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SAN FRANCISCO: WATERFRONT

A Frisky Feeling by the Bay

From new ballpark to reborn Embarcadero to booming SoMa, a city revitalized

May 07, 2000|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — Isn't it a comfort to see L.A.'s beloved old Pacific Electric streetcar running again, all red and shiny and full of wide-eyed straphangers? Here it comes along the Embarcadero, looking just as the old rolling stock must have looked in 1940, zipping from Bunker Hill to Burbank.

Since March, this replica has been running all day, every day along the refurbished waterfront in this city, joined by a few dozen others painted to mimic old streetcars from around the world.

Board the red one for a dollar at the foot of Market Street, and in a facsimile of Los Angeles history you can roll past a good chunk of San Francisco's future, beginning with the soon-to-be-malled Ferry Building, then gliding through Harry Bridges Plaza, which sports a new set of palm trees and brick walkways.

San Francisco, never a slouch when it comes to selling history or producing theatrics, is on a roll. Aided by buckets of Internet money, a post-quake redevelopment campaign after the 1989 Loma Prieta temblor, and a spiffy new baseball stadium, San Franciscans have thoroughly reinvented their Embarcadero and the area south of Market Street--SoMa, in the local language.

Most out-of-towners' attention has been focused on Pacific Bell Park, the Giants' new baseball stadium, which is both on the Embarcadero and south of Market Street. But there's so much going on in these areas that a stranger can easily spend several worthwhile days, and without ever stepping aboard a cable car, strolling Fisherman's Wharf or shopping around Union Square. An already rich city is now richer.

To be sure, the city's new vigor is not confined to SoMa and the Embarcadero. But on a visit last month, it was those two areas that drew most of my attention.

"Changes every day," huffed Keith Saggers, my pedicab pedaler, as he steered us toward the ballpark and glanced at a new upscale condo building across the street. "Haven't seen that one before."

Here, gleaned from my five days in the city, are a few ideas for a three-day exploration on the waterfront and South of Market.

Day 1: Get thee to the Embarcadero, especially if the sun is out, and whether by foot, bike, skates or streetcar, cover those three formerly grungy miles between Pacific Bell Park and Fisherman's Wharf. Rental bikes at Pier 40 and Pier 43 run $5 an hour; a pedicab costs $15 for a trip from the Ferry Building to Pier 39 and back.

Heading north to south from Fisherman's Wharf, you'll find that Pier 39 is as full of tacky T-shirt shops and mass tourism as ever. But you do have to admire the entrepreneurial spirit of those kids with the crimson mohawk hairdos and the signs offering "Photos with Freaks" in exchange for a modest donation.

Across the street from Pier 15 is a parking lot that's taken over every Saturday from 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. by the Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market, known for attracting celebrity chefs.

At Pier 7, a boardwalk juts about 100 yards into the bay, outfitted with plenty of benches and lined up directly facing the Transamerica pyramid building up the hill. Stand at the boardwalk's end and stare at the pyramid's top and you'll feel as if you're in some sort of urban vortex, a citified version of those bluffs in Arizona where New Agers reflect meaningfully. Or you can less meaningfully revel, as I did, in a scene peopled by lunching office workers, scrambling skateboarders, giggling Vietnamese fishermen and a lazy gaggle of off-duty, tattooed bicycle messengers listening to a band called Manic Hispanic on a boombox.

Pier 1, no matter what you may have suspected, does not house rattan wardrobes and Chinese lanterns. The aged structure, unconnected to the retail chain, is being converted into new offices for port district workers. Those workers are moving because their previous headquarters, the 1898 Ferry Building next door--the landmark structure at the foot of Market Street with the tower that mimics Seville's Giralda--is scheduled to be overhauled beginning in January. When that work is done (target date June 2002), the 660-foot-long Ferry Building will be remade into a high-ceilinged shopping mall.

This revitalization basically springs from the 1989 quake, which shook down chunks of the two-level Embarcadero Freeway that ran above this stretch of bay front. With the decision to tear the freeway down, acres of suddenly prime real estate emerged from the shadows into glorious daylight. Amid arguments over what should go up, San Franciscans voted to keep the port district's waterfront property reserved for traditional maritime uses until the port had won consensus for a broad master plan. (The Harry Bridges Plaza in front of the Ferry Building is named for the legendary late longshoreman union leader.)

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