CHANGES IN THE URBAN WATERFRONT IN CALIFORNIA: Is the Working Waterfront Still Working?
The following is adapted from an article I had written about Urban Waterfront Development over 20 years ago. Its insights remain applicable today.
Almost every large city with a waterfront has a waterfront revitalization program planned or operating, as do many smaller cities. From Baltimore to Seattle, from Gloucester to Morro Bay, local governments and private developers are rebuilding the troubled, often forgotten neighborhoods which nurtured the original develop ment. In California, as well as the rest of the nation, the effort is underway to reclaim deteriorated and abandoned waterfront land for other uses. The decline of many ports and concentration of port-related uses in a few large ports have made sizable amounts of land available for other purposes and have presented many cities with unparalleled opportunities to redesign their waterfronts. This paper takes a look at some cities in California undergoing this process and reviews their accomplishments. It also attempts to describe some of the problems faced by communities seeking to revive their waterfronts. Finally, an attempt will be made to evaluate California’s experience in an effort to draw some conclusions as to whether the process is providing viable or sterile waterfronts.
The term waterfront obviously includes the shoreline with its piers, wharves, and immediate onshore environs. But the waterfront also includes an area behind the shoreline proper that perhaps are two or three city blocks deep, and which contains and can contain land uses linked to waterfront activities housed right on the shoreline. Everything from warehouses and marine suppliers to visitor-serving commercial uses and public institutions fit readily into this area. Gordon Cullen, in “The Concise Township,” described the waterfront atmosphere of the fishing-boat community of Brixham on England’s south coast:
“It is combined social and working centre; visitors promenade the quays and treat the fish market as a free entertainment; coloured sails and flags and the whirling wings of seagulls combine to create an effect—that of a busy industrial scene permanently en fete.”
The operative term here is “busy industrial scene permanently en fete,” a scene of commonplace but colorful work, perpetually in celebration. Cullen has described the quality that has traditionally made urban waterfronts such interesting, pungent environments, such a lure to people of all ages and conditions. Unfortunately, with the same phrase he also has described exactly those qualities now being sanitized out of many waterfronts by the process of prettification-for-profit.
The Decline of a Waterfront—San Francisco*
Nowhere is this lamentable process so evident as along the San Francisco waterfront. Where once there was an incredibly active scene of shipping, trade, commerce, boat building and repair, of fishing, seafood processing, and all the ship ment systems for these activities, today there remain only pockets of the former life, ghettos of real-life water-related uses. The repair yards and docks of the southern waterfront are still there, and a diminished Fisherman’s Wharf, where commercial fishermen continue to haul in their catch backstage, as it were, of the tourist show.
The bay shore is increasingly bedizened with tourist traps, tangential open spaces, hotels and motels, and within appropriate commercial and institutional uses such as law offices, ad agencies, and the San Francisco Eye Institute. Wharves and piers formerly a bustle with shipping and fishing pursuits that created what Cullen called a “combined social and working centre” have been replaced in many places with a travesty of a real-life waterfront, a public relations marketing figment of a disappearing reality.
Container shipping and automation began to take hold in the Bay Area during the 1960s, but the City and the Port of San Francisco failed to seize their potential and challenges. Consequently, for more than two decades, shipping and cargo steadily drained away to Oakland, Los Angeles, and the Northwest port cities. While automation and containerization produce, perhaps, a less colorful port environment than 19th century tars singing sea chanties or Harry Bridges leading his longshoremen against the shipping magnates, still a working seaport can be a far more interesting tourist lure than the evanescence of souvenir shops and wax museums.
The misjudgments of the ’60s and ’70s are barely beginning to be readjusted for the ’90s, conceivably too late with too little. A container facility has been proposed for Piers 30-31, where the great Matson Navigation Co. floated a flotilla of 24 or so freighters between the two world wars. Pier 50 near China Basin also has been proposed for container shipping. “Love Boat” type cruise ships still tie up on the beleaguered north waterfront, close to the Fisherman’s Wharf, and produce a $70-million-a-year business. Indeed, a recent report by the Port of San Francis co warns of losses to other port cities unless a new expansion program is under taken very soon. There will be little room for this expansion if the waterfront is increasingly occupied by non-maritime uses. San Francisco has negotiated with Israeli and Chinese cargo shippers for their use of Piers 94-96 further south along the Bay between Islais Creek and India Basin, near the industrial-military uses of Hunters Point.
This is in laudable contrast to the continuing push by developers, their design and planning consultants, and such groups as the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) for a waterfront dedicated principally to shops, offices, cafes and restaurants, tourist lures, and some housing, along, no doubt, with the ubiquitous urban decoration of information kiosks, twinkling designer lights and beguiling graphics, mini-parks, stalls for croissant and T-shirt sales, photo-opportunity sites for tourists, and places for performing mimes, all of which are more appropriate to Market Street, Union Square or Columbus Avenue than to a marine environment.
The waterfronts of smaller cities in California, unlike San Francisco, are often characterized by little available land for redevelopment, deteriorated public facilities, abandoned or underused public and private facilities, and inadequate or even non-existent public access to the water’s edge. The scale of development is usually small, so that residential and other uses are mixed in with or very close to the main “working waterfront” activity. Small cities typically had a single primary economic activity, fishing, for example, or tourism and therefore are more vulnerable to impacts resulting from economic changes.
There is often a curious lack of public or civic imagination concerning the opportunities to revive and enhance these small city waterfronts. I believe this response is partially related to a mistrust of urban density, heterogeneity, and activity. This mistrust takes many forms, including a preference for “coarse-grained” zoning and separation of uses, self-contained shopping malls, neatly manicured if antiseptic parks, lack of sidewalk activity, and, above all, no loitering. Many small cities which possess restorable waterfronts began ask or grew into, major centers for fishing (Eureka, Monro Bay), tourism (Oceanside), or other commercial or recreational activities. A sense of its history can provide a solid grounding for a community’s restoration effort.
The two main values of the waterfront, water – or shore-related industries and public use, provide a healthy focus for restoration in small cities. The pervasive “community orientation” found in small communities is a potentially powerful asset in assuring that a restored waterfront in not a sterile or private one. For in these smaller waterfront areas, one very often finds remnants of the vitality, variety, intimacy, and informality that marked them in earlier days. The challenge in such situations is to demonstrate that economic development and environmental enhancement for the public’s benefit can complement each other and are not antagonistic. The small size and scale of development and relative simplicity of small city waterfronts may also provide a great opportunity for enhancement, not replace ment. Scarce financial resources can be concentrated on limited possibilities. Physically, such sites frequently have particular scenic qualities associated with location and development scale that call for a few fairly obvious design solutions to retain a recognizable and desirable waterfront character and to promote public access to the shoreline without conflicting with marine industry. There are sometimes opportunities for mixing economic development and public access through grade or level separations or other “controlled access” approaches. Behind such a public and marine-oriented waterfront edge, a good deal of other development might be permissible without endangering waterfront use and atmosphere.
The historic community of Benicia lies on the shores of the Straits of Carquinez, the waterway linking San Pablo Bay and the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers. Established just before the Gold Rush as an ostensible rival to San Francisco, Benicia was California’s capital for a year from 1853 to 1854.
The departure of the capital, and the rapid rise of San Francisco 27 miles to the south as an urban, industrial, and shipping center, left Benicia with the reputation of a city of dashed expectations. But the failure to develop into a metropolis looks, in retrospect, like a boon: today Benicia is a thriving small city with 19th century ambience and unique charm.
Yet there is another far less obvious aspect of Benicia’s heritage. Just off the waterfront at the foot of West 12th Street, and visible only at low tide, are the remains of the Matthew Turner/James Robertson Shipyard, which launched 165 vessels between 1883 and 1903. It was the center of Pacific coast wooden ship building and one of the most significant shipyards in the United States in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Now it is a city waterfront park, one of California’s newest state historical landmarks, and a candidate for listing on the prestigious National Register of Historic Places. The city is working with the National Park Service, the State Coastal Conservancy, the Benicia Historical Society, and with private citizens and volunteers to create a unique historical park, archaeological preserve, and recreational facility.
The Matthew Turner Shipyard Park is a precedent for sensitive waterfront recreational development because it is cognizant of a maritime past that is not al ways tangible, but is of interest to the public. The survival, preservation, enhance ment, interpretation, and public use of a nationally significant historic site and its archaeological remains is unusual at a time of active urban waterfront development. As citizens continue to volunteer to bring about the project’s fruition, its value will continue to grow.
2. Point Arena:
Point Arena is a tiny incorporated city (pop. 450) on California’s north coast. One mile west of town, at the mouth of Point Arena Creek lies Arena Cove. Prior to the winter of 1983 the cove supported a wharf, batik shop, fishing equipment store, fish packing house, boathouse, skiff rentals, and a café. These facilities and services attracted commercial and sport fishing boats as well sport divers, all contributing to the overall economic activity of Point Arena. The nearest ports of refuge are Noyo Harbor in Fort Bragg, to the north, and Spud Point in Bodega Bay, to the south. Each is a twelve-hour run from Point Arena.
In January 1983, storm waves ravaged the cove, destroying the wharf and fish ing packing houses and severely damaging the café and boathouse. No commercial boats could be launched from Point Arena that year, and no fish were landed. Local support business such as restaurants, hotels, and campsites in the area suffered. During the following two years, at least 35 businesses either relocated or closed. The devastation caused by the storm, coupled with the decline of the area’s logging industry, proved extremely debilitating to the local economy.
To redress this state of affairs, consensus grew in the community that the cove should be developed into a full-scale commercial fishing and recreational port and harbor. The city of Point Arena was not eager to be the lead agency in administering a port district, so citizens formed the Arena Port Commission, hoping to create a legal entity that could contract for public agency funding.
The Commission set in motion the procedures for the formation of an official port district. By early 1984 it was developing a phased facilities restoration for the cove.
The city located potential state and federal funding sources for the planned construction. These included the State Coastal Conservancy, California Depart ment of Boating and Waterways, the State Wildlife Conservation Board, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the U.S. Economic Development Administration. These agencies’ regulations and policies, however, required that before a final funding commitment was made, the city acquire the necessary land.
The City of Point Arena lacked the financial resources for such a purchase. However, the State Coastal Conservancy, an agency set up in part to fund waterfront restoration projects such as this, was able to provide gap funding, there by enabling the project to go ahead. It approved grants for acquisition of land necessary for the permanent reconstruction of the fishing pier/boat launch facility. This initial boost to one element of a larger waterfront plan catalyzed an economic revival in the community.
Restoration of the cove highlights the importance of any agency like the Conservancy, which can offer expert advice and critical “gap” funding to small cities. The economy of the Point Arena area was tremendously dependent upon the coastal uses of the cove. Yet the city was completely unable to take on even the beginning aspects of the restoration effort without outside assistance. By providing initial funding and helping Point Arena realize one highly visible and immediately useful element of its larger plan, the Conservancy generated the impetus for further self-help and development in the area. Before the wharf was rebuilt, many local residents viewed Point Arena as a dying community. With Conservancy funding and some technical help, a turnaround was accomplished.
3. Santa Barbara:
The city of Santa Barbara (pop. 77,000) had a major economic/public access conflict regarding the future of its city-owned Stearns Wharf. The wharf was an historic and much-loved public structure that had evolved into the major regional recreational facility, but had been closed for several years because of severe fire damage and deterioration. With Coastal Conservancy assistance, the apparent conflict between maximum public access on the pier versus a self-supporting public enterprise was resolved. This accommodation arose from a regulatory stalemate in which the city and its developer claimed that the pier could not be rebuilt without a threefold increase in the amount of space devoted to revenue-generating development. The solution was a multiple-source funding arrangement, including the use of a little-known federal loan program (since defunded) arranged for by the Conservancy, as well as city and Conservancy funds. This enabled redesign of Stearns’ uses to leave three-fourths of the deck area available for free public access. In effect, the existing development “footprint” on the pier was rebuilt. The wharf reopened in October 1981, and in its first year of operation the wildly successful restoration grossed over one million dollars and was swarmed over by thousands of people who welcomed back “their” wharf.
A final example of a small city attempting to come to grips with its waterfront problems is the north coast of Eureka (pop. 25,000). In contrast to the previous examples, Eureka has suffered the severe and successive impacts of major adverse economic shifts in its two primary waterfront-related industries, commercial fishing and timber, over which it has had little or no control. Eureka has attempted to take advantage of its architectural heritage through a program restoring the old central neighborhood immediately behind its extensive if deteriorating waterfront. Attractive as it is, this effort has not yet generated the kind of significant economic revival hoped for by the city. The city’s damp, gray climate and disadvantageous location have limited its tourist and convention appeal. Moreover, there exists a local controversy concerning existence of degraded or threatened wetlands along portions of the city’s waterfront. These marshy areas and their adjacent uplands comprise remnants of the original Humboldt Bay shoreline that existed before European settlement. They are viewed by some as impediments to needed development, even while existing redevelopable areas remain idle.
Recently, the city apparently modified its emphasis on tourism and the kind of wishful convention-center development that has become almost a fashion for many coastal communities seeking an economic shot in the arm. Attempts are now being made to attract coastal-dependant industries that can make ready use of underused waterfront lands, even as the city continues to try various approaches to conserving its dwindling but unique wetland inventory compatible with its development needs. Stimulation of opportunities for other industrial growth, based on local strengths and advantages, may well prove more advantageous for Eureka than the tourist-oriented restorations being attempted farther south.
The waterfront redevelopment phenomenon reflects both private developers’ needs to maximize economic return and a widespread and deep-seated aversion to the diversity and “creative disorder” which historically characterized urban waterfronts. Meanwhile, many cities continue to grapple with the impacts of external industrial change on their waterfront industries, as well as on their own unique community outlooks. Urban waterfronts—whether on rivers, lakes, estuaries, or coastlines—face serious challenges in surviving economic and social change.Yet they also possess special opportunities for revitalization. With increasing metropolitan and small city growth, overuse of national parks, and other pressures on existing recreational facilities, redeveloping these urban waterfronts will gain in importance.
*Portions of this section are taken directly from an excellent article by Jim Burns entitled “Visions of a Vital Waterfront” (California Waterfront Age, Vol 3, No.2 State Coastal Conservancy, Oakland, 1987, pp.20-30). In that article, Mr. Bums goes on to describe the mostly ineffectual efforts by the Port and City of San Francisco and the people of San Francisco to preserve the working waterfront.
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