Developing San Francisco’s Waterfront in the Age of Sea-Level Rise
The Port of San Francisco’s 20-year, multibillion-dollar vision for the waterfront is designed to be adaptable to rising sea levels far into the future.
ULI MEMBER-ONLY CONTENT: In the coming decades, San Francisco’s waterfront will be transformed. The Port of San Francisco owns 7.5 miles (12 km) of property along San Francisco Bay stretching from the famed tourist district at Fisherman’s Wharf down to India Basin in the city’s southeast corner. The north end is already bustling with tourists, office workers, and residents. But south of the Bay Bridge, the shoreline is dotted with surface parking lots and underused industrial zones—remnants of the years before most of the Bay Area’s shipping industry moved across the water to Oakland and Richmond. The Port’s 20-year, multibillion-dollar vision for the waterfront includes the public and private development of entire new neighborhoods, commercial and retail space, affordable and market-rate housing, expanded ferry transit, parks, and promenades, much of which is already underway.
Of course, new development will not be the only thing reshaping the waterfront in the years to come. San Francisco Bay is projected to rise by one to two feet (0.3 to 0.6 m) by 2050 and as much as seven feet (2 m) by 2100. With that rising high tide will come storm surges and flooding that will threaten the city’s transportation and sewer networks and waterfront neighborhoods. In the absence of action, parts of the waterfront will eventually be inundated by the Bay.
It is a challenge the Port is tackling head on. Every project along the Bay is required to incorporate design elements for climate resilience and plan for future adaptation. Work has begun to rebuild the old, crumbling seawall to modern seismic standards. Complex funding strategies are in place to pay for the work now and in the future. Diving into the planning and execution of the seawall, the downtown ferry terminal, and the new residential and commercial districts at Pier 70 and Mission Rock sheds valuable light on how a booming waterfront city is addressing the climate resilience challenges that can be predicted now and planning—to the extent possible—for the unforeseen shocks and stresses of climate change that are certain to follow.
Prioritizing a 100-Year Problem
Making the entire 7.5-mile (12 km) stretch of Port-owned waterfront resilient to sea-level rise will be astronomically expensive, well beyond what any city could fund in short order. Luckily, the time scale of sea-level rise gives the Port some room to prioritize funding for the most pressing projects.
“For the first phase, we’re really taking the criteria of, ‘What are the most vulnerable locations?’” says Diane Oshima, the Port’s deputy director of planning and environment. “Where are the most people being served? What are the life-safety factors? Where are the critical infrastructure and disaster response locations we need to prioritize to protect?”
San Francisco’s modern waterfront would not exist without its seawall. Erected more than 100 years ago before seismic standards were established, the three-mile-long (5 km) seawall created the foundation for the infill that extended San Francisco into the Bay and on which the north end of the waterfront is built.
Today, the crumbling wall is extremely vulnerable to the threat of a major earthquake, which could hit at any time. When it does, the seawall could slump forward, damaging the waterfront buildings above it and utility lines and pipes below the street. In a worst-case scenario, Bay water could also flood Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) and San Francisco Municipal Railway (MUNI) tunnels, potentially shutting down major pieces of the region’s transportation network. That means that reconstruction of the seawall is top priority—after all, the benefit of climate resilience work would be nullified if the seawall cracked during an earthquake and the city flooded regardless of sea level.
In 2018, voters approved a $425 million bond measure to begin planning and construction on two-thirds of a mile (1 km) of the most vulnerable sections of the seawall. The Port estimates that upgrading the entire three-mile (5 km) seawall with seismic and sea-level-rise improvements will cost at least $5 billion.
Future-Proofing the Ferry
The Downtown San Francisco Ferry Terminal also has gotten top priority in the Port’s waterfront plan, both to meet swelling customer demand and because the terminal is essential emergency infrastructure. In the case of a major earthquake, flooding, or other emergency that shuts down land transportation, ferries are essential for getting people out of the city and getting emergency responders in.
As recently as 10 years ago, the ferry system was struggling to attract riders. But the region’s population boom and the traffic jams and crowded transit that came with it created a new generation of ferry riders. The existing three-gate terminal could run about 130 trips a day and was too small to accommodate the 13,000 to 14,000 daily riders.
The newly completed, $90 million first phase of the expansion, which opened on August 12, extended an existing gate and added two new gates, tripling the number of ferries that can travel in and out of the terminal each day. In addition, the project created a new half-acre (0.2 ha) public plaza built on pylons over the water and added sheltered waiting areas for passengers. Because the terminal is emergency infrastructure, it is built to withstand the highest-magnitude earthquakes.
The new gates and plaza are built three feet (1 m) higher than the surrounding buildings in preparation for the 50-year sea-level-rise outlook. The site also includes adaptive elements to deal with 100-year sea-level rise when the time comes. For example, there are curbs at the water’s edge that can be raised as needed in the future.
Though simply elevating new infrastructure is at the core of the sea-level-rise preparation, the project has several clever elements to help adapt to future rise and flooding and navigate the challenges of building climate-proofed infrastructure in a historic urban environment.
The ferry “docks” where passengers board are actually floating barges connected to the gate by long gangways. Those gangways must meet Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) ramp angle standards regardless of the tide height. To ensure that this remains the case, the gangways were built longer than they currently need to be so that in future decades when high tide is several feet higher, the ramp angle will still be in ADA compliance.
“On the surface of it, it’s a relatively simple and elegant design that’s straightforward. But there’s a lot behind the scenes to account for a future condition that’s not what we have today,” says Kevin Connolly, planning and development manager at the Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA), the agency that oversees ferry operations.
Similarly, the plaza is built with terraced, amphitheater-style steps up to a high point that is above projected flood levels. For now, those terraces provide a public seating space that connects to the surrounding street level. In the future, the design ensures that there will still be a dry gathering place in emergencies.
Because the Ferry Terminal was built to new sea-level standards before adjacent, existing buildings were amended, designers had to overcome some challenges. The expanded terminal surrounds the historic Agriculture Building, which someday will be raised to adapt to sea-level rise. The ferry gangway on the south side of the Agricultural Building is a removable bridge rather than a permanent installation. When the time comes to renovate the Agricultural Building, the bridge can be removed to allow a barge to dock in order to stage the waterside construction.
As with any major project, funding for the Ferry Terminal expansion came from a variety of sources. Connolly says that two sources were particularly essential for getting the terminal expansion complete. The first was the 2006 voter-approved Proposition 1B Goods Movement Emission Reduction Program, which provides transportation agencies with funding for air quality work and other climate resilience projects. The second was a grant from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). Connolly says that the terminal expansion was highlighted by the FTA as an “innovative project,” which helped WETA get extra responsiveness from permitting agencies and keep the project moving forward.
New Waterfront Neighborhoods
South of the Bay Bridge, work is underway on several major projects that will create housing, commercial space, parks, shoreline access, and more—projects that illustrate how a city can develop waterfront property knowing that sea-level rise is on the horizon.
At Pier 48, just south of the San Francisco Giants’ Oracle Park, the Major League Baseball team’s ownership group is partnering with developer Tishman Speyer to transform a massive surface parking lot and the pier into a new waterfront micro neighborhood called Mission Rock. The 28-acre (11 ha) site will be home to about 1,200 rental units, 40 percent of which will be rent-restricted affordable housing for low- and moderate-income households; up to 1.4 million square feet (130,000 sq m) of commercial space; 250,000 square feet (23,000 sq m) for retail and restaurants; and eight acres (3 ha) of new public parks and open space. The project is estimated to cost at least $1 billion. Construction began in 2019 and is expected to be completed in four phases over the next five to 10 years.
“The ballpark itself is actually on Port land and we’re one of the Port’s largest tenants,” says Fran Weld, the Giants’ senior vice president for strategy and development. “With baseball, because there are so many games a year and the ballparks can be so well knit into urban communities, there’s a nice alignment of creating an urban ballpark experience as well.”
To account for sea-level rise, the entire site is being raised 5.5 feet (1.7 m), a relatively simple engineering feat since the site was a mostly blank parking lot to begin with. To preserve shoreline access, Weld says that the park space is meant to be “a demonstration project of how to create shoreline protection for the height we need while balancing reintroduction of habitat for native species.”
The park on the north end of the site will feature restored wetlands, a beach at water level, and a set of terraced tidal pools. Over time, as the Bay rises, the terraces will fill in and the beach will be submerged. Eventually, when the tide rises to expected 2100 levels, the shoreline will need a parapet for further protection. But by building adaptable waterfront infrastructure instead of erecting a seawall, waterfront access can be preserved for decades to come.
A mile and a half (2.4 km) south of Mission Rock, work is underway on a redevelopment of the 69-acre (28 ha) Pier 70, a historic shipbuilding and repair site that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Union Iron Works Historic District. Eventually, Pier 70 will house a new park, a renovated historic district, ship repair facilities, and a new 28-acre (11 ha) neighborhood.
In 2018, developer Brookfield Properties broke ground on the 28-acre (11 ha) first phase of the work. The project will include as many as 2,150 residential units, 30 percent of which will be rent-restricted affordable housing; up to 1.75 million square feet (163,000 sq m) of commercial office space; and upwards of 240,000 square feet (22,000 sq m) of retail, arts, and light-industrial space, including a new waterfront arts facility. Brookfield is rehabilitating and reusing three of the historic structures on the site and including nine acres (3.6 ha) of new parks and open space. The project is being built in three phases over 10 to 15 years.
As at Mission Rock, much of the climate resilience on site will come in the form of elevating the ground by five to 10 feet (1.5 to 3 m). Elevating a historic site with an eye toward historic preservation presents more challenges than starting with a blank slate, however. For example, in order to preserve one of the historic buildings on site, Brookfield had to raise the entire structure 10 feet (3 m) off the ground so that they could elevate the ground underneath, before setting the structure down in its final position.
“All the existing infrastructure and buildings forced us to go block by block on how to design and tie all this in,” says Catherine Reilly, Brookfield’s senior development director. “But having that historic fabric there is the biggest attraction of the site overall. We needed more creativity but wouldn’t have had it any other way.”
Brookfield’s project is the first opportunity to provide public water access at Pier 70. As at Mission Rock, the developer decided to take an adaptation approach on the shoreline in order to preserve that access for as long as possible. The site features old finger piers that jut into the bay. The new open space will abut the shoreline and the finger piers will feature a shoreline path that will get the public close to the water. Eventually, that open space will be lost to the bay as sea level rises.
“We could’ve put in a seawall and basically raised that whole area,” Reilly says. “But we would’ve lost the historic piers and lost existing shoreline access. Ultimately, we’ll have to let the area be given back to the bay, but for [the] adjacent Dogpatch neighborhood community to have access to waterfront was hugely important.”
Paying for Future Adaptation
Both Mission Rock and Pier 70 will generate revenue for the Port through ground leases and other fees. They will also generate climate resilience funding to help the Port pay for the adaptation work that it knows it will need as conditions change, but which cannot be planned 50 to 100 years out.
Commercial and retail spaces at both sites are included in Community Facilities Districts (CFDs), a funding mechanism that charges a certain fee per square foot. For example, at Pier 70, the CFD rate is likely to be between $3.45 and $5.12 per square foot ($37.13 and $55.11 per sq m). Both sites are also subject to an Infrastructure Financing District special tax that captures growth in property tax revenue.
The money is pooled by the Port and will be used to fund future climate adaption projects at Mission Rock, Pier 70, and other sites.
“We’re effectively trading land value today for future revenue in coming decades,” says Rebecca Benassini, the Port’s assistant deputy director of waterfront development projects. “It’s a real tradeoff we’re making at the front end because we recognize that the managers and occupants in the future are going to need this revenue stream and tool. . . . It’s a very strange thing to think of. It will be my children’s children thinking about what to do.”
Oshima, the deputy director of the Port, says that it is too early to draw major lessons from their experience. After all, there are many decades and billions of dollars’ worth of construction to be completed in the years to come. But she hopes that the work they are doing now will help the public understand how important those future projects will be, especially given the steep price tag that comes with climate resilience work.
“Ultimately, what we’re doing in our policies and with our capital investments has to resonate with the citizenry about why they’re a good idea or how they actually help the community become more resilient,” Oshima says. “I think that one thing that we have done that I’m proud of is we’re investing time just to have the conversation . . . spending time to talk about what resilience is and how it affects our community. If people come to understand resilience is about keeping communities safe, we can build the support we need.”
JOSH COHEN is a freelance reporter in the San Francisco Bay area who covers housing, homelessness, transportation, and other city issues.