Monday, August 16, 2010

Reminiscing on the Embarcadero and Envisioning St. Louis' Own Grand Boulevard

When I moved to San Francisco in 2002, I was extremely lucky to land a job at a great law firm handling some of the most exciting urban projects then underway in the city.  Most memorably, my firm represented the developer of the Ferry Building, which was at the tail end of a $100 million renovation and was on the cusp of opening as a marketplace dedicated to local and regional farmers and food businesses.  As a young attorney, I marveled over the opportunity to handle some of the lease-up work for the historic building and to tour the gorgeously restored space prior to its public opening.  Other Embarcadero projects that I was fortunate to work on included the mixed-use development of Piers 1 1/2, 3 and 5 (immediately north of the Ferry Building), and the renovation of the Waterfront Restaurant at Pier 7.
San Francisco Embarcadero, and Ferry Building
My involvement with the Embarcadero was far from merely professional, though.  Over the almost four years I lived there, I spent innumerable hours on and near the  boulevard.  Many afternoons, my wife and I would take a quick stroll to meet halfway between our offices (I worked in the heart of the Financial District, and she ran a day school near the base of the Bay Bridge), stopping for lunch at the Ferry Building, along adjacent Market Street, or in nearby Justin Herman Plaza.  Saturday mornings often included a trip to the Ferry Building farmers' market, and many of our walks through the city included tours of the waterfront.

In restrospect, it is hard to believe that, only a few years earlier, this beautiful, well-developed strip at the city's eastern edge was physically and psychologically cut off from the rest of the city.  Like so many other urban highway projects of the mid-20th century, the Embarcadero Freeway was a disaster in city planning, completely separating San Francisco from some of its greatest natural and manmade assets.  Removal efforts failed for decades, until the otherwise tragic Loma Prieta earthquake rendered the highway unusable and proved the city's fears of traffic gridlock to be baseless.
Embarcadero Freeway blocking Ferry Building
from the city, 1960s.

Although San Francisco and St. Louis are enormously different cities, they—and many other cities—share a common history of suffering the effects of poor urban highway planning.  San Francisco's residents are fortunate to have been reconnected to the Ferry Building, numerous waterfront piers, and the rest of the Bay.  The result has been a renaissance of the waterfront, an explosion of adjacent property values, and significant development including the projects with which I was fortunate to be involved.  As stated in City to River's blog, the boulevard today "accommodates large volumes of traffic, pedestrians, cyclists, and public transportation alternatives, and is considered a huge success by almost all San Franciscans."

By the time most people read this post, St. Louis will have gotten its first glimpse into the possibilities for the future of its own waterfront.  Luckily, it doesn't have to take a natural disaster to reconnect our city to its own greatest assets, as the Framing a Modern Masterpiece competition—together with the rerouting of Interstate 70 over a new Mississippi River bridge—affords the region a unique opportunity to heal its wounded riverfront proactively.  When I reminisce on the Embarcadero, I envision for St. Louis' riverfront a similarly vibrant boulevard shared by pedestrians, cyclists and motorists alike, incorporating key intersections and urban connections, and free of abominable infrastructure barriers.  When the five design concepts are unveiled to the public on Tuesday morning, we will have our first clues as to whether the design teams share that vision.

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