San Francisco's Mission Bay Renewed [Financial Times]

Financial Times, January 13 2007


It took more than 20 years to negotiate an acceptable plan
but Mission Bay, San Francisco’s newest neighbourhood,
is now thriving, writes Tracey Taylor


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It was described as “the last great hole in the fabric of San Francisco” – 300 acres of blighted land with an abandoned railway yard that once served the city’s bustling docks. Then, in 1998, after more than two decades of tangled planning negotiations, a decision was reached on how to fill it. Today, Mission Bay is a brand new neighbourhood emerging in the middle of a world city, an urbanist vision in the throes of creation.

Strolling through the area, which is just south of downtown San Francisco on its eastern waterfront, one can see the transformation first-hand. Flanked on three sides by the bay, embracing a water channel, Mission Creek, and incorporating an existing public-transit infrastructure, it is a promising site in different stages. Parts of it are still scraggy tracts of wasteland, while others are construction areas with buildings rising at breakneck speed.

There are also now quarters with housing, shops, offices and parks. And two venerable San Francisco institutions have moved in, helping to jump-start regeneration. At Mission Bay’s north gateway is a retro-style stadium for the beloved Giants baseball team built in 2000. South of the channel, a University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), campus dedicated to life sciences is in its second phase of construction, with several teaching and accommodation buildings, a terracotta-hued community centre, leafy plazas and an imposing Richard Serra sculpture. A cancer hospital will complete the biotechnology centre.

The broader $4bn-plus master plan for Mission Bay calls for 6,000 homes, 28 per cent of which will be “affordable” units designed to alleviate the city’s housing shortage; 5m sq ft of commercial office space; a hotel; and integrated parkland.

One of the first projects was a residential block of affordable housing on King Street, north of the creek. There is also a community centre for senior citizens and the first new library built in San Francisco for more than 40 years. Linda Sobuta, principal architect at SMWM, which designed the residential building, describes the arrival of a Safeway grocery store in 2003, as a turning point. “It wasn’t a neighbourhood until Safeway moved in,” she says.

On a walking tour, Sobuta says she’s enjoying watching Mission Bay become an “urban village”. Its grid, she explains, is based on the historic Spanish vara unit that emphasises short blocks with view corridors and pedestrian-friendly access ways. She points to the promenade that has been created alongside the creek with its attractive slabs of single-unit paving stone and high-quality street furniture. The landscaping on the water’s edge has been designed to create a natural habitat for indigenous birds. And the owners of a cluster of houseboats further down the channel have been promised they can stay.

Like any blossoming neighbourhood, Mission Bay has yet to burrow its way into the city’s consciousness. “It’s not yet sizzling. It needs to be scuffed up, to get the patina of use,” says John King, architecture critic at the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper. “But it’s fascinating to see a neighbourhood pop up out of thin air. And it’s a very good long-term investment for San Francisco.”

Donna Dell’Era moved into the area eight months ago. Her top-floor condominium was one of the last available at 235 Berry, a smart residential complex overlooking the creek, where three-bedroom, three-bathroom “townhome-style” homes sold for $1.3m. Dell’Era, who works for a public utility company in the city, describes herself and her husband as empty nesters. They sold their large home in Marin County, across the bay, when their fourth child went to college. “My pipedream for when we retire is to swap condos with people around the world,” she says. “And what better place than this? The interiors are very nice and it has views of water and the city.” Dell’Era also appreciates the neighbourhood feel. She and her husband enjoy meeting fellow dog-owners on walks by the creek and, before Christmas, they attended a tree-trimming party for their building’s residents.

Nelson Rising, the former chairman and chief executive of Catellus Development Corporation, which recreated Mission Bay, also bought a condominium. “I love the convenience,” he says. “I love having restaurants nearby and the fact that I can walk everywhere.” It takes about 15 minutes to walk from his home to the Embarcadero, the foodie heaven that is San Francisco’s Ferry Building and on to the main shopping drag of Market Street.

Catellus, which has since been merged into ProLogis, won the rights to develop Mission Bay after a long history of planning applications that stumbled at the starting block. Rising is credited with having had the vision to craft a proposal that would win approval from notoriously outspoken city residents, who invariably file lawsuits to oppose new projects. “Nelson understands the complexities at the political, environmental and community level,” says Doug Gardner, who led the Mission Bay project at Catellus. “He created the goodwill to make it happen.”

Crucial to the plan was the landmark deal that Rising, with the help of then San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, engineered to attract UCSF, which was considering alternative locations. The university was offered 43 acres of land free, a donation valued at more than $170m. Rising also attributes the proposal’s success to its sensitivity to public policy imperatives. “It included a system of parks, integrated affordable housing and was very transit oriented,” he says. The extent of citizen consultation also helped. “The planning team was respectful of the public realm.”

One controversial issue was building height. In the end restrictions were agreed so that no building is taller than 160ft, roughly the same height as the ballpark’s main tower. This is a point of contention for some. “San Francisco used to be violently against height but you only have to look at the city’s skyline to see to what extent that has changed,” King says. “The danger with long-range planning is that it’s too time-consuming to revisit it. Now we have a collection of short, squat buildings at Mission Bay.” But residents of Potrero Hill, to the west of the area, made it clear that they wouldn’t tolerate having their bay views obstructed.

There is one wrinkle in Mission Bay’s grand plan: the dotcom bust and subsequent economic fall-out that left a recommendation for 5m sq ft of commercial space looking optimistic. “So far they have only built 600,000 sq ft due to lack of demand,” says Amy Neches, senior project manager for Mission Bay at the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency. “It will take time. It’s a 20- to 30-year development project and it’s based on the knowledge that real estate markets work in cycles.”

Otherwise, Mission Bay appears to tick most of the boxes for a grand-scale, mixed-use urban development. Jim Chappell, president of public policy think-tank San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, which consulted on the process, deems it to be a “great success”. “The big surprise is the aggressiveness with which the university has been able to develop its projects. They have led the private sector and been the engine of the project,” he says. Chappell also believes having a single developer was an asset. “Mission Bay demonstrates one of the advantages of a large-scale co-ordinated development. You can’t provide all the amenities with a parcel-by-parcel approach.” Perhaps most importantly, he adds, the area’s residential market flourished immediately. “Housing has flown off the shelf.”

It’s possible that Mission Bay, one of the largest ongoing urban developments in the US, will one day be seen as a model of how it’s done. At the very least people might be drawn there for a little sunshine. In a city notorious for its fog and damp, the developers are keen to point out that the new neighbourhood offers not only terrific new lifestyle but also a superior microclimate.

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