The Central Waterfront

One answer to San Francisco's housing crisis

SPUR Report March 1, 1998

Immediately south of Mission Bay there are approximately 500 acres of land bounded by Mariposa Street on the north, the Bay on the east, Islais Creek on the south and I-280 on the west. This land, along with Mission Bay, is commonly known by planners as the Central Waterfront. The Central Waterfront is under the jurisdiction of the Port of San Francisco and the City. Most of the land is zoned by the City for heavy industrial use (M-1 and M-2) and historically much of it has been used for industrial purposes, except in the "Dog Patch" residential neighborhood around 18th-20th Streets. In the June 1997 Waterfront Plan, the Port-owned property (about half of the area) was designated for maritime uses (shipping, cargo handling and associated back-up/storage land, ship repair, etc.). Although there is some viable housing and industry in the area, much of the land is underutilized. There are many owners of small properties in the area, but there are also several very large parcels covering about 240 acres that are owned by the City, State of California, PG&E or Catellus Development Corporation. Such ownership concentration could greatly expedite the transformation of this area for future use. With the Mission Bay area to the north finally being developed, this underutilized southern part of San Francisco's Central Waterfront is the next frontier.

Mapping Category

Zoning Category

Height Limit

Number of Acres

Number of Units

High Density Housing

RC 4




Moderate Density Housing

RC 3 RM 3

60' 45'

15 42

1500 2730

Lower Density Housing

RM 2




Neighborhood Commercial-Housing Above

NC 2 NC 3 NC 3

35' 55' 45'

10 23 9

250 1610

Mixed Office/Live-Work Residential


35' 45'

12 76

Public Schools




Open Space



Heavy Industrial






Total Units:      


Total Acres:    




Totals do not include SSO mixed office, (live-work residential) districts of 88 acres, or streets.

Within the SSO district; frontage along Tennessee Street may be developed as Neighborhood Commercial.

The SSO district east of Michigan Street may be redeveloped as a historic area.

Housing Opportunity

The Central Waterfront, meaning hereafter the 500± acres between Mariposa Street and Islais Creek, represents a major housing opportunity for the City of San Francisco. A new housing neighborhood located there would be in close proximity to an existing neighborhood, Potrero Hill, and would be about ten minutes from downtown San Francisco. There are over 200 acres of land in the Central Waterfront which could be used for low to high density market rate and affordable housing. Utilizing the existing street grid, a concept has been prepared that would accommodate about 10,000 new homes and up to 2000 live-work units. Multiple family housing developments, as well as housing over retail and live-work homes, could all be located to take advantage of new amenities that could be created here. There is ample acreage for elementary schools, a community sports park, shopping and substantial shoreline open space.

Expand Existing and Establish New Residential Neighborhoods

The concept plan envisions the revitalization of one older neighborhood and the creation of two new neighborhoods along Third Street, the area's primary transit and vehicular corridor. The City is currently planning a light rail line along Third Street, further enhancing the area's desirability. In the existing Dog Patch neighborhood, new live-work housing, loft and workplaces are starting to appear, in harmony with the existing older housing. More infill housing would be well-suited here. On the I-280 edge, there is land suitable for high density housing which can be built to about 80 feet in height with views to the Bay. From there, residential building heights would step down towards the water. Central to this neighborhood is a neighborhood retail street, Tennessee, where housing over retail would predominate. Nearby parks and an elementary school would provide essential public amenities that would become the focus for neighborhood social life. The land uses conceived here would constitute all of the features of a traditional San Francisco neighborhood.

Two new neighborhoods would be located north of Islais Creek, on either side of Third Street. A full spectrum of housing types could be accommodated in these areas. One neighborhood would contain higher density, mid-rise housing abutting I-280 with lower density housing nearer Third Street. This neighborhood would focus on Tennessee Street as the neighborhood retail street, and around its neighborhood parks and elementary school. Its southern edge along Islais Creek could be improved with green areas and would contribute to the residents' quality of life. Like the Dog Patch neighborhood, the parks and elementary school and shopping would be within walking distance of the residents.

East of Third Street, a lower density residential area would be oriented around its own parks and also toward the Bay. This neighborhood would have a long shoreline edge on the bay and the creek, including an inlet around which open space, casual recreation, retail or other water-oriented uses could be created. Townhomes and other lower density housing is possible here. On Third Street, larger floorplate retail would be appropriate on the edge of this neighborhood. This is one of several locations where a supermarket could be placed.

A community sports park between Dog Patch and the southern new San Francisco neighborhoods would separate the distinctive neighborhoods, but it would become a common gathering place. On both sides of Third Street, focal neighborhood parks and schools would be central to each residential area, while the ample shoreline open space areas would be used by central waterfront residents and residents citywide.

The area has bay shoreline and Islais Creek shoreline to enjoy. Wherever it is feasible, continuous public open space is envisioned, with key attractors strung along the way. These might include lawn play areas, performance amphitheaters, water-oriented retail, boat docks, fishing piers and the like.

Industry Opportunities

The Central Waterfront contains large areas suitable for existing industry as well as the next generation of industrial activities; these workplaces could occupy about 130 acres. Rather than displace most or all of the industry in the area, consideration has been given by SPUR to identifying areas where it can be consolidated within the plan area. This jobs/housing combination would reduce overall vehicle trip demand and could create more of a live/work area. Oriented around the existing land-intensive industrial uses at the bay's edge, areas anticipated for industrial activities include the area around the existing PG&E power plant/Pier 70 and the Pier 80 area. Near the power plant, more intensive industrial uses are expected, aggregating such uses near current large industrial structures and facilities. Except for the implied cost – the loss of this stretch of shoreline for public use activities – this would be an appropriate area where the remaining heavier industrial maritime uses and other related industry can be consolidated. Near Pier 80, a light industrial/R&D business park is located. Unlike the PG&E industrial area, the uses here would allow for public access along the shoreline perimeter. Alternatively, Pier 80 would be suitable for housing and would create more housing opportunities to take advantage of the bay shoreline for public enjoyment.



Implementation of major plans in San Francisco entails hundreds of incremental steps. Some of the key actions required are discussed below.

Establish Appropriate Zoning

The concept plan offers recommended zoning designations in order to illustrate the ideas for new development here. Some 10 different zoning categories are suggested. RC-4, for example, would permit high density housing. NC-3 would permit neighborhood commercial. SSO would encourage back office and live-work.

Revising the Master Plan

In the Central Waterfront Plan in the City's Master Plan, text written in 1990 allows for the area to remain primarily maritime and industrial, despite acknowledging that population, land use and employment have declined in past decades in the area. Where possible, the Plan called for additional uses on land determined to be surplus to industrial and maritime needs. Revisions to this area plan are needed that are based on an assessment of the quantifiable projected needs for maritime and industrial land and an aggressive approach for more intensive use of this valuable land. An amendment to the Master Plan should create a proactive vision for the redevelopment of the area as a vital mixed use district.

Amending the Waterfront Plan

The Waterfront Plan position that Port property along the Southern Waterfront (south of China Basin Channel) should be left for maritime and related uses, should be reevaluated. Data gathered about the future of maritime should be updated so that projected needs for maritime-related land are realistic. Citywide needs for housing and contemporary workplaces should be weighed against the economic realities of the demise of the maritime sector in our economy. Corresponding amendments to the Waterfront Plan to allow new housing and contemporary workplaces in the Central Waterfront should be made.


A substantial amount of investment is needed over the next ten years to improve and add public facilities and services in the area. These improvements can be made through a public-private partnership, perhaps under the auspices of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency (SFRA). Investigations as to the extent of the blight and the lack of services and amenities will be needed. A strategy should be devised for the City's various departments and, as appropriate the SFRA, to focus adequate resources to make enough demonstrable plans and improvements to attract private sector investment in the form of new housing and workplaces.


The concept that this paper presents by its very nature is preliminary and will require substantial further planning, design, site investigation and entitlement strategies in order to provide a plan that is both unique to this special part of San Francisco and practical. It is clear that any enlightened plan must and should incorporate input from San Francisco citizens, the area's property owners, the Port, BCDC, the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, the San Francisco Planning Department and the Board of Supervisors. The support and endorsement from the Mayor's Office also would likely expedite matters. Such input should be generated in the near future in order for a comprehensive Central Waterfront Plan to be issued that would permit the area's intelligent redevelopment. With proper rezoning, new housing in the Central Waterfront could go a long way toward relieving the City's current housing crisis. Like the Rincon Hill/South Beach plans of the 1980's which also looked at derelict, decaying neighborhoods, an appropriate plan for the Central Waterfront could transform it into a vibrant mixed use neighborhood-home to 25,000 San Franciscans. SPUR looks forward to discussion with City staff and decision makers, and to the City conducting further studies to establish that the plan is inherently feasible; environmentally, politically and economically.

This Report was drafted by the SPUR Housing Committee, S. Osborn Erickson and Tom Jones, co-chairs. Major contributors were Larry Dodge, Teresa Rea, Brett Gladstone and Jim San Jule. The idea of rezoning the Central Waterfront originated with Jim San Jule, who supplied the big idea, seismic maps, ownership lists, large-scale photographs, etc. Teresa Rea was the principal author. The Report was debated by the entire SPUR Board of Directors, refined and passed by the Board on January 21, 1998. It represents the official policy of SPUR.

Central Waterfront Update

Department of City Planning

The Department has advised us that in September it will be completing a citywide study that identifies the future acreage needs for each major type of land use in each part of the City, including the Central Waterfront. The results of the study and public comment upon it should be reviewed before additional SPUR work is done.

Port of San Francisco

The Port reviewed the concept and alerted SPUR to plans that are underway for the Port reuse of several specific parcels within the Central Waterfront area. Also, the Port commented upon inherent conflicts between existing prohibitions upon housing within the historic shoreline and SPUR's vision for portions of new neighborhoods (comprised of housing, parks and schools) there. Before any further planning is done, Port reuse plans for specific parcels need to be identified and the policy conflicts associated with housing on Port land would have to be reconciled.

San Francisco Municipal Railway

MUNI pointed out that it has relocation and expansion needs that are to be met on three sites within the Central Waterfront. The prospects for mixed uses on these sites, such as other uses above a MUNI maintenance facility, and the potential for land use conflicts between the MUNI operations and existing or proposed adjacent uses must be addressed before planning proceeds.

The Ad Hoc Committee for the New Central Waterfront Plan

In its letter to Mayor Willie Brown, this new committee, comprised of Potrero Hill and Lower Potrero Hill residents, outlined ten planning issues, including: equal consideration to existing residents and businesses; using regular Planning and Building Department planning and development channels rather than redevelopment; a City committee comprised of a majority of current area residents and businesses; reducing housing density by 1/3 to 1/2; the consideration of infrastructure needs; alternative rezoning; the need for adequate parks; protection of historic buildings; reckoning with the Tidelands Trust restriction on housing; and preserving the waterfront for uses consistent with maritime related industry/activity and public access. A public planning process that incorporates the input from residents and neighbors is anticipated.

Urban Ecology

With a regional perspective that encourages urban infill rather than sprawl, Urban Ecology endorses the concept but recommends that the housing be more dense and that the most dense clusters of homes be located along the Third Street Light Rail corridor. Urban Ecology also sees this area as an opportunity to implement innovative ecologically sensitive designs such as on-site wastewater treatment, rooftop gardens and community gardens. This point of view, which also is an endorsement of increased transit ridership, is expected to play a role in plan refinement.

About the Authors: 

This report was drafted by the SPUR Housing Committee, S. Osborn Erickson and Tom Jones, co-chairs. Major contributors were Larry Dodge, Teresa Rea, Brett Gladstone and Jim San Jule. The idea of rezoning the Central Waterfront originated with Jim San Jule, who supplied the big idea, seismic maps, ownership lists, large-scale photographs, etc. Teresa Rea was the principal author.

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