San Francisco’s shoreline was one of the busiest areas of foot traffic in the world in the early 20th century. However, following the construction of the Bay Bridge and the decline of ferries, the area fell into decline. The rise of the automobile led to the Embarcadero Freeway being built in the 1960s, improving auto access to San Francisco but dividing the waterfront from downtown.
But the combination of a natural disaster and community opposition led to a total transformation of the shoreline and the creation of one of the most dynamic waterfronts in the country. After being severely damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the highway was torn down in 1991. After the freeway had been cleared, massive redevelopment begun as a grand palm-lined boulevard (named the Embarcadero after the ill-fated elevated freeway) was built, squares and plazas were created and restored, and railroad lines were extended to run along it.
Sited precisely where the freeway once walled off San Francisco’s waterfront, the new five-acre Ferry Building Plaza provides needed public open space and access to the water’s edge. The plaza accommodates a transit stop as well as ferry boat passengers, and complements the historic Ferry Building. Built in 1891 with the ferry industry at its peak, the Building is now an upscale commercial office center and local food marketplace; this mix of uses brings activities and visitors to the plaza. Other features of the plaza include the colonnade of palm trees that mark the center of the city at San Francisco water’s edge, the streetcar service restored by citizen volunteers, and the decorative trolley sheds designed to protect waiting passengers from the sun. The programming of the Plaza shows how important it is to complement open space with a density and mix of uses—the error of past designs can be seen in Market Street, which reaches the Embarcadero one block past the Ferry Building, missing an incredible opportunity to lead San Francisco’s most important thoroughfare into a historic plaza.
Another destination along the Embarcadero boulevard is Rincon Park, a public space that echoes shapes of the harbor and establishes a new and lively destination on the San Francisco Bay. It is about one-half mile up from AT&T Park, the waterfront stadium built for the San Francisco Giants baseball team in the mid-1990s. Designed by Philadelphia’s Olin Partnership, the two-acre parcel uses grass, trees, stone walls, and public art to provide citizens with views of the Bay and Berkeley Hills. Its canted lawn-berms are designed to protect the park from traffic on the Embarcadero. A public space designed to attract people, Rincon Park also houses 20,000 square feet of commercial space to maintain a high level of activity. The $2 million price tag for the park’s grass and trees will be financed by GAP Inc., whose world headquarters front the park from across the Embarcadero. Part of the commercial revenue will be dedicated to managing and maintaining the open space.
There is also Crissy Field, a major public park and seashore beach that replaces an obsolete military field. The field is the new gateway to San Francisco, one-hundred acres of open space where the city meets the bay. It is an interesting example of environmental reclamation in which a defunct industrial use is replaced by public open space. Entirely man-made, Crissy Park comprises three landscape domains: an always-changing tidal basin, a rolling lawn, and a picnic area sheltered by newly-created dunes. Crissy Field gives visitors the opportunity to stroll the promenade, have a picnic, participate in programmed activities, or simply enjoy the views. Crissy Field was restored thanks to $34.4 million in private donations and community support, and was opened in May 2001. Part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the largest urban national park in the world, the Field attracts 2-4 million visitors per year, depending on San Fran’s quirky weather.