San Francisco's southeastern waterfront is a natural jewel buried under the city's industrial past.
The coastline is warm and often beautiful but marked mostly by collapsing piers, rusting skeletons of industrial centers, two power plants, and other long abandoned maritime projects.
But city and port officials, with the support of civic groups, are embarking on an ambitious effort to open up the waterfront with new bicycle and pedestrian trails, rotating public artwork, improved aquatic access, spruced up waterfront parks, rebuilt piers, and the transformation of industrial property into public spaces that would teach visitors about San Francisco's past.
The recent opening of Pier 14, with the Passage sculpture from last year's Burning Man festival as a temporary centerpiece, was a big step forward. And the imminent announcement of what the Farallon/Shorenstein development team is proposing for Piers 27–31 will be another important piece of the central waterfront puzzle.
Yet it is the so-called Blue Greenway initiative — which was formally launched June 24 with a bike and boat tour ending with a party at India Basin Shoreline Park on Hunter's Point — that takes on the toughest terrain: the 13-mile coastline stretching from China Basin all the way down to Candlestick Point.
A Blue Greenway task force was set up six months ago by Mayor Gavin Newsom and Sup. Sophie Maxwell, with support from the Livable City Initiative and Neighborhood Parks Council. They shared their vision with a group of almost 100 bicyclists on a guided tour led by Newsom's director of greening, Marshall Foster.
"We're still imagining the way," Foster said at the first stop of the Imagine the Way tour, Aqua Vista Park, where artist Topher Delaney is still covering the pier in shimmery blue sequins and installing horizontal bike rims trimmed with reflectors at the tops of colored poles.
Another art installment planned at Third Street and Cargo Way, Red Fish by William Wareham, was also not yet complete, like much of the Blue Greenway.
"You'll notice on Illinois Street how there were no bike lanes. There were supposed to be bike lanes," said Foster, noting how that project was recently appealed to the Board of Supervisors, only to have that and most other bike projects around the city stopped by a judge's injunction (see sidebar).
At Pier 70 — once the main employment center of San Francisco, first with Union Iron Works and later Bethlehem Steel — getting access to the waterfront is nearly impossible now. The buildings are dangerous ruins and only broken pilings remain from the once-bustling piers.
"We think ultimately we can get in here and get access to the waterfront," Foster said.
The Port of San Francisco's planning and development director, Byron Rhett, who was also pedaling along on the tour, supported Foster's hopes and said the port has consultants analyzing the site.
"We are just starting the process of declaring this an historic district," Rhett said. "Bicycle and pedestrian access will be part of those discussions."
Just south of Pier 70, the tour wound through the weed-strewn and graffiti-covered shoreline park and pathway at Warm Springs Cove.