Has Mission Bay Finally Arrived?

By David Grayson of Medium

For years, the neighborhood of Mission Bay has triggered ambivalence, having been called “an oddly hollow work in progress” and the “Most Misunderstood Neighborhood” in San Francisco.

Such impressions are understandable. Built from scratch, the former industrial area (once used as a dumping ground after the 1906 earthquake) has few historic buildings or signature structures. Instead, new mid-rises and high-rises dot the streets rather randomly alongside ongoing construction, giving many spots a disjointed feel. Its identity seems similar to the UCSF Medical Center — functional but uninviting.

However, during the past year, the nascent neighborhood has clearly and visibly reached a turning point. Without much fanfare, Mission Bay has graduated from being a hodgepodge collection of buildings to a tangible to a thriving community — one of the most exciting in the city.

Of course, the area will soon become a citywide destination, with the highly anticipated and shiny new Golden State Warriors arena set to open in August. From October to April (and hopefully through the playoffs to June), people from all over the Bay Area will descend on Mission Bay’s waterfront for years to come for basketball games, not to mention the concerts and other performances the stadium will host. Plus, new adjacent office buildings (which will house Uber, among other companies) will draw in thousands of workers daily.

The promise of so much foot traffic has caused the rest of the business community in the neighborhood to ramp up to create a more bustling, vibrant energy. But what has it taken to get here from what once was? Let’s take a look back.

For those who grew up watching reruns of “The Streets of San Francisco” or the “Dirty Harry” film series, the transformation from decrepit industrial wasteland is almost unbelievable.

Like other parts of San Francisco along the bay, Mission Bay was originally one part marsh and one part open water, abundant with fish and wildlife — even bears, whose bones were found in local shell mounds. Following the gold rush, it housed a shipbuilding center. Slaughterhouses arrived later near Mission Creek and, later, a railyard. The district lay dormant until development kicked off after 1998.

The sheer scope of growth since then has been nothing short of remarkable. The 1998 master plan called for 6,400 new homes, of which 28 percent would be affordable. Over two-thirds of these units are complete, in addition to many of the parks, like Mission Bay Kids’ Park and Koret Quad. In addition, the neighborhood got a new library branch in 2006 along the creek, and a new public school is planned to open in August 2023.

“There were only two buildings — there was no community, no reason to go south, because there was no Mission Bay South.”

For longtime city residents or those who simply grew up watching reruns of The Streets of San Francisco or the Dirty Harry film series, the transformation from decrepit industrial wasteland (where fictional police chased fictional bad guys) is almost unbelievable.

Bruce Agid, a native San Franciscan and 10-year resident of Mission Bay North (the zone above Mission Creek), said that when his family moved to the neighborhood in 2009, nearly nothing existed south of the creek.

“There were only two buildings — there was no community, no reason to go south, because there was no Mission Bay South.”

Detractors have described some of the buildings as closed off from the street as well as cookie-cutter. But a stroll around the neighborhood shows examples of engaging architecture, including Mercy Housing’s 1180 4th Street and the Arden. As for the consistent building pattern, Agid says he thinks there’s a silver lining to the uniformity:

“You can’t tell a market-rate building from an affordable-housing building, and which are rentals and which are condos,” he said, adding that having a large percentage of affordable housing has brought “richness into our community.”

Peggy Fahnestock and her husband moved into one of those two original buildings south of the creek, the Radiance, in 2009 after living in the Haight for 25 years. Now active in the Mission Bay Neighborhood Association, she said that it’s been difficult for restaurants and retail spaces to find tenants in the past but are seeing them more quickly fill with the promise of upcoming foot traffic, mainly from the impending Warriors arrival. Indeed, a recent walk along 4th Street between Channel and Long Bridge reveals that there is already a spectrum of businesses, including restaurants like Tadu Ethiopian Kitchen and Casey’s Pizza. Some of these businesses include stalwarts from other neighborhoods (for example, Gus’s Community Market, which opened in December 2018).

“All of a sudden, it’s become a commercial corridor,” Agid said. “This is the community that we said was going to evolve. It’s not done, but it’s here.”

Fourth Street is joined by Spark Social (a food-truck park), which opened in summer 2016 and features a steady stream of events, drawing residents from other areas.

Spark Social food truck park. Image courtesy of SparkSocialSF.com

In addition to upping the local-business game, residents and neighborhood leaders are thinking about what it will take to make Mission Bay a long-term community, given that it has a significant number of households with young children. That includes assessing the housing stock (largely comprised of one- and two-bedroom units), the opening of the new school in less than five years and how to expand transit options. While Mission Bay North is saturated with transit options (including Caltrain), transportation is lacking in the south.

“The biggest issue is transportation,” Fahnestock said. We have one line — the T Line. The service runs from irregular to lousy. The walk up to the N Line is a hike.”

The SFMTA is constructing a new platform on 3rd Street to accommodate the crowds anticipated for events at the new arena. But this does not address the larger service problems, including trains being subject to vehicle traffic.

Despite some of these unresolved elements, a visit to the neighborhood today will show that it nevertheless has already coalesced into a cohesive community. As Fahnestock notes, it feels “vibrant” with “lots of people out on the streets.”

While Mission Bay is home to a major hospital and a new arena, the older elements have remained symbols of the neighborhood — Mission Creek and the 4th Street and Lefty O’Doul Bridges. The bridges are archetypal “old San Francisco,” and the creek is, of course, pre-San Francisco. Both serve as symbolic and concrete gateways for visitors and valuable reminders that even a brand-new district is rooted in the city’s history.