Islais Creek SFMTA Facility Fails to Deliver on its Promises

in by

As the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency’s (SFMTA) new Islais Creek facility nears completion, a coalition of labor and environmental groups who helped spearhead its approval feel like they’ve been stranded at the proverbial bus stop.

The $127 million complex will replace SFMTA’s 67-year old Kirkland facility near Fisherman’s Wharf, which houses more than half of the City’s bus fleet. In addition to parking for 160 hybrid busses, the 8.4-acre site, located between Indiana Street and Interstate 280, will include a repair building, washing station and a maintenance and operations structure.

It was supposed to feature a two-story entry lobby, with public restrooms and wraparound staircase leading to a balcony overlooking the creek. The idea was for the public to be able to utilize the lobby as a meeting room, and view environmental artifacts and displays honoring the area’s labor history. Just the meeting room has survived; it may wind up being accessible only by appointment. It’s been cut off from the lobby, which has shrunken, according to architect Robin Chiang, to “a staircase vestibule.”

Chiang, whose firm, Robin Chiang and Company, specializes in transportation facilities, was hired as a subcontractor to the project’s engineering firm, URS Corporation, to develop initial designs.  Chiang also serves as executive director of Friends of Islais Creek, which lobbied to obtain approval for the development.  Based on early schemes, the Bay Conservation and Development and San Francisco Arts commissions gave their endorsements.  After delays, SFMTA decided to collaborate with the San Francisco Public Works Department instead of URS, leading to plan changes.

SFMTA first purchased four acres of land in 1990 from a private entity on which to eventually build the facility. Around the same time, Friends of Islais Creek, which predominantly advocates on behalf of environmental issues, was cleaning up the waterway, which’d been polluted and neglected for years.  In the mid-1990s, Friends partnered with International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) retirees, who wanted the site to pay homage to San Francisco’s labor history.

A Cargill plant, which processed coconut oil from copra – dried coconut meat – had been located alongside Islais Creek. Copra was a major export from the City during the 19th and early 20th centuries.  Cargill’s Islais Creek facility operated from 1947 until 1974, closing when the Philippines raised tariffs on coconut exports. ILWU members formed the Copra Crane Labor Landmark Association (CCLLA) to lobby to restore the Copra Crane on the site. The crane was deployed to load livestock feed, a common usage of crushed copra, onto outboard vessels. It was the last remnant of hand-operated bulk cargo gear on the waterfront. According to ILWU historian Harvey Schwartz, CCLLA, with assistance from noted union activist Archie Green, convinced the environmentalists that the five-story crane could be an eye-catcher for their restoration efforts.

SFMTA eventually purchased adjacent land from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and the California Department of Transportation. When it went before the BCBD and SFAC ten years ago, Friends and CCLLA spoke in favor of the project based on their input into the original designs. And, in a budget transfer request in 2009, SFMTA wrote that it “has worked with many community stakeholders to create an attractive and functional waterfront park on land that is currently vacant.”

Budget challenges kept the facility from being built until recently.  Over the years, three CCLLA members, including Green, passed away.  SFMTA has itself gone through a succession of project managers.

Before project construction went out to bid, Chiang noticed changes to the blueprints and began to make inquiries. He believed that elimination of the balcony was a significant alteration to the building’s exterior that should’ve triggered another review by the Arts Commission, which has jurisdiction over all structures on public property. The balcony, he said, had a unique design in that it “stuck out like a diving board, straight out.” He sent several emails and letters of complaint to SFMTA. “I thought it was really important we do this before it goes out to bid because it is going to be too expensive to change later,” he said.

Chiang thinks Public Works altered design elements without realizing their relevance. He believes the lobby was eliminated because it was too complicated; the balcony nixed because Department staff misread the blueprint and erroneously thought it crossed a property line. For its part, the Arts Commission stated to the View that many of the changes were building code-related, over which it has no jurisdiction.

SFMTA Public Information Officer Adrienne Heim and other Agency staff have met with neighborhood leaders over these issues thrice. At an October gathering Heim reported that access to the meeting room would likely require an appointment, and only be available when the security budget allowed a guard to be onsite. She was uncertain whether the room would be accessible during night or weekend hours.

Although the gathering didn’t include a tour of the facility, which is due to be finished this month, Chiang explained that when people enter there’ll be no place to go except the stairs or elevator, and thus they’ll have to be escorted. “Originally, the lobby was supposed to be so that the public could go in and look at displays and then go up the stairs to the balcony,” he said.

As for the homage to industrial heritage, Heim stated that just $10,000 has been set aside for internal displays and signs on the promenade along the creek.

Janet Carpinelli, a Dogpatch Neighborhood Association member, expressed frustration at the meeting. “It seems the MTA made a lot of mistakes along the way and now you are asking us to live with them,” she said. Later, she remarked to the View, “How are people going to get to see what is inside if they are only allowed access a few times a year?”

SFMTA has proposed erecting signage along the creek’s walkway similar to what recently was installed at Tennessee and Tubbs streets to honor the Tubbs Cordage Rope Company. According to David Fletcher, who served as the landscape architect for that site, and attended the October SFMTA meeting, $10,000 won’t cover research and printing costs. “SFMTA needs to establish a budget and a plan with guidance from the community,” he said. He echoed others in the room in believing that SFMTA is applying whatever’s leftover in the budget to the elements promised to the community.

Carpinelli is also concerned about plans to maintain the outside area as a public park. SFMTA is responsible for a 40- by 800-foot shoreline strip that features a parklet and cement walkway. According to Carpinelli, homeless encampments have moved in along the northern side near I-280.

Heim indicated that cleanup and graffiti removal is planned, but that Caltrans is responsible for the parcel under 1-280, and hasn’t issued a timetable for the activity. The northern part of the shoreline leading up to the highway is under Port control. Under a state law enacted last fall, the City can lease Caltrans land at 30 percent of market rate but, while the City is looking at a handful of parcels to do that, the Islais Creek area isn’t on its agenda.

SFMTA’s plan calls for benches, pedestrian and bicycle paths and an art structure.

Dennis Montalto, who lives nearby and has walked along the creek for 25 years, stated at the meeting that the City has an opportunity to build something on the waterfront of which it can be proud. “It’s a beautiful park, and right there in your backyard. It should be your gold star,” he said. He referenced the Central Waterfront Area Plan, which calls for creating a loop of open space between Islais Creek and the Third Street drawbridge.

Further dismaying neighborhood groups is news that Copra Crane restoration is on hold. The crane is under the control of the Port of San Francisco, which obtained a $616,534 grant from the California Coastal Conservancy in 2013 for its restoration. However, according to Schwartz, the latest cost estimate to re-erect it is $1.2 million. The 54-ton crane is currently lying on its side in a Port-owned yard just east of the new SFMTA facility.