Mission Bay: The Most Misunderstood Neighborhood

What do you make of a place whose crowning aesthetic achievement is a 10-story parking garage?

It’s not as transparently fake as the recently rebranded “East Cut,” but suffice it to say that Mission Bay mostly earns limpid scorn from most of the rest of San Francisco. As neighborhoods go, it doesn’t elicit white-hot hatred the way the Marina does, nor does it generate online lava bombs like newly redeveloped parts of the Mission. But almost everyone agrees that the neighborhood squandered an opportunity to make something world-class out of the former Southern Pacific railyard. Instead, we got Irvine Jr.

But is that a fair assessment? Is Mission Bay — which remains approximately two-thirds finished per the 30-year timeline of its 1998 master plan — really so bad?

Granted, block-long monolithic architecture with virtually no engagement at the pedestrian level feels quasi-dystopian, and parts of the quadrant bounded by Terry A. Francois Boulevard and Seventh, Townsend, and Mariposa streets feels fatally artificial. But the dilemma Mission Bay presents might solve itself with time. You can’t build an organic community from the top down, but you probably can’t build much at all without a rigid document governing the whole shebang for three decades. The trick lies in how much flexibility the plan allows.

Pulling back, it’s a much larger issue than simply San Francisco, too. The current flood of humans into central cities nationwide isn’t going to change anytime soon; if anything, it’s an overdue correction to the aberration of mid-20th-century deindustrialization and white flight. Seattle, Denver, Washington D.C., Boston, Atlanta, and Minneapolis are all experiencing the same phenomenon: stagnant or falling populations from the end of World War II until the early years of this century, then roaring growth.

“Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough,” as John Huston says to Jack Nicholson in Chinatown. It’s unfair for self-appointed guardians of taste to wrinkle their noses at lot-filling McMansions on exurban cul-de-sacs and simultaneously shit-talk dense, transit-centric urban infill. We can’t all live in handsome 1908 Edwardians with egg-and-dart. Remembering that late-19th century row houses were denigrated as monotonous and tastemakers considered Victorians to be money pits and fire-traps until the mid-1960s, we might do well to sit tight on our judgment of Mission Bay until it fully comes into its own, sometime around 2028.

That’s a tall order — and besides, no one’s going to let vines creep up a condo’s entire glass-and-steel facade like some Collegiate Gothic hall. Ugly is ugly. But if we want to balance the housing crisis against the desire to preserve existing neighborhood character, we’re going to have to hold our noses and celebrate large-scale 2010s development.

On background, SF Weekly spoke at length with someone intimately familiar with Mission Bay. They’re a vociferously pro-transit individual who would be a proud YIMBY according to the current taxonomy of San Francisco’s housing debate — a polluted discussion, but still — and they defend Mission Bay on several key grounds.

First, this person is glad that the Warriors, Kaiser, and UCSF went in where more biotech did not. That would have required enormous amounts of lab space, with fewer workers overall and a higher ratio of parking — a recipe for a deadened urban fabric.

As it is, the liveliest part of Mission Bay is almost an accident. Spark Social, an offshoot of SoMa StrEat Food Park that opened in June 2016, is considered “active open space,” and the current plan is for that much-loved food truck pavilion to be removed, because that parcel is slated to be “passive open space.” In other words, it’s going to become lawn — just like two other segments of lawn a couple blocks east, which comparatively few people do anything on. But in the lengthy process through which planners solicit the public’s opinion, lawn is what people say they want. Still, Parklab (of which Spark Social is but one part) recently expanded its footprint to include more ball courts, a sign that it might not be all that temporary. In contrast to the nearby Yard at Mission Rock, which comes to life only on game days, it’s a wild success for a neighborhood with previously minimal street life.

“It’s getting more use than any other part of Mission Bay and getting done on a schedule that’s years ahead of” what they would be able to build a park on, this expert said.

The other salient point is that Mission Bay will eventually contain a great deal of affordable housing. When completed, it will consist of 6,400 homes in all, approximately 30 percent of which (1,900) will be affordable in some capacity. All the market-rate housing is now built out, and many of the remaining future projects are already under construction, allotted for veterans, formerly unhoused individuals, families with children, and other underserved populations. Considering the scale of the present emergency, that’s a lot of homes for a lot of people.

Knowing human nature, though, that method was a risk: A population affluent enough to afford market-rate condos will almost certainly include at least a few individuals who will try to fight future growth, even if it had been baked in from the start. But doing things in that order was essential, as the primary mechanism for building affordable housing in a redevelopment area like Mission Bay is through a Tax Incrememt levied within that specific area.

That this population influx is moving into a downtown-adjacent neighborhood with better-than-average transit is undeniably good. But it’s also true that District 6 — which spans Mission Bay, SoMa, Treasure Island, and the western half of the Tenderloin — shoulders the burden of constructing new housing while outlying neighborhoods like the Richmond shirk responsibility under the frequently dubious pretext of preserving neighborhood character. (A few thousand more units along the Geary corridor with amped-up bus service probably wouldn’t gut the Avenues.)

Further, many Mission Bay buildings with affordable units have more architectural flair than the neighborhood’s reputation suggests, and certainly more than the beige medical behemoths. But long blocks, the preponderance of hospitals, and the lack of virtually anything built before 1990 all skew the picture toward the bland. On this point, compare Mission Bay with Hayes Valley, which has seen dramatic redevelopment on the parcels the Central Freeway’s removal opened up. Hayes Valley’s otherwise rich housing stock allows it to visually absorb these occasionally hideous condos without degrading the overall aesthetic.

Amid Mission Bay’s cranes is one particularly enormous development: the new Warriors arena. The 18,000-seat Chase Center is scheduled to open in September 2019, and while it doesn’t appear to have a lot of room for the inevitable Ubers and Lyfts navigating around it, it will breathe gale-force life into the area.

What Mission Bay urgently needs, the planner argues, is “more fine-grained development,” and “smaller parcels that can take some risks and be more experimental.” In other words, it needs people to pick up from planners — something that’s already happening at the corner of Fourth and Long Bridge streets, where Casey’s Pizza, Reveille Coffee, and the pedestrian traffic they generate look and feel like a real city. The law of induced demand — basically, “if you build it, they will come” — is what causes newly widened freeways to return to previous levels of congestion within months, like a post-Carmageddeon I-405 in L.A.. But with a shrewd, hands-off approach, it can also encourage real people who live real lives to take over a sterile urban environment, eventually. Give Mission Bay time.


Read more from SF Weekly‘s Mission Bay issue:

What’s It Like to Live on a Houseboat in Mission Creek
Please don’t change the channel, this tight-knit neighborhood of 20 houseboats asks. But Mission Bay is on the move.

Mission Bay Has More Parks Than You Think
In a rare push for green spaces, 40 acres of parks are planned for residents of the 6,400 new housing units in Mission Bay.

Bio Companies Are at the Root of Mission Bay’s Growth
Before the Golden State Warriors staked claim on Mission Bay with a new arena, biotechnology companies and healthcare providers spent two decades turning it into a medical hub.

The Lefty O’Doul Bridge: A Feat of Steel and Engineering
The drawbridge that connects SoMa to Mission Bay was built before the Golden Gate Bridge even broke ground.

The 10 Best Places to Eat and Drink in Mission Bay
Food trucks and fine dining in a neighborhood that doesn’t always get a lot of love.

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