Saturday, October 15, 2011

On the Waterfront

I am doing research for my next fiction work that primarily takes place along San Francisco’s waterfront. I am spending a fair amount of time there: walking, eating, and of course drinking. Waterfronts intrigue us - beaches, marshes, the littoral edge between the land and the sea. Biologists tell us this is where life may have begun and it’s still the source of much of the life in the sea. But we humans can certainly change it for our own use. Piers, wharves, docks, harbors, jetties, breakwaters are just a few of the words we use to describe our efforts to access the lakes and oceans. We probably have as many words for our waterfronts as Eskimos have to describe snow. But words are just that, words. It is how we physically treat this edge that concerns me and this week’s missive.

Now, after a year and a half kind reader, you know I am a lover of cities and things built. But is pains me when politics trump good design and progress. San Francisco’s simplistic belief (eventually codified in law) that only waterfront-oriented things should be allowed along San Francisco’s edge (especially within the urban areas) shut down waterfront development for a good chunk of the past forty years. No shipping container industry (see Oakland), no hotels (see Boston and Miami), no cruise terminal (see Vancouver and Miami), only the endless wall of empty warehouses from a bygone era now used as parking lots and storage. San Francisco Bay is seen in flashes as you drive down the Embarcadero. Chain link seems to be the favorite decorator item. There is embarrassing kitsch, some of the worst and best, in the “Fisherman’s Wharf” area, that suck a few dollars out of tourist’s pockets – but then again it does parallel some of the reality TV shows we American’s watch.

But then, like a mugger, the 1989 Earthquake struck. There used to be, like Seattle and Boston, a freeway between the City’s urban core and the water. For years the City fathers and mothers argued over taking it down, their excuses were legend and now humorous. God, acting as the ultimate city redevelopment administrator, fixed the problem and changed the debate. It became the catalyst of a wonderful waterfront north of the base of the Bay Bridge.

The Giants, San Francisco’s World Champion baseball team, argued and fought to build a downtown stadium, political futures were won and lost in this debate, as well as millions of dollars. Now this incredible waterfront stadium (sixty homeruns have landed in the Bay) host’s football games, operas, motocross, as well as 81 National League baseball games. The growth along King Street is short of miraculous. I remember thinking about buying a warehouse in this area back in the mid-80s, was something like $150 K; what is it worth now? Again, it is this vision thing.

Mission Bay is turning the lands south of China Basin and King Street into a modern wonderland of bio high tech and housing straddling Third Street, a new waterfront park is proposed, plazas and urban development stretch for a mile and a half south of AT&T Ballpark. The wars fought were legend, books will be written.

Now with the upcoming America’s Cup, more changes are going to be forced on San Francisco’s waterfront. Deadlines are a wonderful thing. For better or worse, grand redevelopments that need to meet an unchangeable deadline push the envelope and the politicians. The Olympics and World Trade Fairs fall into this category. And now, again for better or worse, so does the America’s Cup. For Pete’s sake it’s just a silly sailboat race between very, very, very rich people sailing waterborne suicide machines. Seventy-two foot catamarans built of high tech carbon fiber, with bulletproof sails, and pushed by software. They fly (literally) thirty miles per hour or more, and crash in the most spectacular ways. And they will change the waterfront even more.

And I am in favor of it. Just like the collapse of the Embarcadero Freeway in 1989 and the opening of AT&T Park (PacBell Park then) in 2000, the impacts of grand plans (or disasters), change the perspective of a city and its view of itself. And maybe, just maybe, we will see more of the Bay when this is all done.

Stay tuned . . . .

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