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Waterfront Redevelopment: A Balancing Act Of Public Access And Rising Seas

Development that simultaneously provides social equity, addresses sea-level rise, provides affordable housing and satisfies a myriad of stakeholders while being financially feasible does not come easily.

A gathering of commercial real estate professionals at the 2021 AIASF International Waterfronts Symposium on Feb. 18 and 19 delved into discussions about how the wealth of redevelopment coming to San Francisco’s waterfront can achieve competing goals.

While much of S.F.’s waterfront from Ocean Beach to Crissy Field to the Embarcadero is accessible to the public, the central and southern waterfront areas on the eastern side of the city are characterized by an industrial past of manufacturing, power generation, military installations, shipbuilding and other maritime uses. Although these past uses are deeply tied to the cultural fabric of the city and involve historic buildings identified for restoration, they have also rendered a long stretch of the water’s edge completely inaccessible to the public.

"Our efforts have been on how we bring public access in multiple ways centered around this incredible collection of historic resources, which have their own story separate from the story of the Embarcadero Historic District to the north,” Port of San Francisco Deputy Director of Planning and Environment Diane Oshima said. “The common issues here are that San Franciscans and Bay Area [residents] really have their heartstrings tied to a lot of these historic resources marking how the city developed and how it really represents a place of work and innovation that was the start of San Francisco and California.”

San Francisco's southern bayfront at sunset.

Oshima noted that S.F.’s waterfront is likely one of the most regulated waterfronts in the country if not the world with multiple jurisdictions having a stake in the land. Much of the bayfront is held in a public trust mandating that it must be used for the livelihood and enjoyment of the public. Over the past decade, major mixed-use development proposals have emerged to transform the southern and central bayfront. 

Subsequent to the planning and delivery of the Hunters Point Shipyard project, the city launched the Southern Bayfront Strategy as a negotiation tool to help guide the massive amount of development planned for an area spanning Candlestick Point north to Mission Rock.

The shipyard project had earlier come under scrutiny for falsified data related to site remediation by two former employees of Tetra Tech EC Inc., who were later charged and sentenced to eight months in prison, according to a U.S. Department of Justice statement.

The shipyard project had earlier come under scrutiny for falsified data by Tetra Tech, the company charged with testing and environmental contamination remediation for the site.

The Southern Bayfront Strategy aims for a collective approach to redevelopment efforts under public-private partnerships yielding affordable housing, historic preservation, jobs and public open space, all within financially feasible projects that address sea-level rise.

In total, the development's part of the strategy will amount to about 20,000 new housing units, 50,000 new jobs and 675 acres of open space, according to the city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, and include projects like Pier 70, Potrero Power Station and Mission Rock. Plans for the projects envision community benefits such as new public streets, community centers, grocery stores, boat launches and child care facilities.

Yet challenges exist to the successful execution of the strategy. The former industrial uses meant that much of the waterfront was occupied by working-class people for many decades before the areas were shuttered. As redevelopment poses the risk of gentrification, part of the planning process involves how to design the waterfront so that it is welcoming to people from diverse backgrounds and also supplies affordable housing units and jobs that benefit low- to moderate-income local residents.

Another hurdle is how to design a waterfront that is suited to outdoor recreation while also bolstering sea-level rise resiliency. Although many parts of the world utilize levees to hold back rising water levels, the method is not well-suited to fostering connections between people and the shoreline. It is also a challenge that varies from site to site.

For example, the India Basin project slated to provide 1,575 housing units and 200K SF of commercial space is located on a 15-acre site that is 30 feet above sea level, according to BUILD Inc. principal Lou Vasquez. This is in contrast to a historic building at Pier 70 that had to be raised by 10 feet to accommodate sea-level rise projections.

"Downtown San Francisco is in big trouble with even 6 feet of rise because all of the infrastructure downtown will be flooded with that,” Vasquez said. “I think that's the case for most coastal cities.”

San Francisco and many other cities worldwide will have to increasingly grapple with sea-level rise as the impacts from climate change intensify. Coastal development built today will have to consider sea-level rise projections far into the future from 2050 to 2100. Much is at stake with not only flooding from king tides but also saltwater intrusion and damage to critical infrastructure. Of the region’s 39 sewage treatment plants, 30 of them are at risk of flooding due to sea-level rise, an NBC Bay Area investigation found.

City Design Principal Kristen Hall sees the balancing act between public waterfront access and addressing sea-level rise as necessitating creative solutions and innovative designs for major infrastructure. Part of the solution could be broadening the public’s access not merely to the shoreline but also adding opportunities for recreational uses on the water itself. For instance, a redevelopment plan for Piers 30-32 could involve a public swimming pool that floats on the Bay.

Although the fact that the city, the Port of San Francisco, the California State Lands Commission and the San Francisco Bay Conservation & Development Commission all have regulatory authority over waterfront lands can make redevelopment burdensome, it also means that there are mandates to addressing sea-level rise.

"If you do want to build a project within 100 feet of the bay, you have to get a permit from BCDC,” Hall said. “In order to get a permit from BCDC you have to go through a design review, you have to show that you're providing public access of 100 feet and you have to show how you're going to plan for 36 inches of sea-level rise. That is a unique thing — that you actually have to demonstrate those things in order to build a project. Most places in the U.S. you do not have to demonstrate any of those things. I think that is a benefit."

CORRECTION, FEB. 26, 4:36 P.M. PT: The shipyard project had earlier come under scrutiny for falsified data related to site remediation by two former employees of Tetra Tech EC Inc., who were later charged and sentenced to eight months in prison, according to a U.S. Department of Justice statement.