Life on the Water

From the balcony of his redwood-shingled houseboat, Bob Isaacson points out a cormorant perched on a piling on the other side of Mission Creek, its black wings spread to dry in the sun. Above the bird's head, a crane — the tall, metal kind — lifts a pallet of lumber to a half-finished condo building.

“So far, the birds are staying,” says Isaacson over the sound of the nearby pile driver, its thud as steady as a heartbeat.

Not so long ago, the birds and about 50 houseboat denizens like Isaacson were their neighborhood's only residents. But what's now called Mission Bay is being transformed around them: There are chunky residential buildings clad in taupe plaster, slender young trees, and prosperous people strolling past the ballpark, Frappuccinos in hand. The condos bursting up on the north side of the creek should add 3,000 residential units to the neighborhood in the next few years, while about 3,000 more units are expected to be built around UCSF's new campus to the south.

When Isaacson moved here almost 30 years ago, his boat featured a view of defunct rail yards and the lovely stench of raw sewage, which overflowed from the sewers and gushed down the creek after a rain. He still loved it. “I was thinking in terms of romantic living,” he says. Yet he knew even then that his abandoned Eden wouldn't stay that way forever. “Basically, it was waiting for something to happen.”

The owners of the 20 houseboats that line the creek are currently talking with the Port of San Francisco's Real Estate Division about extending their lease. While in past negotiations — several decades ago — port officials looked for ways to eventually evict their floating tenants, now relations are more amicable. The houseboat residents are lucky, says Isaacson: There's no “higher or better use” for this narrow stretch of water and shoreline. So while their new neighbors across the way will pay upward of $800,000 for a two-bedroom condo with a water view, the boat owners expect to bob along into the future at a few hundred a month.

For now, both cormorants and bohemians can hold onto their niches in this funky little ecosystem. “We're really pleased with the developers and the Redevelopment Agency — they recognized the importance of keeping the wildlife here.”

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