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The Waterfront Emerges

After the demolition of the infamous urban blockade known as the Embarcadero Freeway, San Francisco's Harbor began a miraculous renaissance that continues today.

By John King
November 2012
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Courtesy Zum LLC
Exploratorium: Currently under construction at Pier 15, this museum of science, art, and human perception will open its doors on San Francisco's waterfront in spring 2013.

San Francisco's bay waterfront has embodied civic aspirations from the 1850s, when the city rose to prominence as a port of call for the Gold Rush, through the 2002 reincarnation of the landmark Ferry Building as a gathering place for people who treat good local food as high culture. Today this role plays out in another way, with development projects shaped by the Bay Area's emphasis on sustainability. The efforts range from the construction of a cruise terminal to the planning of a 69-acre enclave that includes more than a dozen historic structures.

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The most ambitious project is the first that will be completed: the $300 million move of the Exploratorium science museum next spring to a 330,000-square-foot space inside Pier 15, a workaday structure built in 1915 that is three times the size of the popular institution's current home at the Palace of Fine Arts. Its designers are working to make it the largest net-zero-energy museum in the nation—no easy task for a program that will include marine laboratories and two restaurants, all of which consume a lot of energy. It helps to have a client that has pursued and popularized hands-on experimentation since opening its doors in 1969.

"The Exploratorium and the design team started by saying we wanted to build a lab to teach about sustainable practices," says Marc L'Italien, a principal at the architecture firm EHDD, which has been working on the project since 2006. "The idea was 'Let's shoot for something beyond LEED, really raise the bar.' " The quest for net-zero status relies heavily on the bayside location. The pier building's flat roof now holds 5,874 solar panels that are designed to generate the equivalent of the power consumed by 1,000 average American homes in a year; because of the city's 40-foot height limit along the northeast waterfront, there is almost no shadow on the pier at any time of day. Bay water, meanwhile, will be pumped through a low-energy system to either heat or chill the water that circulates through the radiant slab floors and, in the process, do away with the need for cooling towers.

Some efforts to reduce energy consumption were nixed, such as the pursuit of a zero carbon footprint (the Exploratorium's restaurateur insisted on gas stoves rather than electric ones). Still, L'Italien is confident the net-zero goal can be reached. "This is a client that loves to tinker with things," he points out. "Every facet of the operation is being reexamined. What motors run the exhibits, what tools are used to clean the floors, you name it."

James R. Herman Cruise Terminal

A short walk north along the Embarcadero reveals a much different project, a new building on Pier 27 that will house a cruise terminal. Pfau Long Architecture and KMD were selected to design the $60 million James R. Herman Cruise Terminal, named for a former labor leader in 2010 by the Port of San Francisco. Then San Francisco was chosen to host the 2013 America's Cup, and the cruise-terminal site and adjacent piers were selected to be the "village" where races will begin and end throughout the summer.

What's now being built is a two-story shell that will be handed to the America's Cup organizers next spring. When the regatta is finished, the building reverts to the port and the structure will be outfitted to host what the city anticipates could be 80 visits from cruise ships each year. Though the city government has established a LEED Gold benchmark for public projects, the physical and financial constraints of individual projects mean that some will achieve only LEED Silver certification. For instance, the long undulating roof will be equipped for solar panels, but none will be installed—not because conditions are less favorable than at the Exploratorium but because the port is supplied with cheap power from the city's Public Utilities Commission.

"We started all gung-ho, but it turned out a solar farm makes no financial sense," says architect Peter Pfau. Instead, there was a renewed emphasis on such tactics as low-energy ventilation, with cool bayside air circulated through much of the high-ceiling two-story building by slow-turning fans that will be 10 feet in diameter.

The project also responds to pollution concerns related to the bay location. Regulators insisted that the industrial nature of the terminal operation not include soiled water spilling over the edge of the pier unless it was extensively—and expensively—filtered. Instead, all rainwater that falls on the roof and the surrounding paved surfaces will be steered into tanks, filtered as needed, and then used for toilet flushing and the irrigation of a landscaped plaza that will be constructed between the terminal and the Embarcadero.

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