A view towards the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero from the San Francisco Bay. Photo by Spencer Brown.
Much like the genesis of important early Heritage surveys like the Downtown Plan, the nomination of the Port of San Francisco Embarcadero Historic District to the National Register of Historic Places was borne out of piecemeal threats to the port’s historic infrastructure. Alarmed by early planning policies that called for the removal of historic buildings to open up views to the bay, Heritage joined Port staff and a Port committee of waterfront stakeholders to explore the possibility of a National Register nomination in the late 1990s. This came on the heels of San Francisco voters approving initiative Proposition K in 1990, calling a halt to non-maritime development on Port property until a comprehensive land use plan was in place.
For most of its history, the port had a significant impact on the daily lives of a substantial portion of San Francisco’s population. In addition to the sailors, longshoremen, and others who worked on the waterfront, thousands of city employees in factories, warehouses and offices directly depended on or did business with the port. Today, it is still a major economic engine for the Bay Area, hosting a variety of maritime, commercial and recreational uses while also serving as the Bay Area’s ferry hub. The Embarcadero’s historic character, enhanced by the 1991 removal of the elevated Embarcadero Freeway, and the subsequent completion of significant rehabilitation projects, including the iconic Ferry Building, have contributed to a remarkable urban waterfront renaissance in San Francisco.
Demolition of Embarcadero Freeway, Ferry Building in the background. July 1991. Courtesy of Greg Gaar. OpenSFHistory / wnp72.16966d
Port leadership eventually embraced historic designation—and the tax incentives that can flow from it—as essential to waterfront revitalization efforts. A National Register nomination was one of the implementation measures for the 1997 Waterfront Land Use Plan and the Bay Conservation and Development Commission’s San Francisco Waterfront Special Area Plan, both of which established a policy framework for the revitalization of the waterfront through the rehabilitation of historic resources.
Pier 45, Sheds A and B: Embarcadero facades, view east; Port of San Francisco Embarcadero Historic District. Photo by Brian Vahey for the Port of San Francisco, February 2002.
Boundaries of the Embarcadero Historic District. National Register listing unlocked tax credits for development projects meeting the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards. The designation process also helped to establish guidelines for the treatment of all the resources in the district, setting clear standards from the start for potential developers.
Historic waterfront businesses operating out of small wood buildings on bulkhead wharves, like Pier 23 Cafe, are listed as contributors to the district.
Serving on the Nomination Advisory Committee were Alice Carey, Charles Chase, Jennifer Clary, Tim Kelley, Bridget Maley, Stewart Morton, Gee Gee Platt, Nan Roth, Nancy Shanahan, Chris VerPlanck, and Joe LaClair, senior planner with BCDC. At the Port, Monique Moyer, director; Byron Rhett and Diane Oshima, director and deputy director of planning and development; and Mark Paez, preservation planner, worked effectively—with technical support from the Office of Historic Preservation and the National Park Service—to address concerns that arose among the interested parties. Architectural historian Michael Corbett (also author of Heritage’s Downtown Plan) lead the preparation of the Port-funded National Register nomination. The approximately 500-page document qualified a three mile area for designation as a National Register historic district in 2006.
Following this milestone advocacy effort, in 2011 Heritage published the definitive volume on the history of the waterfront, Port City: The History and Transformation of the Port of San Francisco 1848-2010, also by Michael Corbett.
Despite the Embarcadero’s historical significance and numerous successful rehabilitation projects since the National Register designation, the district continues to face two major physical threats: earthquakes and sea level rise. To help encourage action, Heritage nominated and won recognition for the Embarcadero Historic District’s plight on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2016 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. In addition to formidable threats posed by sea level rise of up to 66 inches by 2100, a recent earthquake vulnerability study revealed greater than expected risk to the three-mile-long seawall. The dual seismic and climate change threats require a coordinated local, regional, state, and federal response with creative strategies to assure long-term resilience for the Embarcadero’s rich heritage.
“King tides” along the Embarcadero, which are about a foot above the average high tides along the San Francisco coast, offer a glimpse into what the future could look like with rising sea levels.