Tucked all around San Francisco Bay are curious little villages that surround old industrial centers. You can find these surviving villages in places like Point Richmond, ,Alviso, and Crockett. And in San Francisco, there is the old Dogpatch neighborhood centered along Third Street near 20th. I had always been intrigued by this little corner of San Francisco. It felt to me a little more like an old steel town, jammed between old factories by the water on one side, and hard against Potrero Hill on the other. It was further isolated by a large swath of old rail yards, known as Mission Bay. Well, things have changed , thanks to the realization of the Mission Bay plan, which has brought a new campus for the UCSF School of Medicine, office, housing, retail and a new arena. Walking through the new at Mission Bay and Dogpatch, as well as some of the old, makes for a compelling walk.
I took the T train from Embarcadero, which inched towards the 4th and King train station and the start of the walk. The new Central Subway will make this connection much easier, but for now, one must endure this eternal trudge. Our walk begins at Fourth Street, as it crosses Mission Creek.
For years, Mission Bay was an underutilized industrial wasteland; old rail yards and shipping related facilities. Here is a grainy old photo showing the area surrounded by the 280 freeway.
When I moved here 30(!) years ago, I used to drive(!!) to my job in South Park and park in a field, for free (!!!), just beyond this train station. I walked past an RV Park (an RV park!!!!), where the Safeway across the street now is. Where the ballpark is now, people were living in campers. It was a different world.
The land beyond this was wilder. There were lightly occupied old warehouses where I attended a rave ….once. There were long boozy lunches at the Ramp. And from there divey bars in Dogpatch where one could drink cheaply with sailors , or so they said, at the old Sea Star. But the best story from this period was an Architect friend who actually lived for a period on the water, near where the new arena stands. Amidst overturned boats and these way-laid pirates (or so I imagined), he created a dwelling and place to work. The place was beyond description. Eventually it was discovered by the media.
It was all a pretty memorable time.
Meanwhile, for many years, the city had been working on plans to redevelop this whole area. They eventually hatched a plan in the early 90s, seen here. It is noteworthy for the absence of the ballpark and UCSF, which would come much later.
But it wasn’t until UCSF got involved as an “anchor” in the mid-90s, did a new plan take off. And so, it was only a matter of time before the semi-retired sailors would be swept out for the new development. By the early oughts, with the ballpark built, things were beginning to take shape, with the first buildings of UCSF rising. The golf driving range on the left day’s were numbered.
My friend hung on for quite awhile on the water, but eventually, this wild little piece of San Franciscoiana , was lost to the wrecking ball. The transformation today is stunning.
One can enter Mission Bay walking south on 4th Street. As new neighborhoods go , Mission Bay south of the creek seems pretty successful. Shops and restaurants are filling in, the apartments are full-, and there seems great synergy between the housing and the adjacent new campus of UCSF. At the cafe below I literally heard two young fellows next to me talking about a concept for a new health care app.
There are some fine apartment buildings, such as the one above and this one below that lines a linear park that connects this area, and the adjacent campus, all the way to the water.
It is a rare opportunity indeed to create an entirely new neighborhood from dust. There is no magic formula to this, some work, some don’t. Mission Bay has a lot of life and energy. It is a function of an increasingly active ground floor, with restaurants, groceries, cafes, that are giving it life. In fact, when I recently hosted my young college aged nieces on their first visit to San Francisco, it was this neighborhood, more than all the classic SF hoods, that struck the deepest chord. It is also a function of public space , such as SPARK Social (a ;lively permanent collection of food trucks), and of course , the UCSF campus, with its main commons fronted by Ricardo Legoretta’s Student Union Building. Future doctors get much needed sun in this space.
As you head east from here, and cross Third Street, you quickly come to the new center of attention in this neighborhood , the Chase Center. The arena is a state of the art facility designed by Norwegian starchitects Snohetta. Before Chase, San Francisco’s only other sports/concert venue of size was, remarkably, the Cow Palace on the Daly City border. I have not seen a cow in San Francisco for some time, so I’d conclude it was time for a new arena. And once the Warriors agreed to move , that sealed the deal. (But I must admit, now as an East Bay resident, I feel the Warriors left more than little bit of their soul in the East Bay, not to mention most of their wins)
Arenas themselves tend to be hard to fit in an urban setting. After all, the building is designed to focus in, not out. Here the arena , (which doesn’t look as exciting as the renderings), is tucked in-between buildings, and it results in two distinct spaces around it. The first is at the main entry, a compact urban space, dominated by the above screen, and a fine mid century inspired folly.
And around the other side, a marvelous raised terrace, that has an overlook of the bay. Here, where present and past collide, my thoughts again returned to this area’s previous life. That shack by the bay must have close to this spot.
Descending down to Illinois Street, and heading south, the old neighborhood now makes what’s left of its presence felt. The Ramp restaurant is still there, once all alone, is now surrounded. The dock still beckons.
Here, one sees random detritus from San Francisco’ shipping days, such as decapitated shipping cranes.
And most promising, some of this will be maintained as part of new open space. This will be a spectacular public place when it is done .
Just south of this block , at 20th and Illinois, is one of my favorite hidden places in San Francisco. Here one finds a cluster of handsome industrial buildings, legacies of the old iron and steel mills in the area at Pier 70.
These days, this historic core is being repurposed as part of the next wave of development in this area, the first phase being large creative office spaces. 10 years ago when I walked through here it was deserted. But now, much is happening. To wit, the old Bethlehem Steel Administration building, seen below, awaits its next life.
Nearby, start-up “Gusto” has found a new home in another old industrial space. This was formerly a steel mill. Now, it is a start-up with a no-shoes in the office policy.
I snaked my way across Third and 22nd for a couple blocks walk through the heart of Dogpatch. It is these few blocks that again feel to me like they were dropped here from a Pennsylvania mill town. Echoes of an industrial past , repurposed to serve an evolving clientele.
Dogpatch proper is a narrow swath of victorians and small cottages that line some extra wide streets. The width of the streets, and the scale of the surrounding structures, make these little shacks seem more fragile.
Throughout the neighborhood there is an interesting juxtaposition of old and new. Below, the long time clubhouse home of Hells Angels San Francisco sits next to a new apartment development.
Back in the 90s, the multi family work we did was not 200 plus unit developments, but , among other things, converting warehouses into legitimate live work lofts for actual artists in Dogpatch. And while this area has definitely gone more upscale, it does retain much of its unique vibe, if for no other reason than the constant presence of the artifacts of its industrial past. Though I imagine that affordable space for those artists is harder to impossible to come by now.
At 24th Street, seen here, I turned east again, towards the smokestack and the walk’s end. This an apt juxtaposition:
Along 24th, the new development ceases, and you are returned to a landscape oriented toward transportation. Not the T line trundling along Third mind you, but warehouses and cab companies, parked semis and auto “dismantlers”.
24th Street dead ends at the bay, at a little known park, Warm Water Cove. I visited 10 years ago, and felt I was in about as out of the way place as one could be in San Francisco. It felt like at any moment I was going to come upon a dead body. Or maybe the location of the penultimate scene from an episode of the Streets of San Francisco. I noticed two saws hanging from a tree. No doubt they had been used to hack up a body or two. Where was Karl Malden when I needed him.
10 years later, this park is the same, though the saws were gone. Still a very spooky place. I had passed an RV whose door opened as I walked by , perhaps inviting me in for god knows what. But this is a marvelously quiet place that offers stunning views of some true San Francisco backwaters. Love this spot.
There is an undeniable romance for some us in exploring the underutilized, the forgotten, the hidden. But like nearly all American cities, these old industrial lands near the center are ripe for reinvention , for what is generally the greater good.
It is remarkable how this area has evolved. I’ve been thinking much about San Francisco lately, as every few days I see another national press article eulogizing about the mess that is San Francisco – homelessness, out of control cost of living, the inability to get things done. Truth to all of that, and also a bit of lazy reporting. Yes, I was frustrated on my eternal train ride out here, pining for those swift European trains. As I stewed on the T, I thought of the decades long Van Ness BRT bus project, and never ending strategies for improving Market Street. And of course the getting-worse-homeless problem, that is subject to an upcoming post.
Though now at the end of this walk, I found I was equally inspired and excited by what is happening in this area. I thought of past City transformations of the Presidio and the Embarcadero. These places have added greatly to the civic resources of the city, and this area too, is creating some compelling new public spaces, AND adding a lot of housing, something San Francisco(despite the demand) simply did not do in 90s and 00s. And I was also glad that this scrap of forgotten San Francisco was still here. A bit of the old urban wilds of the industrial bay, a remnant of a port of call on the other side of the continent, with ships languishing on the horizon.
Just then, my heart leapt as I heard a shout below me by the water. It looked like I wasn’t the only person here after all. I did not suspect fowl play. Still best to keep your shoes on in this part of evolving San Francisco.