Chase Center’s opening: Nearly 40 years in the works, Mission Bay plan finally realized



The opening of the Warriors’ Chase Center arena is a coming-out party of sorts for San Francisco’s newest neighborhood, nearly 40 years in the works


The opening of the Warriors’ Chase Center arena is a coming-out party of sorts for San Francisco’s newest neighborhood, nearly 40 years in the works


The opening of the Golden State Warriors’ Chase Center next week will mark the flamboyant and unexpected finale of a 40-year exercise in city-building, San Francisco style.

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The scene is Mission Bay, a 60-block area that begins 1 mile south of Market Street and for a century consisted of rail yards and industrial sheds. The debate about how to revive it at one point included a proposal for lagoons and a canal. Even now, despite the presence of more than 10,000 residents and a UCSF campus, many Bay Area residents know it only — if at all — as the blur of stocky buildings between the Giants’ ballpark and Interstate 280.

This is bound to change as Chase Center hosts countless large events. starting with a Sept. 6 kickoff concert featuring Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony and the Warriors’ first preseason game on Oct. 5. Visitors will gauge the young neighborhood by what they see around them — good or bad, exciting or dull — not by comparing it to the plan approved in 1998 that remains on the books.

But the false starts and early expectations are worth revisiting, because Mission Bay — more than any other single piece of San Francisco — shows how difficult it is for cities in today’s America to map out what the future will hold.

Urban planning can lay down rules, but it can’t control cultural shifts or what the economy might bring. Especially in a dynamic but unpredictable region like the Bay Area, real life calls the shots.


b231e 920x1240 Chase Centers opening: Nearly 40 years in the works, Mission Bay plan finally realized

A view looking west down China Basin Street from Fourth Street, which is the main shopping corridor in the new Mission Bay neighborhood of San Francisco.

(Photos By Jessica Christian / The Chronicle | San Francisco Chronicle)

In many ways, Mission Bay’s transformation is remarkable.

The 303 acres created with fill after the Gold Rush form the base for buildings that range in size from five to 16 stories and hold nearly 6,000 apartments and condominiums, as well as 3.5 million square feet of office and laboratory space. More than 60 acres are reserved for a UCSF research campus and an 878,000-square-foot hospital.

A dog park recently was added across from an ebulliently designed playground. The city’s police headquarters opened in 2015, two blocks north of where Uber is building its headquarters. Apartments for formerly homeless people look out on a locally themed miniature golf course that has become a social destination.

But viewed more subjectively — as “another uniquely San Francisco place,” to quote the goal laid out by City Hall in 1987 — there’s less than meets the eye. What was conceived as a neighborhood instead feels like a puzzle, a collection of parts.

Some parts are alluring, to be sure.

A stroll along Mission Creek, a wide tidal waterway where egrets and seals are common, offers an urbane antidote to urban stress. Gus’s Community Market, which opened last winter and specializes in fresh produce and reasonably priced sandwiches, spills out onto the sidewalk at Fourth and Channel streets.

But too many large blocks are filled with monolithic slabs — or, more recently, slabs covered in a variety of colors and facades used by architects to try and suggest you’re viewing multiple buildings. Passageways intended to make large blocks pedestrian-friendly often look stark. The same goes for the small plazas that accompany many of the office blocks.

The newest piece of the puzzle is the most surprising yet: Thrive City.

b231e 920x1240 Chase Centers opening: Nearly 40 years in the works, Mission Bay plan finally realized

Construction workers and nearby buildings are reflected in the windows of the Chase Center, the Warriors’ new arena in the heart of their 11-acre Thrive City along Third Street in Mission Bay.

(Jessica Christian / The Chronicle | San Francisco Chronicle)

That’s the name the Golden State Warriors gave the 11 acres that include their privately funded arena as well as two 11-story office buildings. Restaurants and bars will line a large plaza off Third Street on the west side of the arena, below a 2,500-square-foot video screen.

The Warriors entered the scene in 2014 by purchasing the land from Salesforce, which at one point intended to build its headquarters there. The Thrive City branding comes from a marketing deal with nearby Kaiser Permanente that reportedly will net the team as much as $295 million over the next 20 years.

The only real opposition to the Warriors’ move came from wealthy UCSF supporters, who filed a lawsuit charging that the facility violated the Mission Bay plan. They also warned that event traffic would block access to the huge UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital San Francisco.

That legal attack failed. Construction began in 2017.

Traffic concerns are legitimate, and Thrive City indeed covers blocks once planned as part of a biotech zone. But the hospital wasn’t part of the 1998 plan, either. Nor was software giant Salesforce, which hadn’t yet been founded.

The presence of the Warriors encapsulates the saga of Mission Bay’s long path to reality: Many elements of the landscape that has emerged could not have been conceived when the developers, politicians and planners started work.


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Mission Bay as solid ground dates to the 1870s, when Southern Pacific Railroad bought tidal flats and filled them with soil and debris to conjure up a rail yard that could serve a fast-growing port in a fast-growing city.

A century later, the port had withered and the freight lines were in decline. Southern Pacific responded by trying to turn its holdings into real estate gold, hiring architects and other consultants to create a plan that would both turn a profit and win public support.

Some of those plans were formulaic. Others, in hindsight, have a fantastical allure — such as the elaborate vision by legendary architect I.M. Pei, released in 1983, to loop a canal through the acreage south of Mission Creek, place an island in the middle and cluster a trio of 40-story towers, intended as corporate icons, at the north end.

The response by Mayor Dianne Feinstein? A chilly letter informing Southern Pacific that the height limit would be eight stories and 30% of all housing units must be affordable.

The city then decided to draw up its own plan, which took until 1990.

By then, Art Agnos was mayor and corporate towers were no longer in demand. Companies wanted what was known as “back-office” space. San Francisco saw Mission Bay as the ideal location.

Catellus, the real estate arm of Southern Pacific, agreed to the new approach. But voters said no, narrowly, and plans were tweaked again (more affordable housing, fewer offices) before City Hall gave the official green light in 1991.

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    New apartments and office buildings are seen reflected in the waters of Mission Creek, which is home to the only longtime residents of the Mission Bay neighborhood, a community living aboard 20 houseboats moored in the creek.

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    New apartments and office buildings are seen reflected in the waters of Mission Creek, which is home to the only longtime residents of the Mission Bay neighborhood, a community living aboard 20 houseboats

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    Photo: Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

  •  Chase Centers opening: Nearly 40 years in the works, Mission Bay plan finally realized

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New apartments and office buildings are seen reflected in the waters of Mission Creek, which is home to the only longtime residents of the Mission Bay neighborhood, a community living aboard 20 houseboats moored in the creek.

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New apartments and office buildings are seen reflected in the waters of Mission Creek, which is home to the only longtime residents of the Mission Bay neighborhood, a community living aboard 20 houseboats

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Photo: Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

That’s how things stood in 1994, when Nelson Rising became head of Catellus and was confronted by a plan that already seemed obsolete. It was filled with restrictions imposed by developer-wary critics, including a requirement that offices and housing always had to be built simultaneously no matter what the larger economic picture might be.

As for the idea that back-office space could generate the revenue to pay for public benefits like affordable housing, good luck. Technology had advanced so quickly that such outposts of Financial District firms no longer even had to be within the Bay Area.

“I looked at the plan and saw that it wouldn’t work,” Rising, now chairman of Rising Realty Partners, said this summer. “We wanted to have something that would be flexible, to take advantage of alternatives that might come about.”

What broke the logjam, and cleared the way for today’s still-evolving neighborhood, was a new mayor and a new economic model.

Taking stock of Mission Bay

Size

303 acres. This includes 60 acres that form the academic medical center of UCSF Mission Bay.

Open space

41 acres are in the plan — 19 acres have been completed.

Housing

5,789 units completed so far, with 271 more under construction. The neighborhood plan allows 6,500 units, roughly 30% of them affordable.

Offices and research space

2.6 million square feet have been completed with an additional 1.8 million square feet under construction. This includes 913,000 square feet in four buildings along Third Street — all of which will be occupied by Uber.

Civic uses

The headquarters of the San Francisco Police Department is on Third Street, and there is a branch library on Fourth Street near Mission Creek. One block on the neighborhood’s west side is reserved for a public school.

Next up

Besides the obvious answer — Chase Center, new home of the Golden State Warriors — a 250-room hotel is scheduled to open late next year. Work has begun on a 5.4-acre bayfront park with a ferry terminal set to open in 2021.

Source: Mission Bay Development Group and San Francisco’s Office of Community Investment and Infrastructure


Willie Brown took office in 1996. He’d not only been state Assembly speaker, but an attorney with Southern Pacific as a client. He also knew that two large civic players were in a bind: Catellus, which needed something to revive its development efforts, and UCSF, which had almost given up on its search to find room within the city for a new campus.

“We had the serendipity of a new mayor who had experience in deal-making,” said Kofi Bonner, part of Brown’s staff at the time and now a top executive at the development firm FivePoint. “Willie was able to connect the dots.”

Soon there was a new vision: UCSF would receive 43 acres from Catellus and the city if it agreed to build its research campus in Mission Bay. The gamble was that the university’s presence would give the long-stalled project an anchor, while helping to attract biotech firms that instead were setting up shop in places like South San Francisco.

The plan approved unanimously by the Board of Supervisors in 1998 included a districtwide affordable housing requirement of roughly 30%, one holdover from Feinstein’s time. Catellus agreed to build and maintain 43 acres of parks. Mission Bay’s 20 houseboats were protected in perpetuity.

This new approach also made it easier for developers.

Brown made Mission Bay a redevelopment district, a move that helped pay for infrastructure upgrades by using tax revenue that otherwise would have gone to the state. The square footage that Catellus had hoped to build on the UCSF land was spread across the rest of Mission Bay — one reason so many blocks within the neighborhood look so stubby.

The blocks intended for medical research, meanwhile, were zoned so that standard offices could be built as well. This paid off when biotech proved to be a fairly minor presence. The city’s ongoing tech boom has filled the void instead, with recent commercial buildings being designed for the likes of Uber and Dropbox.

Dean Macris, who served Feinstein and Agnos as planning director, takes the various twists and turns in stride.

“A big project like Mission Bay, there are going to be false starts,” said Macris, who also served as the city’s top planner under then-Mayor Gavin Newsom from 2004 until 2008. “As time passes, needs change.”

John Rahaim, who succeeded Macris in 2008 and remains the city’s planning director, admits to mixed feelings about what took shape.

“Mission Bay is definitely of its time,” Rahaim said this summer. “Some parts are interesting, but … it’s not what we would do now.”

I-280 skirts Mariposa Park at the southern end.

(Jessica Christian / The Chronicle | San Francisco Chronicle)


Mission Bay makes two seemingly contradictory points about the value of long-range planning.

It can’t predict the future. But it can lay the groundwork for profound change.

The futility is seen in how plan after plan depended on economic assumptions that were confounded again and again. Corporate towers weren’t the financial engine. Nor was back-office space. The UCSF gamble paid off, but it hasn’t sparked the biomedical boomtown that was anticipated.

Notions of what constitutes “good” urban design aren’t carved in stone, either.

Tall buildings were taboo anywhere outside the Financial District during the 1980s, which is why Feinstein could cap those Mission Bay towers at eight stories. The plan now on the books allows twice that, and 28 acres the Giants now use as a parking lot along China Basin at the north end of Mission Bay will sprout 24-story towers under the plan approved by voters in 2015.

More subtle assumptions, no matter how well-intentioned, can also fall short.

Consider Mission Bay Commons, intended as a five-block grassy stretch modeled on South Park and the Panhandle.

The two blocks that are fully landscaped, closest to the bay, get little use despite lawns and shaded benches. The blocks to the west, where food trucks and the miniature golf course were added on a whim a few years ago, draw people throughout the day.

“If you do a plan well enough to set the table, so to speak, then people find ways to make things work,” said Karen Alschuler, whose firm SMWM worked on the parameters of the 1998 plan. “The details change, but you need to provide the infrastructure.”

At a scale like this, infrastructure refers to more than streets and sewer lines. It’s also the framework of where parks are located or how wide the sidewalks will be — the human touches that can make a place feel inviting.

27efa 920x1240 Chase Centers opening: Nearly 40 years in the works, Mission Bay plan finally realized

Structures made of twigs and other tree materials are inside the busy Mission Bay Kids’ Park, where children swing on monkey bars and other play structures, which opened in 2016 along Long Bridge Street.

(Jessica Christian / The Chronicle | San Francisco Chronicle)

Those elements could be the ones that ultimately define Mission Bay’s public image.

A big part of what makes this area feel so unlike other San Francisco neighborhoods is that it has developed one block at a time, one big piece after another. But as the pieces come together, with trees and shrubs and plants in between, what looks awkward from afar is more comfortable up close.

This is starting to be the case along Fourth Street south of Mission Creek, which seems relatively cozy and is intended to be the neighborhood’s retail corridor. Around the corner on Long Bridge Street, the commotion at the children’s playground makes more of an impression than the architecture around it.

“The public spaces are coming into the foreground and the buildings are settling into the background, and that’s the way it should be,” said Kelley Kahn. Now a policy director for Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, Kahn worked on Mission Bay for San Francisco’s Redevelopment Agency from 2006 until 2013.

“Some buildings are better than others, but the collective scale is what’s key,” Kahn commented after a walk through Mission Bay this summer. “This is how it was supposed to feel.”

The aim of planners through the 1980s and early ’90s was to craft a plan for Mission Bay where every possible outcome was preordained. That wasn’t realistic then. It’s even less realistic now as technology and social trends continue to take new forms.

Instead, a 21st century neighborhood has emerged. Mission Bay is home to people of all incomes, while absorbing unexpected elements such as a hospital and a sports arena with relatively little controversy. There’s a lively residential scene in Dogpatch to the south and a mix of new housing and commercial complexes on the other side of I-280 to the west.

With each passing year, it becomes harder to tell Mission Bay apart from its surroundings. In some ways, that’s the best measure of success that a long-range plan can have.

John King is The San Francisco Chronicle’s urban design critic. Email: jking@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @johnkingsfchron



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