The quest to save the Bluepeter Building

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By Rebecca Bowe

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Photo courtesy Janet Carpinelli

The Bluepeter Building, a unique industrial warehouse constructed in 1940 along San Francisco’s central waterfront, has become the focus of a neighborhood campaign for historic preservation. Under the Mission Bay redevelopment plan, it's slated for demolition -- but some community members are hoping an alternative vision can be implemented.

Janet Carpinelli of the Dogpatch Neighborhood Association has a vision for rehabbing the Bluepeter Building and converting it to a fish market, casual food vending business, and community gathering space which she says could also be integrated into a maritime history tour along the city's Central Waterfront. Owned by the Port of San Francisco, it’s been shuttered for more than a decade and hasn’t been very well maintained. Under the Mission Bay redevelopment plan, the building would be torn down and a park would be constructed on the lot instead.

"Just putting the park there is not as interesting,” Carpinelli says. “We shouldn’t just be knocking down the building.”

The building figures into the city's maritime history on a number of levels. Located at 555 Illinois Street, it was used by the Navy during World War II to test the strength of chains, according to Carpinelli. According to an historic time line compiled by the Bluepeter Committee, an offshoot of the Dogpatch Neighborhood Association, it was leased by the C.J. Hendry Co., a ship chandlery, in 1948.

In the 1960s, a sailmaking business called Jotz Sails leased the upstairs space of the Bluepeter Building. There, a budding sailmaker named Barry Spanier -- a U.C. Berkeley dropout who went on to build his own ferro-cement boat and sail around the world -- learned the craft of sailmaking from Hank Jotz, the company’s founder and an avid sailboat racer. In 1978, Spanier co-founded MauiSails, now a world-renowned sail brand used in windsurfing. “Same building, great history, lots of hours surrounded by that fine old wood,” Spanier noted when we sent him a photo of the Bluepeter building. “It is a great building and deserves more than a bulldozer.”

The Bluepeter Company, another boat-building enterprise, leased the building from the mid-1970s to early 1980s. The company was named for the blue peter flag, an international maritime signal flown by merchant vessels when they are about to set sail.

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Carpinelli believes the maritime history should be honored, and the unique structure should be preserved and enjoyed by the broader community and in keeping with the public trust requirements established for Port Commission land. “It could be a nice transition from the old to the new,” she says. (Want to know what it looks like inside? Click here.)

Kelley Kahn, Project Manager at the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency -- who is tasked with communicating with stakeholders as the Mission Bay plan is implemented -- points out that not every community member would rather see a rehabbed historic building in lieu of a park. “If there’s a viable project, and it incorporates the building, it’s great,” Kahn says. But she added, “For every Janet Carpinelli I have phoning me, I have open-space advocates who want the full open space. Some people have no tolerance for the idea. Some people just think, no way -- I just want this park.”

The plan adopted for the park would incorporate bioswales, a landscape design that filters pollutants out of stormwater, Kahn says. “In theory, you could install bioswales while preserving the building,” she told us. But the building never made the cut for historic-preservation status, and there is no public funding available to restore it. According to some estimates, it could cost several million dollars for an overhaul.

“This would be a project that [Carpinelli] would have to lead,” Kahn says. “She would have to have this resolved in the next nine months to one year.” That is the time frame in which the Redevelopment Agency promised it would move forward with the park, she adds. For now, a demolition permit is still a long way off, Kahn notes.

Carpinelli remains optimistic, and her organization is focused on spreading the word in hopes of drumming up support to save the Bluepeter. “This project is small, but it’s something the Port could do with us -- a public-private partnership,” she says. In a handout produced to promote the idea, she wrote: “As one of the last remaining buildings in Mission Bay, and indeed in the Central Waterfront, representing the area's rich history in small boat construction, this building should be preserved if at all possible, and rehabilitated to be used by the citizens of San Francisco and visitors to Mission Bay.”