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How a Bedraggled 303-Acre Wasteland Became the City's Next Big Thing

On the birth of Mission Bay.


Ghostly highway routes of the future are displayed on this 1960 aerial survey of a barren Mission Bay.

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I.M. Pei’s beautiful plan grew waterlogged.

Photo: Courtesy of Brian Stokle,

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This undated shot depicts the China Basin Building and Lefty O’Doul Bridge; the space at lower right is now occupied by AT&T Park.

Photo: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

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Blink your eyes in Mission Bay, and another complex resembling an oversize Rubik’s Cube appears. Perhaps no other place in San Francisco is busier transforming from what it was to what it will become. And yet, this neighborhood still fits the long-ago Shel Silverstein descriptor: where the sidewalk ends. You can ditch your car on the shoulder of an unpaved road here and trudge over detritus-strewn soil befitting a former rail yard or dusty Dirty Harry chase scene. But such unused spaces are vanishing fast. The future here is up in the air—literally. The shiny new office and residential complexes looming overhead epitomize Mission Bay far better than the few remaining half-paved roads.

Eventually, someone was going to do this: In this city, a 303-acre parcel of flatland bordering the water, a mile from downtown, was not going to remain a vacant lot forever. But eventually took longer than you’d think. Well into the 1990s, decades after San Francisco ceased to be an industrial city, Mission Bay was a sprawling, weed-choked wasteland where drifters lived in the high grass and wild beasties buzzed the houseboat dwellers. Ambitious plans to remedy the situation foundered, including an early 1980s design by I.M. Pei that featured high-rises sprouting from picturesque lagoons. At issue wasn’t Pei’s ambitious vision (which, to the modern eye, looks disturbingly like a city inundated by climate-induced sea-level rise) but the nuts and bolts of capital financing: Letters of credit were prohibitively difficult to obtain in the early ’80s. And Catellus—the Southern Pacific spin-off that owned vast swaths of Mission Bay at the time—balked at securing $30 million in upfront toxic remediation costs.

And so the weed-choked wasteland remained largely untouched from the Dianne Feinstein years until the era of Willie Brown— who had served as a Catellus lawyer and lobbyist and was therefore uniquely positioned to negotiate with the corporation. On the other side of the deal, Catellus’s then chief executive officer, Nelson Rising, a former campaign manager for Democratic senator John Tunney, was politically savvy enough to understand that when you’re negotiating with the city, getting most of what you want is a resounding victory. Thus, he was amenable to ceding around 30 prime acres to UC San Francisco gratis (the city chipped in 13 more), making the campus the anchor tenant of the slated Mission Bay development and dissuading the university (which employs nearly as many people as the city itself) from taking its planned expansion to Alameda. Ostensibly, the potential exodus of UCSF wasn’t Rising’s problem; his concern was transforming his company’s derelict land into a lucrative development. But he ended up getting that lucrative development by providing a fix for San Francisco’s problem: a very big, very free location for UCSF. “Once Catellus agreed to do that,” recalls lead city negotiator Rudy Nothenberg, “the negotiations began to flow quickly and well.” Everyone involved knew how to play ball.


David Prowler, the Mission Bay project manager under Mayor Brown, is fond of saying that a successful development must be both politically and economically feasible. Having the first without the second means that a favored project—I.M. Pei’s ethereal Mission Bay plan, for example—won’t be financed. And having the second without the first is the sad fate of all too many would-be San Francisco projects whose developers can’t run the gauntlet of the city building process. Mission Bay charted a tenable course, but, as Prowler and other city players involved in the neighborhood’s creation attest, it was not a course that could be navigated today. For one thing, Mission Bay was a creation of the state Redevelopment Agency, which was dissolved by Governor Jerry Brown in 2011. Thanks to an agency financial tool called tax-increment financing, property taxes in Mission Bay aren’t vacuumed into the city’s vast General Fund, but are specifically applied to building up and improving the neighborhood—an arrangement that’s no longer an option for a major project. Also gone is the autocratic nature of Willie Brown’s San Francisco, which, Prowler admits, made his job “much easier.” Brown had appointed the majority of the Board of Supervisors, and in that era the mayor still handpicked just about every relevant commissioner.

That concentrated power gave San Francisco a great deal of leverage in extracting desired concessions from Catellus. “The city wanted the best possible deal; it was friendly but it was contentious friendly,” recalls negotiator Nothenberg. “We wanted to get the goodies.” And they did: A full 28 percent of the housing in Mission Bay is categorized as affordable—an unprecedented total in the ’90s and plenty good even today—and there are set-asides for parkland, public safety, a library, and, in the future, perhaps a school. The pressure on developers that led to such amenities, Nothenberg laments, is not emanating from the mayor’s office in 2015. Now, he says, “they give the shop away.”

With the city actually minding the shop, Mission Bay accomplished just about everything that its creators envisioned: UCSF’s expansion stayed in town, new biotech businesses joined it, and thousands of affordable housing units were erected in what is possibly San Francisco’s most economically diverse enclave. What was for generations a fetid, deserted site is now the home of splendid waterfront parks.

And still, after all that, Mission Bay is not a living community. On a recent long holiday weekend, the grandiose university halls sat abandoned, as did the now ubiquitous Le Corbusier office towers. Toss your trash in a garbage can, and you break a spider’s web. The wide, virtually empty streets spread out beneath gaudy modern structures recall photos of the show cities of Turkmenistan. San Francisco has built a neighborhood, by definition, but it’s not a neighborhood. “A real urban place, particularly with street life, has some charm, some sense of rootedness,” admits Prowler. Mission Bay has none of that—yet. But development is always on the horizon here. To become a place, Mission Bay must develop in a different way.

Originally published in the November issue of
San Francisco

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