On the water­front — where old meets new

San Francisco Chronicle (Sunday) - - NEWS - By Carl Nolte Carl Nolte is a San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle colum­nist. His col­umn ap­pears every Sun­day. Email: [email protected]­i­cle.com Twit­ter: @carl­noltesf

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.

Paul Kuroda / Special to The Chron­i­cle

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.

John Blan­chard / The Chron­i­cle

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