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Historical perspective: much to be proud of, let's not ruin it

By Bill Clarke


The current controversy surrounding the proposal to infill the entire Marina Green waterfront with more marina amounts to an occupation of boats and breakwater where nature is supposed to be. Such an outcome would be counterintuitive, monetizing what was gifted to the citizens of San Francisco years ago after the Panama Pacific International Exhibition of 1915. A central, easily accessible open

space for experiencing the bay became an opportunity to enrich urban life with the bounty of SanFrancisco'sproximity to the bay. Why SF's Recreation & Parks Department (RPD) would intrude on this historical intention and the obvious benefit to citizens and visitors alike is a stupefying move. Converting the open water into revenue-producing boat parking is short-sighted City planning for the historically verified use of a beloved park asset. Turns out the public meetings in May are only the beginning of the affront…


While attending the two public meetings organized by RPD to unveil their project concepts for the Marina Green waterfront, they introduced James Corner, their project designer and presentation spokesperson, as having been the lead designer for GGNRA (Golden Gate National Recreation Area) 's "Tunnel Tops" park. This raised immediate concern for me since Tunnel Tops is a recent creation, while the Marina Green and bookending harbors have existed since the early 1900's. The presentation didn't relieve my concerns since the focus revolved around RPD & PGE' s "Renovation" plan with no mention of the other alternatives known to be under consideration.


The whole proceeding felt like a PR manipulation for a predetermined outcome. I spoke with James after the public meeting, and he assured me of his respect for the Park's history. But…how respectful could that be when they are willing to alter the historic use of the southern half of East Harbor from a marina into a "Recreation Area" tear up the East Harbor parking lot, and move parking to a new location on Marina Blvd.; and combine the old parking lot with the adjacent Marina Green Triangle to form some newfangled idea of the next RPD park sensation? With all the attention focused on the waterfront, the smoking gun is the other reconfiguration in the works: the east end of the park altered to be a current-day idea of what a park should look like. It needs, has to be, left alone as part of a historic district with a storied past. I fear that by negating/ignoring the historic nature of the area with current-day renovations and amenities will only encourage further invasive tampering. We should insist on historic conservation; remove all the toxics in East Harbor so it can be dredged and restored as an established marina; and preserve the grounds as they exist (and have existed) since the formation of the Marina neighborhood. RPD is working overtime to blur our historic pedigree with dramatic modifications in an attempt to make us forget the history and loss of the open water views. It is important that we get out ahead of these possibilities, promote history, and encourage preservation…


I would say we owe it to the architects and designers assembled for the Panama Pacific Exposition, some of the best working in the United States at the time (including our own Bernard Maybeck: creator of the Palace of Fine Arts lauded as the great architectural success of the fair), who were ceded a blank slate to consider and reimagine the waterfront to suite the fundamental needs of a grand vision and future use by the citizens of San Francisco. I don't think there has been a more significant time in our City's history when so much was at stake. All eyes were on San Francisco and how we would rise to the occasion after the devastating earthquake of 1906.


The exhibition was a resounding triumph through the shear magnitude of ingenuity and invention presented, exemplifying the promise of the future with the introduction of electrical appliances, the telephone, a Model T Ford production hall turning out 18 cars a day at the fair, airplane travel with some of the first passenger rides ever offered from Marina Green, etc. …all serving as a counterbalance to the onset of World War 1. Our resilience and resourcefulness were on full display, inspiring awe from the achievement and solidifying our international reputation in spite of the war.


The public has reaffirmed the spirit of the Exhibition with continuous, in-kind use of the Marina Green Park grounds and waterfront since 1915. There really isn't room for compromise here. Either it is a historic site or not, in which case it is open season for tampering. RPD must stop wasting time and money with PGE for their self-serving endeavors. They have lost credibility that they will do right by San Francisco. New, interested parties (hello Nancy Pelosi, Scott Wiener, Daine Feinstein, Gavin Newsom, London Breed, Catherine Stefani) who have a better understanding of what is at stake, have the influence to do something about it, and have access to new funding resources, are vital right now to facilitate what is best for a potential Marina Green Park Historic District…This is what the area is missing, not only to solidify a diluted identity but to call attention to its distinguished past.


There is no argument that can justify the counterintuitive idea that a perimeter of boats fits, coordinates with, or balances the original design concept and purpose of an interactive Marina Green with waterfront activities and viewscape. Maybe if a new harbor for boats bordered a Marina Green Waterfront Apartment Complex, but that is not what we have here…we have a viewing landscape stage to take in what unfolds in front of and beyond the seawall…A new harbor is the antithesis of the intended use of the grounds cutting off access to the open water…


2006 Planning Dept. EIR:


"In a historic resources survey commissioned by the City and County of San Francisco for this EIR, and completed by Carey & Co., Inc. in 2004, a total of four buildings or structures on the project site were identified as historic resources for purposes of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Two of these resources -the Fair's Seawall (that portion of the seawall retaining the north side of the Marina Green) and the concession stand in West Harbor- possess historic significance and sufficient physical integrity to qualify as historic resources at the federal and state level for their association with historical events: the Works Progress Administration improvement program undertaken in San Francisco during the Great Depression. In addition, the Planning Department's technical preservation specialist found that two other buildings on the project site -the Harbor Office and West Harbor restrooms -may also have historic significance, at the local level, as they could become contributors to a potential future West Harbor historic district or cultural landscape…"


The answer is simple. RPD should respect what the originating planners had in mind when they used landfill to create their optimum setting. Transformed in the years following the fair to become the Marina neighborhood, their Marina Green landscape component has survived intact, serving the same purpose as it did back then. It remains a transitional open space between the urban structure and the expansive views, a stage from which to observe maritime events and the magnificence of the bay. It should persevere as intended, protected from the present-day whim of RPD…


Cover Photo Credit: SF History



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1 Comment


Remaking the southern half of East Harbor from a marina into a Recreation Area sounds nice, kind of like Aquatic Park. However, that facility is woefully under utilized, certainly in terms of what the initial vision was for it. This East Harbor Recreation Area seems to be more window dressing that a thoughtful consideration of a useful amenity. "Build it and they will come" is not always applicable.

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