vis­i­tors en­joy un­matched photo op­por­tu­ni­ties, fresh clam chow­der and ac­cess to the San Francisco Mar­itime Na­tional His­tor­i­cal Park; guests out be­fore 9 am might even catch some fish­ing in­dus­try ac­tion on Pier 45, home to the West Coast's largest con­cen­tra­tion of com­mer­cial fish pro­ces­sors and dis­trib­u­tors. Pier 39’s shops, mu­se­ums, street per­form­ers and sea lions cap­ti­vate guests, too, and many sport fish­ing and sight­see­ing tours depart from the area.

Prepa­ra­tions for the Amer­ica’s Cup sail­ing race, which took place on the San Francisco Bay in 2013, pro­duced many water­front de­vel­op­ments, in­clud­ing din­ing and en­ter­tain­ment venues on Pier 29 and the new James R. Her­man Cruise Ter­mi­nal at Pier 27. The ter­mi­nal has be­come the city’s new gate­way for cruise ship guests. They’re treated to views of Coit Tower, Al­ca­traz Is­land, the Golden Gate Bridge and other iconic Bay Area sites.

The Ex­plorato­rium moved to Pier 15 in 2013, and the mu­seum cap­i­tal­izes on its prime lo­ca­tion with a sec­ond-floor ob­ser­va­tory and a 27-foot out­door harp that sings as bay breezes blow. South of the Ferry Build­ing, the Golden State War­riors have bro­ken ground on the new water­front Chase Cen­ter in Mis­sion Bay. With its plaza, restau­rant and re­tail space and ad­ja­cent 5.5 acre bayfront park, the Mis­sion Bay de­vel­op­ment will re­vi­tal­ize the neigh­bor­hood south of AT&T Park, home of the 2010, 2012 and 2014 World Se­ries-win­ning San Francisco Gi­ants.

Com­ple­ment­ing these at­trac­tions are more than 60 water­front restau­rants—in­clud­ing sev­eral pop­u­lar break­fast spots and cafes with out­door seat­ing—plus count­less recre­ational ac­tiv­i­ties along the prom­e­nade that par­al­lels the Em­bar­cadero. Vis­i­tors can walk, jog, bike, skate or catch a pedi­cab, en­joy­ing spec­tac­u­lar bay views along the way.

“With each de­vel­op­ment on our piers, we ex­tend that prom­e­nade around the pier so that peo­ple can walk along the water’s edge,” says Monique Moyer, for­mer ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Port of San Francisco. “You can see the sights, be outdoors and get your ex­er­cise, and you can do it all with­out ever get­ting in a car.”

With buses, un­der­ground trains, ca­ble cars, street­cars and fer­ries op­er­at­ing within blocks of the water­front, pub­lic trans­porta­tion is the mode of choice for many. And, like it was at the turn of the cen­tury, the Ferry Build­ing is the shore­line’s shining star.

“It looks like it did 100 years ago…it’s re­ally a trans­for­ma­tion,” says Nolte. “It’s a gor­geous build­ing, and it’s full of life.”

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