Back to the Future?
Design Vision, Public Infrastructure, and the San Francisco Waterfront
tells the story:
San Francisco’s water wonderland, a natural public “pool,” is hiding in plain sight at the heart of the city’s northern waterfront. Aquatic Park, a national park with a storied past and decidedly local origins, has served generations of San Franciscans who want to enjoy the water. Dreams of the park took root in the mid-1800s, when local workers and enthusiasts would swim and row in what was known as Black Point Cove, a sheltered area amidst an industrial hive. After decades of community advocacy, Aquatic Park was finally established in the area by the City of San Francisco, the park’s incremental realization finally culminating in the 1930s with the assistance of the federal WPA program. The distinctive art deco structures seen on the site today were the result of a design competition and were created to support public water recreation.
Nearly 100 years later, the park is once again the focus of city and federal attention. The deterioration of its linchpin marine infrastructure – an iconic pier that defines and protects the park –has spurred a new wave of advocacy to fix it.
And Mariana Ricker, an SWA associate and landscape designer, is in the thick of it.
Since SWA’s 2018 annual summer student program made the park subject of its study, the firm has been actively involved in reimagining the area and how new investments can point to a promising future.
We asked Mariana to tell us more about what’s happening.
Why is Aquatic Park and Pier important?
A couple of things about it are really interesting within the context of San Francisco. Going all the way back into its longer-term history, when the indigenous Ohlone peoples had a settlement at Black Point, the natural bluff that shelters the swimming cove. It was a sacred place for them then and continues to be important to that community today.
Black Point is the only remaining piece of natural shoreline all along the San Francisco waterfront – everything else has been modified or filled to some extent – so from an ecological perspective, that makes it interesting.
The site has accommodated a lot of different uses – industrial, military — so it is also interesting in terms of what it takes to affect urban transformation. It took a lot of effort to establish Aquatic Park in that place, and even more to build it. Change is slow but it also has transformational moments—when big things can happen. We might be at one of those moments now.
The point of the vision study is to spur investment that can ensure continued and renewed vibrant public life on the waterfront, addressing things that are important today. Public access to outdoor space in an urban setting. Attracting a diverse demographic.
The museum is free; it’s a free park, entirely open to the public for swimming, boating, and use of the pier. Any events held there are intentionally open to the public. And it’s unique to have this calm, sheltered water just steps away from urban San Francisco – that’s pretty special. So, it’s about preserving the authenticity of the place and its character, but also opening it up to a more diverse swath of visitors.
But to do these things, you’ve got to shore up the park’s infrastructure, which in this case means rebuilding a historic, iconic pier: one that will also address the challenge of sea level rise.
You have been involved with the effort since the 2018 Summer Student Program. What has transpired in the interim? Where does the project stand today?
SWA’s summer program really galvanized the Aquatic Park and Pier Project, the non-profit group we’re now working for. The outcomes of the program gave them a great deal of substantive analysis and creative ideas to work with. It set the stage for the vision study we’re doing today.
Aquatic Park Pier needs to be rebuilt – it’s falling apart – that was well-known, and was a topic examined by the students in 2018. Another contributing factor to the project was the passage of the 2020 Great American Outdoors Act, which directs federal funding for infrastructure projects in the land-based agencies.
This funding was perceived as way to possibly fund the reconstruction, but it became clear pretty quickly that the federal government wasn’t just going to dole out a bunch of money to replace a pier without looking at the bigger picture of the entire park and its surroundings, especially given at the estimated price tag.
In Spring of 2020, we were hired as consultants for the vision study: a real project as opposed to the pro-bono work we had done previously with the summer student program. It is intended to engage the public and to identify the possibilities for this place: looking not only at the pier, but at how the area connects back to the city and to the greater northern waterfront as a system, as well as to Fort Mason, which is a different national park but could be more integrated with Aquatic Park to the benefit of both.
Community engagement is the foundation of the Vision Study is. For the last year or so – during the pandemic (which made outreach more challenging) – we’ve been conducting Zoom meetings, compiling survey results, and looking for other fun and creative ways to build excitement.
The Aquatic Park and Pier website has become a great resource for constituents to learn more about the project. We also put together a video utilizing a fun, playful, sort of “cartoony” style just to give people a sense of what the spaces could feel like, while not getting super-specific about design or materials.
Mingyao Wang, in our San Francisco studio, developed all of the graphic content and our intern, Kapp Singer, who is currently at Yale and had some previous video experience brought them to life, combining the sketches with content provided by the firmwide imaging team to tell a graphic story. I then narrated the video to highlight the opportunities and it became a great way of opening up a dialogue with people in the public meetings.
The milestone that we’re wrapping up currently is the vision study booklet.
We’re working with the Aquatic Park and Pier steering committee to produce a booklet detailing the vision, that we will be used as a reference for federal funding requests as well as from other potential sources.
Once that funding has been secured, the study will serve as a resource for different agencies to identify projects in their respective jurisdictions and work toward a common goal. Obviously, SWA would love to continue to be involved after the study concludes and as RFPs start to come out – potentially for a master plan, or to tackle individual projects within the area.
We are particularly excited about changes to Van Ness Avenue, which serves as a main entry to the park and once extended all the way out onto the pier. We’ve been meeting with Public Works to explore ideas for Van Ness between Bay and Beech Streets. Thankfully, they’ve been enthusiastic about the ideas we’re suggesting in the vision study, and are already seeking some grant funding to improve those two blocks to help create a new gateway there. It will reduce the roadway’s width and introduce enhanced pedestrian space and new streetscape planting. It’s exciting to see the ideas come to fruition.
What is your role in the project? What challenges or successes have stood out to you in your role?
I got involved in the project through coordination of the 2018 Summer Student Program. But I had already had some familiarity with the site. To kick off the vision study, (San Francisco Managing Principal) René Bihan was involved with developing the big ideas and laying the groundwork for the rest of the study. I came on board about halfway through the process.
My role has primarily been to facilitate the community engagement and now my task has been to pull together everything we’ve heard and synthesize it into the vision study document.
What have the public meetings been like?
The outreach has been successful – surprisingly so, due to COVID. A lot of people are excited about the project, expressing their interest during the series of Zoom meetings we’ve participated in. The engagement process has been largely led by our client, the Aquatic Park and Pier Project organization.
Feedback has been almost overwhelmingly positive, although I think as much as that can be credited to SWA, it is also just reflective of how special the site is. Either way, it has been hugely rewarding to be part of the big ideas discussion and feel the support the community has for the future for this place.
The video was very useful in conveying our ideas and laying out the framework for our subsequent Q+A time, during which Associate Principal Fran Hegeler (who is an active user of the site as a swimmer and rower) urged people to speak out.
One of the things we learned in the process was the importance of dialogue. The short video teed that up, and allowed greater emphasis on and time for open dialogue. The feedback was more valuable than the longer and more formal presentation format that we used initially.
As things became safer under COVID, were able conduct some 1:1 on-site, in-person outreach through one of the Park Service partners. They call it the “Roving Ranger,” and it is an information kiosk nested in a converted food truck. It has enabled more outreach to communities that may not have convenient Web or Zoom access.
In terms of challenges, there are just a ton of people and different entities involved in the site. There are the National Parks’ jurisdictions, the city, and the private swimming and rowing clubs that rely on the cove. The steering committee has brought together all of these disparate groups to the point that now, as we’re wrapping up the vision study, there are a lot of different perspectives to bring together into a single voice.
Also, some of the ideas for connecting Aquatic Park to Fort Mason are historically contentious, although mildly so for such a diverse group of stakeholders.
Districts 2 and 3 would prefer to restrict access around Black Point, for example, while the lower Fort Mason community leans toward more connectivity – the hill there is not very ADA-friendly, but the options for a bridge around or opening the tunnel through the hill will involve significant funds and greater consensus building with the community. We’re advocating to keep both options on the table, as we feel the vision study should be open to all options that are technically feasible and that political and cost considerations can be addressed further in the future.
Are there amenities planned that are specifically intended for locals vs. the four million tourists who visit San Francisco each year?
It’s really a blend. It’s a national park, obviously, so it has to be geared toward visitors of all types. But it’s also a city park: that was its origin.
Our outreach has been more focused on locals – preserving the integrity of a site that is essentially in people’s “backyard.” But universal elements like adding and improving restrooms, supporting recreation, and installing educational and wayfinding elements, are definitely goals that will serve all users.
What ideas from the 2018 Summer Student Program have moved forward? Why?
For all of the programs over the past 50 years, SWA has really encouraged the students to be provocative – to think and design without many “guard rails.” What the program did in a big way was opening the conversation and catalyzing public interest, rather than providing specific design solutions per se.
I recall that several students explored the idea of something at the end of the pier. One idea for example, was installing a Ferris wheel at the end of the pier to draw people out there. Obviously that would be extremely unlikely to ever get approved and implemented, but the instinct to have something that draws people out there – an art piece, or a monument of some sort – is an important aspect of the vision for the pier.
In addition, the program brought a lot of public attention to the work of the Aquatic Park and Pier organization and helped to raise its profile and expand its advocacy for this very special place.
In a dream scenario where everything goes as intended, what do you see as the outcomes?
The vision study focuses on five main areas for improvement which, if they move forward, could be transformational. By improving ADA accessibility and establishing clear wayfinding and identity, visitors will be able to understand the way the park works and access its connections to surrounding park lands much more easily.
I’m especially excited about improvements along the waterfront and what we are calling the “Van Ness Seam”. These two axes have the most potential to improve the place, and are definitely the priority. I’m also interested in the improvements needed to address sea level rise and risks of storm surges outlined in the project vulnerability analysis.
One key question: how to unite all the jurisdictions to make this portion of the waterfront feel like a unified place? Upper Fort Mason and Fort Mason Center both have some concurrent projects underway so our study is more focused on the edges: establishing gateways and clear circulation connections… all while preserving opportunities for discovery and exploration.