Community Rallies Around Fisherman’s Wharf Public Realm Plan

Jefferson_and_Powell_small.jpgRendering of Jefferson Street at Powell Street. Images: Dario Schoulund/SF Planning Dept.

After several years of planning, including intense negotiations between merchants, property owners and neighbors who didn’t always see eye-to-eye, the San Francisco Planning Department unveiled a comprehensive draft plan last week to revitalize public space and pedestrian amenities around Fisherman’s Wharf, the second most-visited tourist attraction in California behind
Disneyland. The plan details numerous deficiencies that degrade the pedestrian experience and proposes design guidelines for public and private investment to transform the district into a world-class waterfront.

At the heart of the plan is the fact that Fisherman’s Wharf lacks pedestrian amenities and connectivity with other neighborhoods and planning is largely at fault for these problems. "Despite the
enormous number of parking spaces in Fisherman’s Wharf, most visitors do
not arrive by private automobile," noted the plan’s authors. Roughly one quarter of visitors arrive in private automobiles, though the area concedes a great deal of space to travel lanes and parking spaces.

"Fisherman’s Wharf generally looks in ill-repair and lacks any coherent
vision for its built environment. This state extends to its streets,
open spaces and buildings, alike, with few exceptions. Over time,
Fisherman’s Wharf oddly has lost much of its relationship to its most
spectacular asset, San Francisco Bay."

The plan identifies eight central challenges to improvement:

  1. Weak links to the water
  2. Inactive Waterfront
  3. Poor pedestrian links to adjacent neighborhoods
  4. Poor conditions for walking and cycling
  5. Uninviting and poor streetscape
  6. Lack of public space hierarchy and network
  7. Few attractions for locals
  8. Lack of district identity

To remediate these challenges, the plan divides the district into eight sub-regions and provides suggestions for improving pedestrian amenities in each, depending on the specific characteristics that exemplify them. For example, in the Historic Working Waterfront Area along Jefferson Street from Hyde Street to Taylor Street, where sidewalks are narrow and there is little connection to the water, the plan suggests preserving the industrial character that marks the area, but improving access to the Bay.

"This area remains one of the best
opportunities for Fisherman’s Wharf at once to improve its
attractiveness as a destination and to strengthen the linkage to its
historical roots," the authors argue.

In the hotel district along Beach Street, the problems stem from the architectural design: a majority of ground floors lack an active frontage and instead consist of solid blank
walls, garages, garage entrances, service entrances or surface parking
lots. "There is little to attract or comfort pedestrians," the plan states.

Jefferson_and_Jones_small.jpgRendering of Jefferson Street at Jones Street. Image: SF Planning Dept.

The extensive plan is the culmination of two years of work with Danish
public space expert Jan Gehl and his Gehl Architects, work that was in
part funded by the Fisherman’s Wharf Community Benefit District (CBD), the
Planning Department, the Port of San Francisco and a grant from the Bay
Trail Program. The draft plan will continue to get community feedback through September
and environmental review should be completed by the end of the year. The final sign-off from the Planning Commission
isn’t expected until early 2011.

Among numerous smaller changes and design guidelines, the plan hinges on one very large project: the transformation of Jefferson Street into a pedestrian-priority street, a concept that borrows from models in European cities where the street can be accessed by all modes, but its design characteristics reinforce the safety and convenience of the slowest moving, most vulnerable users.

"When you think of how much time people spend down here and the fact
that you’re here to enjoy yourself, it would be elegant to walk down
here, to stop and enjoy this area, then continue on to a tour or to Pier
39," said Kevin Carroll, Executive Director of the Fisherman’s Wharf CBD.

Perhaps because the Planning Department has been shopping the idea of converting Jefferson Street into a shared street for much of the last year, the prospect of limiting vehicular access to one of San Francisco’s most familiar streets and opening it up to pedestrians has drawn less and less resistance.

Whereas Jeffrey Pollack of Nick’s Lighthouse Restaurant was far from supportive of Jan Gehl’s first public presentation of principles in 2008, Pollack and most of the merchants, restaurant owners and hotels have come to a consensus that Jefferson Street should get the treatments proposed by the Planning Department, assuming the money can be raised.

The Planning Department’s Neil Hrushowy noted what a difference a year made. About a public meeting to release the plan last Wednesday, Hrushowy said, "We had a tremendous amount of support. People had clarification
questions, but no one blinked an eye that we’re proposing a shared

"Nunzio Alioto stood up and said ‘I think this is
beautiful, we really support it,’" said Hrushowy, acknowledging how important it was to win over the backing of neighborhood scions like the Aliotos.

Now that the community has seen the plans, the Planning Department will conduct an environmental review and work with city, state and national partners to identify capital funding to bid and build Jefferson Street. Total construction costs for Jefferson Street are
likely to be between $12-15

Though many hurdles have been surmounted, Hrushowy and Fisherman’s Wharf CBD President Carroll said they anticipated numerous challenges could still arise, from funding capital improvements to the relocation of tourist buses. The plan recommends prohibiting tour buses and Scootcars from Jefferson Street when it has been redesigned, an objective sure to upset some operators.

Carroll predicted the city and the local merchants would work with bus companies and any others who might have concerns, much the way they have for the past year developing support for Jefferson Street.

Another challenge will be in the street itself and how it conforms with the Americans With Disabilities Act. Because Jefferson won’t have sidewalks, the customary design component
separating the street from the sidewalk will be dismantled and conflicts
could arise between vehicles and those with visibility impairment or
disabilities. The "big question is DPW and figuring out ADA with the shared
street," admitted Hrushowy.

David Chiu, president of the Board of Supervisors and a participant in last week’s meeting, was encouraged by the process and the consensus emerging from the plan. "I’m gratified that after the community worked through some substantive
issues, it has rallied around a wonderful vision for a 21st century
Fisherman’s Wharf."

Jefferson_and_Hyde_small.jpgRendering of Jefferson Street at Hyde Street. Image: SF Planning Dept.
  • This is great. Hopefully the city sees it thru to completion.

  • “…Fisherman’s Wharf, the second most-visited tourist attraction in California behind Disneyland.”

    Really?! In that case, Fisherman’s Wharf should focus on adding rides.

  • It is my personal rule never to go to Fisherman’s Wharf, not even if my visiting relatives beg me. I broke that rule last year for Sunday Streets, and if the area gets made over like this, I may break it permanently. (Especially if there were a physically-separated, buffered bike lane all the way down Market Street that continued all the way along the Embarcadero to Pier 39, and I could promise my kids good fro-yo at the end to bribe them to do the ride with me.)

    San Francisco is very lucky to have Jan Gehl work on this project.

  • Anyone attended the meeting? Are we finally getting a thru bike lane from Embarcadero to GG bridge? The sketches shows Jefferson St full of activities. Pesdestrains and bicyclists filled the streets. But from the plan, I don’t see any special designation that says it is an open street. How does it work? Does the artist just image people suddenly decided to walk off to the street and take over?

  • We’ve come so far from the painted bike lanes on Jefferson that were so strongly opposed just a few years ago. This is a wonderful concept, and it’s great to have San Francisco reaching consensus on shared space, a radical concept here in the US. Kudo’s to Neal Hrushowy at the SF Planning department for his thoughtful, measured, but progressive approach.

  • Yes I like the concept. People filled the street and cars has to squeeze through carefully. Its like what I’ve seen in some European city center.

    The question is the implementation. Would people really use the street like in the sketches? My worry is it is going to like the “pedestrian oasis” of the Golden Gate Park concourse. It is only an oasis in name. In practice it is the same road that ringed the concourse with cars going at 25mph. I won’t let my young son step off the pavement into the “oasis” ever.

  • I wonder how much of this change in attitude can be attributed to Sunday Streets. It was an important demonstration to show that you can take away ALL of the cars without a decrease in business.

  • I found more information from another streetsblog article:

    Proposal for transforming Jefferson Street at Fisherman’s Wharf into a single-surface pedestrian priority street, the first of its size in San Francisco.

    Based on shared space or woonerfs, the plan calls for removing traditional traffic demarcations, such as the separation between streetbed and sidewalk, and slowing vehicle movement on the streets by making conditions less familiar for motorists.

    Streetsblog San Francisco » Planning Department Unveils San Francisco’s First Pedestrian Priority Street

  • Moley


    Highly unlikely that any Sunday Streets success is a factor. The fact that businesses like the one-day boost that they get from SS or any other type of street fair, the fact is that there is no evidence that that is sustainable. People like the Haight St fair but only as a one day a year thing.

    I think this Fisherman’s Wharf project is a good idea but the idea of pedestrianizing streets is decades old and if anything, SS is derived from that movement rather than the other way about. It’s more a gimmick than real progress.

    It also helps that the streets around Fisherman’s Wharf dont really go anywhere and so blacking them has less impact than the streets that SS are on.

  • Moley – if someone offered you a free Ice Cream you’d complain about the flavor choices.

  • Not that is worth arguing with you Moley, but I think it had a ton to do with it. In 2008, most of the merchants were against the idea. In 2010, most are for the idea. What happened between there? Sunday Streets.

    We NEED one in North Beach. I know I keep saying it, but I will until we get one. It is crucial to showing the merchants that people shop, not cars.

  • Sean T Hedgpeth

    Any luck with the ‘E’ line or reuse of the Fort Mason tunnel? That would create a vital link between the wharf and the Marina Green perhaps even further someday.

  • Well it is correct that you won’t see the same boost from a 365 day a year pedestrian street as you do from one or two days a year from Sunday Streets, where you are drawing people from all over the city for a special event, but neither is it true that the boost will be diluted to 1/365th the amount: there is a great deal of elasticity in how much people will walk or bike the commercial corridors depending on how good of a pedestrian/bike experience we facilitate.

    I think one of the major contributions of Sunday Streets along the Wharf in particular was getting merchants to look at how they can attract locals to the area. I’m totally in taomom’s boat of having not been down there for years until Sunday Streets, and I found there are some genuinely interesting things to do there: the Musee Mechanique, the historic ships, even Aquarium by the Bay is supposed to be improving considerably under their new management. We always lament how tourists come to SF and see nothing but the Wharf (and seriously why can’t Muni and the Convention & Visitors Bureau figure out a way to get people to Golden Gate Park that doesn’t involve a $7 bus?), but on the other hand, why aren’t we doing anything to try to make the Wharf better?

    It should also be remembered that the primary focus of Sunday Streets has always been the participants: letting them have fun and be active in their public space, and getting them interested in doing that more often. I think there is now no doubt that it is also succeeding as a tool for outreach to business communities, a tool to work out logistical issues and possibilities of car-free streets, and a builder of political will for them, and these are nice secondary benefits.

    Also @Moley, most of the routes being looked at for car-free or car-light treatments are the exact routes that Sunday Streets has been on. The Sunday Streets routes are also chosen favoring roads that have less traffic impact, which is why we had SS on Jefferson Street last year, and why we have routes on the Embarcadero and the Great Highway. They are a great opportunity to experiment with routes and see what the traffic impact is.

    Take a look at the route map from last year’s North waterfront Sunday Streets and see how it is the exact area now being considered for pedestrian priority streets on Jefferson and buffered bike lanes on the Embarcadero!

  • Disco Burritos

    Is point #7 actually being addressed here? I understand if it’s not a priority since most businesses up there cater mainly to visitors, but I’d be curious to see if there was anything being done to make the area more interesting to locals (aside from leaving hte city’s lone In-n-Out alone! :-P)

  • @Disco Burritos Pier 39 launched a “Local Advantage” program last year where you get some buy one get one free offers if you have a bay area zip code. Of course this just makes the existing attractions cheaper, rather than introducing anything new that would actually be worth going to 🙂

    The maritime museum should be nice once it reopens, and as I said there are a few interesting attractions in the area (although mostly see once in your life and that’s enough kind of attractions).

    What would really help the corridor out would be extending the F line to Fort Mason, making the Wharf a stop along the way to the restaurants, theater, museums and festivals there that locals will go to, but that plan has been killed for the moment by Alioto-Pier, Marina NIMBYs, and CEQA.

    We should be breaking ground on that extension immediately and looking at a further extension to the Presidio transit center to get visitors to that beautiful park, the Walt Disney Family Museum, and the many other destinations planned for the main post, with the Palace of Fine Arts along the way. Currently this trip takes over an hour on three different buses with Muni and PresidiGo!

  • @SteveS, the environmental study is still underway thanks to the National Park Service covering the rest of the funding and the draft report will hopefully be out by the end of the year.

  • Moley

    Mike and John M

    Yes, I agree the merchants have learned to see the value of a special traffic-free day where they get poeople on a “special day out” buying stuff there that they usually wouldnt.

    But that doesnt mean they want it every day. No merchant is saying that.

    Don’t get me wrong here, I like the Sunday Streets idea. I just don’t think it’s a game changer. We have had one-day street fairs for decades, and cities have been pedestrianizing streets for decades. SS isnt that radical or important, IMO.

    And as I already said, I like this idea for Fisherman’s Wharf, and I think it could work given that it isnt a big residential area.

    By the way, how can the author claim the Wharf is CA’s second most visited attraction? There is no admission and so no way to count visitors.

  • Once again we owe our thanks to an outsider in the form of Architect Jan Gehl to help us see beyond the obvious clutter and cacophony of the current wharf area, and to envision the richness and history of San Francisco’s waterfront and a working wharf of fishermen.

    As son, visitor, worker and sometimes dweller of this City I recall the richness of past time of a working wharf area, it’s aromas of the sea and that which came of it being cooked, sold and eaten on the street. Now, I walk the narrow, crowded sidewalks with my dog I try in vein to dodge the racks and rags only to bump into fellow pedestrians or meter posts.

    Kudos to the Planning Department, Board of Supervisors, DPW and the wharf merchants for their efforts. Let’s clean up and enhance this great asset for all who visit to marvel and enjoy, and return with others. And yes, let’s create a bicycle and pedestrian link from bridge to bridge and beyond.

  • By the way, how can the author claim the Wharf is CA’s second most visited attraction? There is no admission and so no way to count visitors.

    Sales tax? Granted there isn’t much sales tax at Yosemite, but FW definitely outdraws Yosemite.

  • Sure you can do some estimation. San Francisco does not charge admission either. But this does not stop them from coming up with the figure of 15.4 million visitors in 2009, according to the San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau.

    I’m a little skeptic about the claim that it only come behind Disneyland as the second most visited attraction though. Is it really that hot?

  • John,
    I may have been lazy on the estimate, but I was repeating the saw the CBD used from last year at an event (“nearly 13 million annual visitors, second most visited destination in California”). I’m not sure if there was a dip in visitors this past year, but even then I would think it wouldn’t be that much lower. Disneyland had just under 16 million visitors last year, according to the theme park report linked on Wikipedia.

  • I believe The Wharf died with the Sabella’s fire. Anything done to resurrect it is OK with me.

    Whatever’s done, I hope it’s not the kind of sanitization that killed the character of Manhattan’s Times Square.

  • James

    TouringSFO, if you miss the old Times Square atmosphere, don’t worry, we’ve still got the Tenderloin.

    As far as #7 attractions for locals, I bet that will mean a farmers market and a few more upscale restaurants. Not sure what else they can do. For this local, the Musee Mechanique is worth a visit every few years.

  • marcos

    The Wharf was demolished decades ago, the only thing worth visiting is the ferry to Alcatraz for visiting friends.

    There is nothing within the Wharf businesses to attract local residents.

    “Honey, we need another Alcatraz Marathon shot glass,” “Sorry, dear, but I’m not going to brave the offensive pedestrian environment to pick that up, can’t we use the Golden Gate Bridge shot glass?”

    Again, this is yet another instance of City government serving private business interests rendering San Franciscans to the periphery of their grandiose plans.

    Similar to Times Square up until the 1990s, the Embarcadero had been a gay center up until the 1950s. Apparently, it is contemporary urban policy to immolate gay centers on the altar of boring milquetoast tourism.


  • I run a children’s bicycling day camp and have made use of Fisherman’s Wharf on many occasions this summer. We ride to the Wharf to explore its piers and attractions, but mostly ride through it for access to the Embarcadero from our base camp at Marina Green. It’s exciting to see this plan, especially its proposal for Jefferson Street and for improved Bay access. The Wharf is a huge missing link in bicycle connectivity along the S.F. waterfront, but it appears this plan addresses this problem. Next challenge: improve bicycle access along Marina Boulevard adjacent to the Ft. Mason Center entry (across from the Safeway). Anyone know of plans for this piece of the missing link?


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