Historic proportions

Green City: A battle over the former longshoremen's hall has sparked a move to rethink waterfront planning
A Bancroft Library archival
photo of the labor hall entrance


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.