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San Francisco Waterfront's Biggest Opportunities, Hurdles

San Francisco’s waterfront is on the verge of a renaissance and several developments will create public space, amenities and much-needed housing. Developers, designers and environmental consultants came together last week during Bisnow's San Francisco's Future of the Waterfront event to discuss recent projects and how they will transform the city.


Panelists, above, including Ramboll Environ principal and event moderator Michael Keinath, FivePoint regional VP Ivy Greaner, Build Inc president and partner Lou Vasquez, WRA Inc president Geoff Smick and Perkins+Will design principal Jeff Till, told a 200-person crowd about the opportunities and challenges many of these waterfront developments face.


Port of San Francisco executive director Elaine Forbes said the seawall is among the biggest challenges. The seawall is all liquefiable fill and needs significant repairs to be able to withstand a major earthquake, she said.

Elaine said the mayor has budgeted $8M toward the seawall and the next step is to take data from a recent in-depth planning study to figure out which locations are top priority for improvements. Repairs will be done on the land-side, meaning it will be disruptive to the 24 million people who go up and down the waterfront each year.

She said development partners will continue to play a major role in this endeavor, especially since "all our waterfront assets need to become adaptable."

She said the port will continue to partner with developers who can be “patient and bold” and can think creatively to address these issues.


Forest City VP of development Jack Sylvan said Pier 70 is a “great example about how public/private partnerships is the right way to solve these issues.” The advantage to working in a partnership is port officials bring institutional knowledge, relationships with regulatory agencies and can help get state legislation to support these projects.

"There are very few opportunities in the West Coast to particularly create a new district where you can leverage the investments in a public realm and harvest long term," Jack said of building on the waterfront.

He said one of the unique challenges to addressing sea level rise is how to design a project while addressing how sea level conditions will be in the future.


Orton Development project manager Will Johnson said Orton's project includes a fair number of historical buildings. Orton will raise the buildings enough to protect the site from a 50-year storm surge. He said leveraging a public/private partnership is a great way to save these historic buildings.

He said the Pier 70 area has been disconnected for many years from the local Dogpatch community and the development will reincorporate this neighbor into the larger area.

"It used to be the shipyard where everyone worked," Will said. "It's a privilege to be able to bring the people back."


Build Inc president and partner Lou Vasquez, whose company is working on India Basin, said the design of waterfront projects needs to focus on connectivity. There needs to be a “connection to the water, connection to the city and a connection to the neighborhood.”

Among the biggest challenges developers face is needing to create a new narrative so problems like transportation and affordable housing can be addressed effectively instead of sticking with the “NIMBY mentality.”

He said people can deny sea level is rising or deny the need for more infrastructure, but these are issues that are still happening and need to be addressed.

“We need to be looking at this as a great opportunity rather than something that needs to be kept away.”


FivePoint regional VP Ivy Greaner, above with SmithGroup JJR VP and office director Joyce Polhamus and VP and studio leader Juhee Cho, said FivePoint’s projects at The Shipyard and Treasure Island will create 20,000 housing units with 4,000 to 5,000 affordable units. The bayfront is the “last big opportunity in San Francisco to do anything of any amount of quantity and scale.”

She said the benefit of these projects is FivePoint has been being able to “work hand-in-hand with San Francisco.”

She said they are also working toward creating bus routes and expanding ferry service, which will be instrumental in getting people to and from the Treasure Island development.

The downside is these projects will take years, but a need for affordable housing and better transportation is a real issue right now. She said FivePoint's projects are on a 35- to 40-year timeline and they are probably about at the 15- to 20-year mark.


Despite the huge opportunities these developments create, developers continue to face strict regulatory frameworks that create additional time constraints and requirements on these projects. Panelists discussed CEQA reform and easing up restrictions on using infill in the bay among other regulatory restrictions.


Holmes Structures principal and CEO Zander Sivyer, above with BAR Architects principal and director of marketing Linda Crouse, said the waterfront offers a rich history and “if piers are developed in a thoughtful way, we can deliver a community unlike anything else.”

He said the regulatory environment and regulations on waterfront development end up restricting development and make it more difficult to create economically stable projects.


Perkins+Will design principal Jeff Till said the “regulatory frameworks need to get together and adopt a more aggressive attitude.”

He said a lot of the issue will come down to getting voters and constituents to understand there is a design solution for many of the problems the city will face.

“We have new information for something staring us in the face, and we need a regulatory framework to address it," Jeff said.


WRA Inc president Geoff Smick said with regulations dictating there must be pubic access along the bayfront, there are more parklands being incorporated into developments. The downside is the agencies only create longer time constraints on developments.

Geoff said there needs to be more of a regional focus on these projects since the issues affect everybody. He said these developments will be instrumental in reshaping the city.

“The southeast developments will really transform the city. They will create destinations for people to come from out of town and create a new area for tourists.”