GRAND PRIZE WINNER: Ferry Building, San Francisco, CA
A veritable antique marking the city’s waterfront, San Francisco’s Ferry Building underwent numerous renovations over the years that hid its original Gay ‘90s architectural charm and function.
In 1957, planners dealt a final blow to the nearly 240,000-square-foot building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The once-picturesque structure was hidden behind the newly constructed Embarcadero Freeway, efficiently severing the building’s relationship to Market Street and the rest of the city.
The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake damaged the freeway, and it was removed in 1992. With the historic Ferry Building once again visible, city officials realized that bad planning hid a true gem and set about to revitalize not only the building but San Francisco’s languishing waterfront, a former industrial area. The city issued an RFP for redevelopment in 1999.
A team of local developers led by Wilson Meany (now Wilson Meany Sullivan LLC) and Cornerstone Properties won the job. Chicago-based Equity Office Properties’ acquisition of Cornerstone Properties positioned EOP’s role in the Ferry Building rehabilitation as the controlling member of the development team and the principal financial investor behind the project. The Ferry Building Investors team also includes Primus Infrastructure LLC and Banc of America Historic Ventures LLC.
“The city’s RFP set forth two distinct objectives,” notes Chris Meany, a partner at Wilson Meany Sullivan LLC, the San Francisco developer that worked on the project team. “They wanted to restore the building and rehabilitate it in an appropriate way. They also wanted to draw the public to the waterfront.”
The project’s functionality is centered on being a major transportation thoroughfare, while serving as a professional office and retail space and an artisan food merchant center.
Construction of the preservation project began in 2001 and has melded the best of the Ferry Building’s former glory with modern, innovative retail and premium office space. The project’s varying phases began to open earlier this year and should be complete by fall, returning this structure – which sits along the waterfront between the new PacBell Park and Fisherman’s Wharf – to its original grandeur and restoring its status as one of San Francisco’s most cherished landmarks.
A Colorful History
In 1893, the San Francisco Port Authority commissioned well-known architect A. Page Brown to design the Ferry Building, or the Union Depot and Ferry House, as it once was known. A student of the Beaux Arts, Brown drew upon Neo-classical elements, installing prominent arched entry pavilions flanked by Corinthian columns and arcades. The building’s predominant clock tower, standing 240 feet high, was based on the bell tower of the famous Seville Cathedral in Spain.
“There was an amazing attention to proportion and the way the design works within the volume of space,” Meany says. “That kind of architecture is a bit of a lost art.”
The terminal opened for business in 1898 and for the next 25 years was one of the busiest transportation hubs for commuters ferrying across the Bay, and also for trains arriving from the East. During the height of its popularity in the Roaring ’20s, the building served more than 100,000 travelers each day, making it second only in traffic flow to London’s Charing Cross Station.
Ferryboat travel into San Francisco remained popular through the 1930s but dropped off by the 1940s, thanks to the construction of the Bay and Golden Gate bridges. As use of the Ferry Building dwindled, the structure began to fall into disrepair and underwent changes in use.
Brown’s glorious Central Nave, the building’s primary public and decorative space, was carved up into office spaces in 1955, housing the World Trade Center in the north half of the structure. The facility’s vintage charm was all but gone. And somehow, in the process, it lost its soul.
Restoring the Heart and Soul
“It wasn’t conceivable to anyone that you could reclaim the space,” Meany says. “But we thought the hall that was lost is the very soul of the building. The best thing we could do is reclaim that hall.”
By breaking the three-story-high, 660-foot-long Central Nave free of the boxy 1950s offices, the project team – lead by historic preservation architects Page & Turnbull of San Francisco and general contractor Plant Construction Co. – meticulously rehabilitated the area, using original materials when possible.
At the beginning of the project, 90 percent of the Nave floor was covered by mosaic and linoleum or was damaged by alternations. Five workers spent nearly one year on their knees to restore approximately 16,500 square feet of mosaic, replacing nearly 140,000 individual tiles. The rehabilitation also included a polishing technique that applies ground walnut shells to the tiles in order to restore them to their original sheen.
The Nave walls also were painstakingly restored. Composed of brick and terra cotta, they were reconstructed using a variety of methods and materials, ranging from traditional brick and masonry to pre-cast stone and fiberglass panels. These restorations, teamed with the removal of incompatible windows installed in the 1950s and 1960s, returned the west elevations to the building’s original 1890s appearance. The crew also structurally enhanced Brown’s magnificent clock tower.
New construction on the east, south, and north elevations provides a unified design that echoes the historic features, which also include exposed wrought-iron trusses and gabled skylights and 11-foot-high, arched bayside windows to provide natural, central lighting.
Because of the building’s spot on the National Register, all changes also had to meet the Secretary of Interior’s Standards of Historic Rehabilitation.
Modernize It and They Will Come
The redevelopment project reached beyond restoration and rehabilitation of the space, however. The project team knew that the building needed to offer the finest in retail and office space to be attractive on the leasing market and to keep people motivated to return to the waterfront.
“We looked to make this project something unique today and into the future,” says Greg Rose, vice president of development for Equity Office Properties.
Developers and designers worked closely together to make the project “best use” while preserving its original integrity. Besides specialists Page & Turnbull, the team included two other San Francisco architectural partners: Simon Martin-Vegue Winkelstein Moris (SMWM) as the office architects and Baldauf Catton Von Eckartsberg (BCV) Architects as retail architects.
“We set about creating office space that would really fit into the premier tier in the market,” Meany says. “We strived to meet every requirement that any top-tier tenant would have for Class A office space and still give them the incredible luxury of space. You can even open the windows.”
The modernization effort included installation of centrally monitored security, fire, and safety systems; state-of-the-art mechanical systems; Category 5 copper data cables and fiber-optic cabling; and a 190-person conference facility with full A/V capabilities, as well as crucial seismic and structural enhancements.
In a region famous for seismic activity, the Ferry Building is a testament to structural integrity. The building has withstood the city’s great 1906 earthquake and subsequent fires that devastated the city, and was restored in 1907. It continued to stand erect during the 1989 earthquake, despite the fact that tremors destroyed the freeway that stood directly in front of it. The new enhancements, developers say, will further enhance the building’s staying power in the event of future quakes.
The building now offers 175,000 square feet of office space on the second and third floors, combining the best of technology with landmark elegance, not to mention great views. Completely unobstructed in all directions, the encompassing view from the building includes nearly every San Francisco landmark, from the Bay Bridge, Yerba Buena and Treasure Islands, Angel Island, and the East Bay cities and hills to Coit Tower, Twin Peaks, and San Francisco’s historic neighborhoods.
Bayside offices are immersed in natural light, reflecting off the water through floor-to-ceiling windows that open.
“There’s a difference between having a view from the top of a building and having an operable window,” Meany says. “Boats are coming in and out. This is very much an active ferry landing. That’s the romantic side of it.”
City-side work areas feature a look at the beautiful Embarcadero landscape and an impressive view of the city’s skyline.
“We were able to do a gut of the interior while preserving the unique historic detail. The bones of the structure were good, and within that, we were able to create efficient office space,” Rose notes. “We think that today’s tenants find it appealing as will tenants 15 years down the road. It’s an investment that will pay dividends for years and years to come.”
Key office customers signed include Coblentz, Patch, Duffy & Bass LLP, which has leased 69,843 square feet of Class A office space. Stone & Youngberg LLC, one of the oldest investment banking firms in the West and a fixed income securities specialist, has leased 34,500 square feet of space.
Retail Gem on the Bay
The Ferry Building redevelopment project also includes the creation of a first floor “Marketplace” space that encompasses approximately 65,000 square feet. This “gourmet retail destination” features innovative restaurants and showcases the best of Bay Area food and locally grown sustainable agriculture.
Merchants are being recruited based on their offerings of exceptional quality products, including cheese, meat, poultry, coffee, bread, olive oil, wine, fresh produce, and hand-crafted specialty foods. Preferably, they are produced through farming practices that support the primary goals of sustainable agriculture: environmental health, economic profitability, and social and economic quality.
“We passionately believe the consumer is sophisticated,” Meany says. “They don’t want to be led through a rat maze of a traditional mall. San Francisco has a food culture that is known around the world. We saw an opportunity in the architectural space we were creating to give these producers a home. These are great, idiosyncratic, high-quality producers who are, for the first time, coming together in this great market after operating individually for years in the Bay area.”
The Marketplace, which already has secured 21 merchants – including Acme Bread Co., Creamery Artisan Cheese Shop, The Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market, Sur la Table, and Frog Hollow Farm, among others – is designed to spill out of the building’s interior and onto the promenade, drawing in curious passersby.
A Success Story
The Ferry Building once more serves as a crossroads for all points of public traffic along San Francisco’s waterfront. Each day, more than 11,000 ferry passengers arrive at the Downtown Ferry Building Terminal, connected to the building. That number is expected to increase as tenants move into the building’s retail and office space.
Equity Office Properties reports that as of late April, the building was 63-percent leased. With signed letters of intent in hand, the retail figure alone is up to 85 percent.
The Bay Area Water Transit Authority is optimistic about the building’s early success and plans to expand ferry service over the next decade, with a five-fold increase in passengers. Public transit already runs the length of the Embarcadero, and the esplanade on the Bay side of the Ferry Building will be reopened to pedestrians, returning the entire property to public use.
“Each time you come back, you continually will be surprised by the newness of the effort,” Rose says. “It is an incredible project.”
Robin Suttell, based in Cleveland, is contributing editor at Buildings magazine.