War of the waterfront

Too many projects and too little planning on San Francisco's most valuable strip of land

San Francisco's excited for the new Exploratorium -- but is there a cohesive plan for our rapidly-developing waterfront?


There's a blocky, unattractive building near the corner of Howard and Steuart streets, right off the Embarcadero, that's used for the unappealing activity of parking cars. Nobody's paid much attention to it for years, although weekend shoppers at the Ferry Building Farmers Market appreciate the fact that they can park their cars for just $6 on Saturday and Sunday mornings.

But now a developer has big plans for the 75 Howard Street site — and it's about to become a critical front in a huge battle over the future of San Francisco's waterfront.

Paramount Partners, a New York-based real-estate firm that also owns One Market Plaza, wants to tear down the eight-story garage and replace it with a 350-foot highrise tower that will hold 186 high-end condominiums. The new building would have ground-floor retail and restaurant space and a public plaza.

It would also exceed the current height limit in the area by 150 feet and could be the second luxury housing project along the Embarcadero that defies the city's longtime policy of strictly limiting the height of buildings on the waterfront.

It comes at a time when the Golden State Warriors are seeking permission to build a sports arena on Piers 30 and 32, just a few hundred feet from 75 Howard.

Between the proposed 8 Washington condo project, the arena, and 75 Howard, the skyline and use of the central waterfront could change dramatically in the next few years. Add to that a $100 million makeover for Pier 70, the new Exploratorium building on Pier 15, and a new cruise ship terminal at Pier 27 — and that's more development along the Bay than San Francisco has seen in decades.

And much of it is happening without a coherent overall plan.

There's no city planning document that calls for radically upzoning the waterfront for luxury housing. There's nothing that talks about large-scale sports facilities. These projects are driven by developers, not city planners — and when you put them all together, the cumulative impacts could be profound, and in some cases, alarming.

"There hasn't been a comprehensive vision for the future of the waterfront," Sup. David Chiu told me. ""I think we need to take a step back and look at what we really want to do."

Or as Tom Radulovich, director of the advocacy group Livable City, put it, "We need to stop planning the waterfront one project at a time."


Some of the first big development wars in San Francisco history involved tall buildings on the waterfront. After the Fontana Towers were built in 1965, walling off the end of the Van Ness corridor in a nasty replica of a Miami Beach hotel complex, residents of the northern part of the city began to rebel. A plan to put a 550-foot US Steel headquarters building on the waterfront galvanized the first anti-highrise campaigns, with dressmaker Alvin Duskin buying newspaper ads that warned, "Don't let them bury your skyline under a wall of tombstones."

Ultimately, the highrise revolt forced the city to downzone the waterfront area, where most buildings can't exceed 60 or 80 feet. But repeatedly, developers have eyed this valuable turf and tried to get around the rules.

"It's a generational battle," former Sup. Aaron Peskin noted. "Every time the developers think another generation of San Franciscans has forgotten the past, they try to raise the height limit along the Embarcadero."

The 8 Washington project was the latest attempt. Developer Simon Snellgrove wants to build 134 of the most expensive condominiums in San Francisco history on a slice of land owned in part by the Port of San Francisco, not far from the Ferry Building. The tallest of the structures would rise 136 feet, far above the 84-foot zoning limit for the site. Opponents argued that the city has no pressing need for ultra-luxury housing and that the proposal would create a "wall on the waterfront."