Bayside renaissance

A renovated sugar-cane warehouse is the first redevelopment in what San Francisco hopes will be a rebirth of its east waterfront
August 11, 2010

For years, San Francisco's east waterfront, or Embarcadero, stood underutilized. A major culprit was an unsightly double-deck highway that effectively deterred residents from enjoying the bay. The devastating Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 resolved the issue, as the expressway was torn down after sustaining irreparable damage.

Still, it wasn't until almost a decade later that city planners implemented a $400 million renovation of the former hub of shipping activity. That investment is bearing its first fruit as a former sugar-cane warehouse now shines as a beacon for new commercial development.

The building is Pier 1, a 770-ft.-long open-air, bulkhead/shed structure that sits above the bay, and is now the new headquarters of a local developer and the Port of San Francisco, the city agency that manages the waterfront. "This was a way to creatively reuse these kinds of buildings," says Jennifer Sobol, project manager for the Port of San Francisco. "We really want to preserve these wonderful assets."

The $42 million renovation originated from the city's 1997 Waterfront Land Use Plan, a blueprint for future improvements. The port decided it would start with the warehouse it had been using as a parking garage.

Requests for proposals were sent out. The port was optimistic it would get good submissions as the pier is on the National Register of Historic Buildings, meaning it is eligible for a 20 percent restoration tax credit (see "Building on tradition," October 2001, page 23).

That status, however, proved a double-edged sword in that the U.S. Department of the Interior's preservation regulations have stringent standards for credit eligibility. For example, a narrow wooden ferry passenger gallery had to be preserved and tracks for railcars originally taking cargo in and out of the facility had to be symbolically replicated. "We couldn't even touch the concrete walls," says Sobol.

Despite these restrictions, the possibilities intrigued AMB Property Corp., San Francisco, one of the bidding developers, that was considering the property for its own headquarters. "Our lease was expiring and we thought it would be a spectacular location," says Janice Thacher, AMB's project manager.

In developing its proposal, AMB brought in local architect SMWM as the creative force. The firm's concept of a free-floating mezzanine interwoven with a number of wooden bridges and metallic stairs paid instant dividends, as the team won the job.

Aside from adding much needed space — 50,000 square feet — the mezzanine allowed the opportunity to play off the building's original steel truss and timber framing.

"The existing steel structure was very elegant, and frankly there wasn't much that could be improved upon," says Cathy Simon, SMWM's principal.

"It's a very attractive design," adds Thacher. "And it was a good way to keep the high ceilings since we couldn't add a second floor because of the historic restrictions."

In fact "elegant industrial," as the developer dubs it, became the theme.

The stairs and bridges feature light, cable-rail handrails and stairs constructed of Douglas fir. "We wanted wood to bring warmth, and Douglas fir is also a structural material that was commonly used in old industrial buildings" explains Simon.

But that was as far as the architect wanted to go in bringing any historic feel to the interior. In fact, Simon says the team really wanted a very modern look, and one that brought out sharp contrasts to the rough industrial features.

The mezzanines are also unusual as neither connects to either of the exterior walls. Simon says this was done for seismic purposes and to redirect light from the existing clerestory windows. "The height of the windows and the mezzanine don't correspond very well, so we needed to borrow light, so to speak," says Simon.

Natural light was an important part of the scheme as SMWM wanted a "green" building.

"We practice sustainable architecture and green systems were definitely on our agenda," says Simon.

Such systems include natural ventilation and radiant heating and cooling provided by a heat exchanger that physically resides in the bay beneath the shed.

Operable windows needed

To make the light and ventilation scheme work, new and operable windows had to be cut. This became one of the project's first roadblocks. "One of the most contentious issues was the windows," says Thacher. "It was a warehouse and didn't have many. But saying people want to see the bay was not good enough [for the State Historic Preservation officer and the National Park Service]."

Sobol concurs: "Grave doubts were initially expressed about adding windows to the structure, as officials did not want to change the character of the building," she recalls.

A major issue centered on the shed's traditional roll-up doors. Preservation officials wanted the doors maintained, while the developer wanted to add large windows in those spaces. Specifically, the preservation office wanted the doors to be able to roll down over the glass so it would read from a distance as it always had. "We thought that was a bad design detail because the glass would have to be recessed," says Thacher.

In a compromise, the work was performed on three doors, but officials later agreed that the system installed was both attractive and the correct solution.

The operable windows were also a tough sell, according to Simon, and once the preservation office became convinced of the scheme, she says they wanted a clear distinction between the old and new. In the end, the team replaced all the windows through the pier's original English window manufacturer, achieving the preservationists' objectives. "You can clearly read its history. The clerestory windows haven't changed, but the cargo doors are glazed in a very contemporary way," says Simon.

Although it was a bumpy ride, the entitlement process, in retrospect, went surprisingly well. "It's cumbersome developing in San Francisco, but I would surmise that we are the only project in San Francisco's history to get unanimous approval from virtually every entity we appeared in front of without a single negative comment," says Thacher.

The developer credits much of that to SMWM. "I was extremely impressed with their solutions, but more so with their project management capabilities and their assistance with the entitlement process," says Thacher.

Form dictates design and construction

Because of the historic nature of the building and its physical characteristics, many of the architectural and mechanical design solutions evolved through an integrated team concept.

"It wasn't design/build, but it sure had a lot of those overtures," says Joe Mazzetti of Nibbi Brothers, the general contractor who was brought in early in the design phase. "We did a lot of budgeting and threw out a lot of ideas." This was essential, according to Simon, as the building had to be radically changed, including the addition of seismic reinforcement.

The project's 18-month schedule also lent itself to such an interactive dynamic. Much of the need for speed was driven by the necessity of the port to leave its previous home.

Expertise on the construction side was also critical because of the unusual conditions, which included a significant amount of marine construction, including adding a new public promenade around the building. "To do so meant we had to come in by barge and with divers and worry about things we never did before," recalls Thacher.

Mazzetti says they supplemented the building's original supports with 70 piles, some as long as 170 feet and as wide as 4 feet, to meet seismic requirements.

Another key player was Flack + Kurtz (F+K), the team's mechanical engineer, who was critical in making the radiant heating and bay water cooling concepts work.

"At first, we thought about a cooling tower, but there was no place to put it with the historic restrictions. So that became our baseline," says Clark Bisel, F+K senior vice president.

According to Allan Montpellier, project manager with F+K, the radiant floor system helped meet the historical and architectural design goals "because it's practically invisible."

And because a new floor slab had to be poured, radiant tubing was a logical and fairly cost-effective option.

Submerging the heat exchanger in the bay provided another good example of adapting to existing conditions (visit the "Structures and Systems" topic on www.bdcmag.com for a complete description of the system's design and installation).

The port and AMB moved into their offices last December, three months earlier than expected, "pretty remarkable given the tight market and labor pool at the time," says Thacher.

Mazzetti attributes much of the success to a true team dynamic. "Take the heat exchanger. Its design changed about three times. Even the end product differed from that third iteration, as we were constantly talking about cost, performance and what would really work. We did this all through this job," says Mazzetti.

"It was a difficult construction process," concurs Thacher, "but it turned out very nice."

The port is certainly satisfied. "This building is now fully wired and yet we still have steel beams and wood timbers. It's a wonderful mix of old and new," says Sobol. Appearance is an important factor, as the public agency's new digs also serve as a quasi-art gallery. Combined with the new promenade, the building has become an attraction already, something that makes her smile. "It's good to bring the city's residents back to the waterfront."