October 2012

Essence of Southeastern Waterfront Captured in Website Project

By Sasha Lekach

Working with the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) and the Port of San Francisco, this year’s Piero N. Patri fellow, Alexa Bush, synthesized information about the complex, project-laden Southeastern Waterfront into a website, providing easy access to the storied shoreline’s history, characteristics, policies, and proposals. The Piero N. Patri Fellowship was established at SPUR in 2007 by Piero’s siblings, Remo and Tito, and their wives, Johanna and Bobby, in honor of their brother’s passion for urban planning in the City. The late Giacomo Patri, Piero’s father, designed the View’s masthead, which first appeared in 1973.

Each year a Patri fellow is selected to create a project that’s intended to improve San Francisco. Bush presented her 2012 project at a SPUR event held last month at the Port of San Francisco’s Pier 1 building. Her project deviated from past fellowship projects by taking a comprehensive look at Southside urban renewal, rather than focusing on a specific area.

At the event, Tito spoke about his brother’s commitment to improving San Francisco — specifically the waterfront — before introducing Bush, the sixth fellow to work to spruce up the City through urban planning research. Patri noted that his brother — who worked as an architect until he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease and died in 2006 in his 70s — wanted to revive the southeast waterfront after it’d become a “garbage dump,” particularly compared to the northeast waterfront, which is well maintained and developed. “We’re on the threshold of some really exciting development down there,” said Remo.

During her three month long project, launched in June, Bush collaborated with a number of municipal organizations and companies, including technology corporation AECOM and planning and urban design firm Bionic. Bush, who has a master’s degree in landscape architecture from the University of Virginia, and a bachelor’s in filmmaking from Harvard University, is originally from San Jose, and had a vague familiarity with the City’s Southside. She was selected as a fellow after SPUR culled hundreds of applications from a nationwide search, receiving a small stipend and an opportunity to work with City planning agencies.

One of Bush’s goals was to connect with long-term waterfront residents who have endured decades of redevelopment plans and promises, some stemming from the 1960s. “Once people got a sense of what the project was about they wanted to share their stories,” she said. Many of the conversations with Bayview and Hunters Point residents were difficult, as community members expressed deep frustration with what they considered to be decades of neglect and slow progress. “I had heartbreaking moments talking to them,” Bush said. There’s “skepticism that a lot of projects haven’t worked in the past” and that the system is broken.

After countless conversations, interviews and research, Bush’s work culminated in a website, sewsf.org, that provides an inside look at nearly 15-miles of shoreline and associated parks, businesses and neighborhoods. The website is intended to prompt people to visit the Southeastern Waterfront, learn more about the area and take ownership of it. Past fellows’ work — which include proposed improvements to Third Street and Cargo Way, Warm Water Cove, and Islais Creek; increasing the “bikeability” of the Embarcadero; and a look at Southside’s underused streets and spaces — are incorporated into the site and provided the structure for Bush’s project.

Bush features information about heavy industry’s adverse impacts, but also how the area used to thrive with shrimping and ship building activity. As industry and residential neighborhoods started to mix, she noted the clashes between the communities. Residents won some battles — shutting down the Hunters Point and Potrero power plants and heavy machinery zones — leaving behind abandoned warehouses, old Navy yard equipment and industrial materials that continue to blight Southside coastlines.

The projects emerging in the area include construction of the Blue Greenway, Pier 70 redevelopment, Eastern Neighborhoods Area Plan, and Hunters Point Shipyard redevelopment, which are influenced by City zoning restrictions and land-use stipulations. A regional Bay Trail will connect the waterfront and open spaces; Pier 70 will be rebuilt to accommodate ship repair, recreational activities and shoreline access; parts of the Mission, South-of-Market and Potrero Hill will be developed with more housing and non-industrial businesses; and the Hunters Point shipyard will be revamped with housing and commercial development. Bush described the area based on seven nodes: Hunters Point, India Basin, Heron’s Head Park, Islais Creek, Warm Water Cove, Agua Vista Park, and Mission Creek. Each is profiled with history, amenities, transportation access, active organizations, and other details, such as nearby businesses. Photographs and maps are sprinkled throughout the website.

Bush highlighted Islais Creek as undergoing “an amazing transformation.” She outlined the area’s history as “Butcher Town” from World War II to the 1960s, with much of the original creek undergrounded after Interstate Highway 280 was built in the 1980s. She contrasted the area’s current recreation opportunities with its use as a scrapyard in previous years. Today, there are a growing number of parks and a series of proposals intended to make it more transit accessible and walkable, including the development of a promenade.

At the August gathering, which was standing room alone, the audience — mostly SPUR members — expressed concerns about how the site will be maintained, along with praise for the well-organized and researched online source. “The whole shoreline is shrouded in mystery and confusion,” one audience member said. He went on to suggest that Bush’s website be the model to organize and chronicle the Bay Area’s vast civic, geographical, economic, natural and social histories, policies and future development plans. One self-deprecating member noted, “As an old person, I’m blown away by this.”

David Beaupre, a Port of San Francisco waterfront planner, emphasized the City’s pleasure working with Bush, who produced three oral histories captured on podcasts on the site, including one about Heron’s Head Park. “The three oral histories helped humanize each of the projects along the way,” Beaupre said.

Unfortunately for Southside residents, the site will be left fairly un-monitored, with Bush slated to put her landscape architecture skills to use at an Ann Arbor, Michigan design firm. The ambitious fellow urged residents to post photos and comments to the site and affiliated Flicker photo-sharing accounts.

Visit the website at: sewsf.org.


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