On the waterfront — where old meets new
The waterfront, from just past the ballpark south almost to 22nd Street, is San Francisco’s new coast of dreams. It starts along Terry A. Francois Boulevard with the Mission Bay neighborhood and the new Warriors arena on one side and a view of a mothballed ship repair yard on the other.
Six big, old shipyard cranes stand on the horizon, like a kind of industrial Stonehenge. The shipyard has been closed for nearly two years, but just south, at Pier 70, the bones of a related industrial area are being transformed into something entirely new and different.
When it’s finished, “you will be able to see the past, present and future all in one place,” said Jack Sylvan, a vice president of Brookfield Properties Development, which is building a major part of the Pier 70 project.
All this waterfront land belongs to the citizens of San Francisco and is managed by the Port Commission, which leases it out. Nowhere else is it possible to see such a contrast between the old and new San Francisco.
The past is always with us in this city by the bay. The city grew up isolated on the West Coast from the rest of the country. In the Gold Rush year of 1849, Peter Donahue started a blacksmith shop at the corner of First and Mission streets. It grew into a forge, then a foundry, and then the mighty Union Iron Works. In 1884, Donahue moved the operation south to Potrero Point, on the edge of Mission Bay. The Union Iron Works developed into arguably the largest industrial complex in the West. The first steelhulled ship ever built on the Pacific Ocean came out of its yard. It built barges, cargo ships, tankers, ferryboats, warships, including battleships, cruisers and two of the first four U.S. Navy submarines. Bethlehem Steel acquired the complex, and as many as 18,000 people worked at the Pier 70 facility during World War II, building and repairing ships.
It was big for years. San Francisco always had a soft edge — an office city, a city of poets and writers — but it had a steel heart. It was a working stiff’s town.
Things began to change. Perhaps you noticed. The last big ship to be built in the city was the destroyer escort Bradley, launched in 1965. And then all the commercial ships moved to Oakland.
The repair yard hung on for years, a familiar sight and sound at the foot of Potrero Hill — the blue flash of welders at work at night, the toot of the steam whistle echoing off the hills when the shifts changed.
The city bought the yard from Bethlehem for $1 to keep the blue-collar industry in business. For a while it worked. Even giant cruise ships used the yard’s dry docks. There were several tenants. British-owned BAE Systems was the last. BAE sold its lease to Puglia Engineering, but the deal went sour and the yard closed — maybe for good — in May 2017.
The port has been looking for a new operator ever since. Gerry Roybal, the port’s maritime marketing manager, said the city is “in discussions” with possible tenants to revive the shipyard.
“I’m optimistic,” he said. “I think something will turn up, and we’ll turn a corner in six months or so.”
But just south of the old shipyard gates, they really have turned the corner. Twentieth Street has become a historic district, with upscale bars like the Third Rail (cocktails with fresh, seasonal ingredients) and hip restaurants.
The classic red brick 1896 shipyard headquarters building now houses Juul Labs, which makes vapor cigarettes. Up the block, Uber tests advanced technologies in a building converted from a big machine shop.
Not far from there, a company called Gusto has found a new home in an old Union Iron Works building. Gusto provides payroll, HR and benefits services for small, modern companies. Gusto says its mission is “to create a world where work empowers a better life.” Somewhat different from building ships. The old building retains its industrial bones — like steel girders — but the floor is as highly polished. as an ice rink. Visitors to Gusto are asked to remove their shoes.
The 20th Street historic core is only one part of the Pier 70 project. Just south, crews are at work on Brookfield Development’s area. Brookfield acquired Forest City, the former developer, and plans a new neighborhood of 1,500 to 3,000 residential units, more than a million square feet of commercial offices and 9 acres of new parks and open space.
Old buildings will be reused. One is a steel structure that will be turned into a Makers Market, a combination manufacturing and retail space that Brookfield’s Sylvan calls “a funky version of the Ferry Building.”
“We are not trying to freeze-dry the past,” he said.
Unused cranes are relics of an era when building and repairing ships dominated this stretch of San Francisco’s waterfront. To the south of the old ship repair yard, a major development project is planned at Pier 70 that will create a new neighborhood of housing, offices and parks.