Growing by the Bay

Category: embarcadero

Ice Rink at Justin Herman Plaza

ice rink at justin herman plaza

As I write this the Bay Area is experiencing a cold wave: in the city the highs are barely crawling into the 50s, and the lows are barely staying in the 40s. The East Bay is dipping into the 30s, and some frosts have been reported.

The weather’s right, so why not go skating? The photo above shows the ice rink at Justin Herman Plaza, with the Ferry Building in the background (the plaza is located at the foot of Market Street, by the Hyatt Regency Hotel; the Embarcadero BART and MUNI stop is nearby). The plaza is named for the former head of the San Francisco redevelopment agency in the 1960s. He had Washington connections and through them brought a lot of money into the city, although it might have been spent more wisely, since this was not a distinguished period for the city’s architecture, to say nothing of its societal issues.

Still, the plaza is a pleasant place to hang out. It’s a nice open space, and tends to be sunny (the city is noted for its many microclimates). Although there is a lot of turnover in the shops by the plaza, there’s usually a good cafe to get a cup of coffee and watch the scateboarders.

vallaincourt fountain (detail)

Many residents object to the Vallaincourt Fountain (detail above) — built in 1971 by the French-Canadian sculptor Francois Vallaincourt — which is the plaza’s most prominent (some say “hulking”) feature. Popular, curmudgeonly columnist Herb Caen said the fountain looked like a “pile of poop,” and the city basically laughed the sculptor out of town, though they never quite managed to get the fountain removed. San Francisco Chronicle architectural critic Allan Temko echoed Caen in describing the sculpture as “a fountain deposited by a dog with square intestines.” (I’m among the small minority who find the sculpture acceptable.)

The ice rink is open for seven weeks, from November 8 through January 2, 2007. Adult admission is around $10, including skate rental. Information: 415.837.1931,

Embarcadero Piers Restored

view from piers

For years now strollers along the Embarcadero have passed a stretch just north of the Ferry Building where nothing much ever seemed to be happening. This is piers 1½, 3, and 5, where nearly derelict building have long lain dormant. (Odd-numbered piers are north of the Ferry Building, formerly the main entrance to the city, and even-numbered piers are south of it.)

Once used for riverboats, freighters, and other vessels — including the Delta King and Delta Queen river steamers, with their stained-glass windows and mahogany staircases, which connected the city to Sacramento from Pier 3; the sternwheeler Petaluma, the last riverboat in the West, based at Pier 5; and Delta-bound ferries based at pier 1½ — the piers have long since ceased to function as a working port. By 2000 they had been red-tagged by the city as unsafe.

Now the piers are being restored by private investors (at a cost of more than $50 million). They will house offices, shops, and restaurants. A dock for yachts and water taxis is planned. A “promenade” will allow public access along nearly a mile of waterway, from the Ferry Building to Pier 14 (the piers were formerly closed to the public).

I took a walk through the piers today. Although the walkway has been opened to the public, there was still a lot of constuction going on. It’s hard to be sure, but it doesn’t appear that most of the space has been let (at about $70/square foot, it’s as expensive as just about any real estate in town). The architecture is rather undistinguished but generally respects the historic structures (probably the biggest faux pas is the line of enormous lights that hang down over the walkway).

ugly lights

In the end the pier restoration is more than redeemed by its public access and the open views of the bay, with Yerba Buena island and the Bay Bridge in the background.

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