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What Would You Spend to Save San Francisco’s Ferry Building?

The effort to preserve the beloved landmark from sea-level rise epitomizes an existential struggle for historic waterfronts

San Francisco's Ferry Building.
Heatmap Illustration/Library of Congress

When San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza Farmers Market is in full Saturday swing, one way to dodge the determined foodies and casual browsers is to retreat to the plaza just 30 steps south of the Ferry Building. It sits atop three tiers of dark-veined granite, accessible by two flights of nine stairs or a ramp that ascends along the water to a trio of ferry gates that, like the plaza, were completed in 2021.

The chosen height hints at what someday might be the norm — the elevation where San Francisco’s constructed shoreline will need to be to serve as a protective buffer between the natural bay and the developed city. Here, more than any place on today’s Embarcadero, you confront the existential predicament facing the Ferry Building, nearby piers, and resurrected waterfronts in other coastal American cities: sea level rise.

According to projections that were modeled by climate scientists in 2018, San Francisco Bay faces a 66% likelihood that average daily tides will rise 40 inches by 2100, with roughly half of the increase during the next 50 years and the pace accelerating after that. The same report includes an extreme but peer-reviewed scenario where the projected increase soars to 93 inches during that same period — making grim numbers profoundly worse.

So-called king tides already arrive monthly during the winter, a natural occurrence related to the moon’s gravitational pull that can send waves washing past Pier 14 into the Embarcadero’s protected bike lane. Behind Pier 5, water swells up and over the edge of the public walkway. For now, that occasional splash of excitement is less fearsome than fun — but if current forecasts are anywhere near accurate, future generations will face a double bind.

The threat isn’t just that tides might creep upward as temperatures increase. It’s that the extreme rainfall patterns we already experience will grow more intense, those destructive storms that in recent years have introduced terms like atmospheric rivers and bomb cyclones into conversations about the weather. For instance, if daily tides are a foot higher in 2050 than they are now — the “likely” projection — a major storm could surge 36 inches beyond where it would register today.

In the case of the Embarcadero, the hypothetical one-foot rise coupled with an “intense storm” — the sort that in the past might occur every five years — would send bay waters rushing toward the roadway in a dozen locations if the storm hit when winds were brisk and the tide was high. Kick the downpour’s fervor to the scale of the bomb cyclone that hit the Bay Area in October 2021 — a day-long deluge that was the equivalent of what scientists call a 25-year storm — and the Embarcadero could be closed for nearly a mile between Folsom Street and Pier 9. Water spilling across the roadway could flow down into the BART and Muni subway beneath Market Street, potentially paralyzing both systems.

The new plaza and the elevated ferry gates might rebuke the surging tides to come, but the landmark next door would be more vulnerable than ever. The Ferry Building has ridden out many perils since opening day in 1898, from earthquakes and the onslaught of automobiles to political tumult, misguided renovations, and the wear and tear of urban life. Now it faces the implacable though seemingly far-off threat of rising waters, as if nature was determined to restore the marshes and tidal flats that long-dead San Franciscans covered and forgot.

The addition of the granite plaza is an indicator of the danger facing the icon to its north. And it’s not as if our hefty landmark with that vaulted concrete foundation can be jacked up out of harm’s way.

Or can it?

An aerial view of San Francisco’s Ferry Building and the Embarcadero.Michael Lee/Getty Images

Steven Reel headed west from Philadelphia in 1992 to earn a structural engineering degree at Stanford University because, he says now, “structural engineering means ‘earthquakes’ at Stanford, and earthquakes make structural engineering a lot more interesting.” The Bay Area was a good place to live, and local governments were investing heavily in seismic upgrades after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. In 2010, Reel successfully applied for a job at the Port of San Francisco and, to his surprise, grew intrigued by the historic aspects of making an urban shoreline function in the here and now.

“I’d start studying old engineering drawings for projects and then go down the rabbit hole,” recalls Reel, an easygoing bureaucrat with a beard that approached Rasputin-like proportions during the pandemic (he since has trimmed it back). He also began to notice regional planners stressing sea level rise in meetings.

His first project at the port was Brannan Street Wharf, where two ramshackle piers midway between the Bay Bridge and the ballpark were torn out and replaced by a four-hundred-foot-long triangular green. The response to climate concerns involved a slight upward incline from the Embarcadero promenade and a concrete lip along the edge (the same move since used for the plaza near the Ferry Building).

There was another natural threat to consider — the possibility that a tremor on the scale of the Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake could strike again. Would the Ferry Building and the seawall hold, as before? Or would the three-mile-long agglomeration of boulders and concrete give way after all this time? Reel found himself with a new job title — manager of the seawall program — and responsibilities that included a $450,000 study with consultants being told to diagnose the barrier’s health and prescribe possible remedies.

The findings, released in April 2016, answered some questions and posed a host of others.

The good news is that even with a cataclysmic earthquake, “complete failure of the seawall is unlikely.” The rocks and boulders that form a dike beneath the concrete wouldn’t scatter like marbles. The Financial District wouldn’t be sucked into the bay toward Oakland. But the combination of sandy fill atop soft mud, behind an aged barrier with thousands of potentially moving parts of varying size, is a dangerous combination. The fill was “subject to liquefaction,” the report confirmed, making it likely that the seawall could slump and lurch outward.

“A repeat of the 1906 earthquake is predicted to cause as much as $1b in damage and $1.3b in disruption costs,” the report declared. Better to strengthen the entire three-mile seawall before a disaster struck — though the cost estimates to do this were “on the order of $2 to $3 billion.” The consultants also emphasized that even with an upgraded seawall, the slow-moving threat posed by sea level rise “will necessitate intervention ... over the next 100 years.” Figure that in, and the combined price tag approached $5 billion.

The city approached voters with a $425 million bond in 2018 to fund the first round of projects; smartly, the campaign emphasized seismic concerns, lightening the ominous message with such creative touches as a neighborhood brewpub’s limited-release sour beer dubbed “Seawall’s Sea Puppy.” The bond passed with 83% support. “The earthquake message resonates,” Reel says. “Without it, I don’t think all this would have moved forward as it did.”

It makes sense to tackle the easiest fixes early, given the seismic threats posed to the Bay Area by the San Andreas and other faults. Breaking a daunting future into manageable parts also allows the Port and City Hall to shift attention from the more eye-popping aspects of climate adaptation — such as how potions of the Embarcadero might need to be raised as much as seven feet to prepare for 2100’s more extreme projected water levels.

Which leads us back to the Ferry Building.

As so often has been the case during the landmark’s history, far more is at stake than one particular structure. If the Ferry Building in its heyday represented San Francisco’s prominence within the region and beyond, in the 21st century it embodies how urban waterfronts can be reinvented without sacrificing their past identities. At the same time, the building remains essentially the same as it was in 1898 — a heavy structure of concrete and steel that covers two acres and rises from a foundation atop bundled piles of tree trunks.

The assumption for the past 25 years has been that the landmark’s impressive performance in 1906 and 1989 should ensure similar resilience when the next big earthquake hits. But the most recent geotechnical exam revealed a weak link: the section of the seawall behind the Ferry Building rests in a trench filled with liquefiable sand rather than the rubble that underlies almost everything else. That detail places “the 125-year-old Ferry Building Seawall, building substructure, and surrounding piers at risk of damage in large earthquakes,” according to the most recent Port update.

This isn’t just a concern for architecture buffs. San Francisco’s disaster relief plans treat the outdoor spaces around the landmark as crucial spots for retreat and regrouping. In a worst-case scenario where the Bay Bridge is knocked out of commission, as was the case in 1989, reliable access to a functioning ferry system will be crucial for evacuating people from the downtown scene safely. The new plaza can also serve as a staging area for bringing medical aid and supplies into the city over the water. Regular people who need to connect with family and friends know there won’t be confusion if someone says “let’s find each other at the Ferry Building.”

One solution could be to erect an entirely new seawall around the edge of the Ferry Building’s foundation, in essence creating a basement beneath it. And if you’re doing that, it’s only one more step — albeit sure to be costly and complex — to raise the entire building by several feet and resolve the challenge of sea level rise for another lifetime or two.

“With the Ferry Building, the one thing I know about it is that it has to be saved … it has such a strong identification with the city,” Elaine Forbes, the executive director for the Port, says. “So I talked myself into okaying this big expenditure.”

The Ferry Building, pictured in 1906 after the San Francisco earthquake and fire.Library of Congress

Realistically, adaptation planning in San Francisco and other waterfront cities will involve a variety of responses at a variety of scales. But the situation facing the Ferry Building, as at so many times in its history, is unique unto itself. This time around, the task is to remake a bustling civic icon so that life seemingly goes on as before. If anyone has challenged the need to invest what likely will be hundreds of millions of dollars to save a 125-year-old structure, the argument has gained no traction.

“The price would have to be really, really high before anything would think twice” about whether the Ferry Building’s salvation is more trouble than it’s worth, Reel says. He describes how during the public discussions on what to do about the Embarcadero, attendees would be asked to list priorities. What are you concerned about? What do you love?

In the latter category, Reel recalls, “the Ferry Building kept getting named. People want to see it forever.”

This still leaves an array of unanswered questions. How to decide how big of an engineering gamble to take. Whether to raise the structure, as implausible as that sounds, or build a new seawall to the east that would destroy the immediacy of the connection to the water. And what becomes of the tenants inside the building, especially the locally based merchants, if the building once again becomes a construction zone.

In a much different context, one San Franciscan offered a fatalistic take on what the future might hold: Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Four years before his death in 2021, still living in North Beach, Ferlinghetti sat down in a neighborhood café to talk with a Washington Post writer about the beat era, the 97-year-old poet’s life, and his enduring love for the city that he embraced long ago. At one point, the writer asked Ferlinghetti about what might happen after he was gone.

“It’s all going to be underwater in 100 years or maybe even 50,” Ferlinghetti said with a half-smiled shrug. “The Embarcadero is one of the greatest esplanades in the world. On the weekends, thousands of people strut up and down like it’s the Ramblas in Barcelona. But it’ll all be underwater.”

This article was excerpted and condensed from John King’s book Portal: San Francisco’s Ferry Building and the Reinvention of American Cities, available on Nov. 7 from W. W. Norton & Company ©2023.

John King profile image

John King

John King is an urban design critic at the San Francisco Chronicle and a two-time Pulitzer finalist. The author of two guidebooks to San Francisco architecture and an honorary member of the American Society of Landscape Architects, he lives in Berkeley, California.


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