“A Postindustrial Vision for SF’s Old Pier 70”
The redevelopment of Pier 70, San Francisco’s biggest waterfront project in a generation, into a bustling postindustrial neighborhood is steaming toward planning approvals.
A decade in the making, the transformation of the mostly mothballed 28-acre property has won widespread praise for its parks and historic preservation, for its arts and maker spaces, and for its public access to a waterfront that has been inaccessible for 150 years. It includes $765 million in public benefits, including $177 million in affordable housing, $442 million in parks and infrastructure spending, and $62 million in transportation improvements.
But even as it heads for likely endorsement Thursday at the Planning Commission, some Potrero Hill and Dogpatch residents, as well as housing advocates, are balking at the developer’s unwillingness to lay out the exact mix of housing and commercial space to be created at the site.
The draft environmental study on which the commission will vote Thursday calls for 1,100 to 2,150 housing units, of which 30 percent would be affordable. How much office space would be built is also up in the air, with a lower range of 1.1 million square feet and a maximum of 2 million square feet.
J.R. Eppler, president of the Potrero Boosters neighborhood group, said developer Forest City should commit now to building a specific number of units at the upper end of the range.
“We have concerns about the broad band of possible outcomes,” Eppler said. “We would like to see the project move toward a more residential outcome.”
And the Council of Community Housing Organizations, which advocates for affordable housing, said building the maximum amount of office space at Pier 70 would “exacerbate our jobs-housing imbalance.”
“We feel very strongly that at this point the Planning Commission should be approving the maximum residential scenario and not the commercial scenario,” said council Co-Director Peter Cohen. “The fact of the matter is we have a housing crisis, and so we think at this point Forest City should be pushed by the Planning Commission and the board to do what is needed.”
Forest City says the lack of certainty on the precise mix of uses is a reflection of uncertainties around the southern portion of the 28-acre site. Generally, a quarter of the property works best for office space; a quarter for residential; and a quarter for arts, small-scale production, open space and retail.
But the best use of the final 7 acres is more ambiguous because it abuts two industrial properties — a PG&E switch yard and an old power plant, which are also slated to be redeveloped. It’s possible that contamination from the two properties spills over to the adjacent Pier 70 land. What becomes of those properties, and the extent of environmental cleanup that will be required, will be unclear for several years.
“We may find that future conditions make it cost-prohibitive to do residential,” said Forest City Senior Vice President Jack Sylvan.
And in fact it’s Forest City that has spent years pushing for including housing at Pier 70. In its original request for proposals, the Port of San Francisco envisioned projects that were a mix of office, retail and open space — everything but housing. The port was concerned that housing would conflict with the heavy ship repair activities just north of the development area.
Forest City fought for a residential component because it didn’t want the development to feel like a sterile, suburban office park and lack the vibrancy of a city neighborhood.
“We have actually come quite a long way,” Sylvan said.
If the project wins approvals at the Planning Commission, Port Commission and Board of Supervisors, it will take about a year to start work. Phase one includes the $100 million restoration of the historic Building 12, where steel plates for ships’ hulls were once manufactured. Building 12 is being billed as a “makers’ hall,” a 1½-acre collection of small makers, retail and office space that will be lifted 8 feet off the ground to accommodate sea-level rise.
“That is the most complicated piece of the project and the greatest opportunity,” said Sylvan, who characterized it as a “funky Pier 70 version of the Ferry Building.”
In addition, the first phase will consist of the conversion of another historic warehouse, Building 2, into 120 units of housing and another 250-unit apartment complex. The two renovated historic buildings will spill out onto an urban plaza that will connect to the open shoreline.
Dogpatch resident Susan Eslick, an artist who has been active in the neighborhood for decades, said she doesn’t have a problem with letting Forest City decide some of the uses late in the process.
“When use has been mandated, it’s not always effective,” she said. “I’m more about design sensitivity and the open space and making sure it feels authentic for the neighborhood.”
Combined with the future development of the PG&E switch yard, the power plant and India Basin to the south, there is a chance to open up a huge swath of the bayfront, she added.
“I think the most exciting thing is to have access to the water and the Bay Trail — that is what has been lacking,” she said. “Here we are so close to the shore and it’s completely and utterly inaccessible.”
Bruce Huie, president of the Dogpatch Neighborhood Association, said the project has his full support.
“I think it’s moving in the right direction at the right pace,” Huie said. “Any effort to place encumbrances in front of it would not be wise.”
Mayor Ed Lee said that Pier 70 is “critical to reaching our goal of 30,000 new and rehabilitated units of housing by 2020 and ensuring our city has a strong middle class for years to come.
“With new housing, parks and rehabilitated historic buildings, we are re-envisioning the central waterfront for the next generation of San Franciscans,” he said.