Historic proportions

Pub date April 28, 2009
WriterRebecca Bowe


GREEN CITY "110 The Embarcadero" is the stately address of a building that doesn’t exist yet. But the battle that continues to be waged over this proposed development, along with skirmishes that are brewing over other proposed buildings nearby, speaks volumes about a complicated tug-of-war that is emerging over a prominent slice of the city’s northern waterfront.

Preservationists are concerned about saving a union hall on Steuart Street that housed the International Longshoremen’s Association during the strike of 1934, which would be razed to build 110 The Embarcadero. That’s one of a number of historic properties critics say could face the wrecking ball as new building plans are drafted. Other proposals, among them 8 Washington and 555 Washington, have neighborhood activists anxious about long skyscraper shadows that could be cast on public parks, the development pressure that would result from allowing skyscrapers to exceed height limits, and views of the bay that would be enhanced from inside luxury high rises but blocked to others.

On the other side of the coin, building-trades union members increasingly desperate for work are fervently advocating for new construction projects that would open the spigot on jobs. And the Port of San Francisco hopes development money will help cover its huge infrastructure backlog.

Meanwhile a report released in early April by the Bay Conservation and Development Commission noted that the waterfront stretch from Pier 35 to the Bay Bridge is one of the most vulnerable to sea-level rise. As plans for this part of the Embarcadero are hashed out in public hearings and architects’ sketches, a new reality must be factored into the mix: some of that land could soon be underwater.


110 The Embarcadero initially won praise for its goal of attaining the highest certification level for nationwide green-building standards. Sponsored by Hines Interests, it was a shining example of ecodesign that even featured living vines climbing the sides. Even though it would shoot 40 percent above the allowable height limit of 84 feet, the San Francisco Planning Commission gave it a green light.

Enthusiasm waned, however, when historic preservationists pointed out that the building slated for demolition — 113 Steuart St. — was an ILA labor hall during the famous maritime strike of 1934, which erupted into violence after two union members were gunned down by police and led to a four-day general strike that paralyzed the city. "Harry Bridges rose to fame in this building," says architectural historian Bradley Weidmeier, referring to the famous labor leader. "Labor historians from around the country are going to be blocking this."

Hines hired a leading historic architecture firm, Page & Turnbull, to conduct a historic assessment of that building as part of the planning process. Yet the initial report neglected to mention anything about the building being at the center of a profound moment in San Francisco’s labor history.

Former Board of Supervisors president Aaron Peskin, an opponent of the project, says the gaps in information weren’t hard to miss. "The fact that it was ground zero for bloody Thursday, that it was ground zero for the general strike … that people were shot in front of there, that their bodies lay inside. You want to know how we found that out? We got it online," Peskin said.

Page & Turnbull later submitted an addendum, including historic photos depicting people crowding into the two-story building to pay respects to the slain union members. The firm acknowledged its historic significance this time, but asserted that the now-empty building had undergone too many retrofits to comply with historic landmark requirements.

This, too, was challenged by project opponents. "You can look at pictures of dead people laying there on the sidewalk with that building in the background, and look at it today, and godammit, it’s pretty much the same building," Peskin says.

The Board of Supervisors in mid-March approved an appeal of the project and instructed city planners to prepare an environmental impact report. Ralph Schoenman, a preservation advocate who says he met with board members about the project, told us that "members of the board were plainly shocked by finding out that the historic report was so flawed and untrue."

That feeling may have lingered for some at the April 21 bard meeting when Supervisors voted 7-4 to reject Mayor Gavin Newsom’s nomination of Ruth Todd, a Page & Turnbull principal, to the city’s Historic Preservation Commission.


Though the project has been stalled, the issues it stirred are gaining momentum. The picture of what this stretch of the Embarcadero could look like is shaping up to be quite different from developers’ gauzy artistic renderings. Sue Hestor, a land-use lawyer, is a driving force behind a community-led meeting scheduled for June 24 at the headquarters of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 34 (the successor to ILA) to initiate a new approach to development along the western edge of the Embarcadero.

"Threatened demolition of the 1934 Waterfront Strike headquarters at 113 Steuart has pulled us together," Hestor wrote in a widely disseminated e-mail. "The community will proactively start defining changes we want. No more waiting for a developer proposal, then meekly responding. The community gets to define how the city should look … along the northeast waterfront. When you start at the Embarcadero it is possible to weave in so many areas, so many neighborhoods, so much of our political and immigrant and labor history."

ILWU members are joining with preservationists in the effort to preserve 113 Steuart. "We are at a historic moment when working people are under unprecedented attack," a team of six Local 34 leaders wrote in a recent statement opposing the demolition. "That living history is a prologue to our struggles of the future."

Not all labor unions agree. At a picket staged by San Francisco’s Building and Construction Trades Council outside a Democratic Party luncheon April 21, protesters carried a few flew signs reading "How can we feed our kids with history?" The signs referenced the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, but the same question might be asked of 110 The Embarcadero, which was favored by building-trade workers.

Neighborhood groups are also worried because the construction of the two proposed 84-foot condominium towers at 8 Washington could cause the adjacent Golden Gateway Tennis and Swim Club to lose half its facility. "Six hundred to 700 kids come every summer to learn to swim and to play tennis," Club director Lee Radner says. "To us, it’s just a matter of the developer not considering the moral issues of the neighborhood club that has given so much to the community." Friends of Golden Gateway (FOGG), which formed to preserve the club in the face of development, has hired Hestor as its attorney.

Because the development would be partially built on a surface parking lot controlled by the Port Commission, a parcel held to be in the public trust under state law, developers proposed a land-swap to get around provisions prohibiting residential uses in those parcels. Renee Dunn, a spokesperson for the Port Commission, noted that the Port’s annual revenues total $65 million, while the amount that would be needed for repairs and maintenance of its century-old infrastructure is almost $2 billion. In general, "Public-private developments provide the dollars needed to make improvements," she told us.

In the wake of concerns about 8 Washington, Board of Supervisors President David Chiu sent a letter to the Port Commission requesting an update to the waterfront plan for that area. "Concerns are currently being raised regarding the proposed development … and the future development of seawall lots along the northern waterfront, and I share many of these concerns," Chiu wrote. In response, the Port agreed to conduct a six-to-eight month focus study for those seawall lots.

Meanwhile, a quietly growing problem may mean that plans for this stretch of the Embarcadero will get more complicated. A report released in early April by the Bay Conservation and Development Commission predicts a 16-inch rise in the level of the San Francisco Bay by 2050, and a 55-inch rise by 2100, based on data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Along San Francisco’s waterfront, the most vulnerable area will be from Pier 35 to the Bay Bridge, the report found. "Sea-level rise has been linear, and it’s continuing, and we expect that based on what we know about climate change, it will accelerate," notes Joe LaClair of BCDC. In the event of storm surges, he adds, "we will have to find a way to protect the financial district from inundation."

As local governments begin to get up to speed on mitigating the effects of climate change, new questions — beyond developers’ plans vs. neighborhood input — will have to come into play. One that BCDC plans to tackle in coming months, LaClair notes, is: "What does resilient shoreline development look like?" It’s a good one to start asking now.