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What is the attraction of abandoned urban places? Is it the feeling of something forgotten, a type of abstract, collective nostalgia? Maybe these places provide relief from engineered cityscapes, decaying into something unplanned and wild. Or maybe they’re just weedy and oil-stained eyesores.

For years, old Chronicle stories couldn’t find words beyond “industrial wasteland” to describe the 300 hundred acres of lonely rail yard that since the 1970s has been a good spot for hitting a few golf balls or parking a houseboat or decrepit Winnebago.

Not anymore.

Today, Mission Bay has entered a phase of prolonged identity crisis, a little manicured development here, a little weedy nothingness there.

The houseboats remain, as does some of the wasteland gestalt, but now every square foot is zoned and planned. Some blocks are crystallizing into shining, glassy biotech, tidy landscaping, condos, and parks. Thousands of adults and hundreds of children have moved in. The commercial and social hub of the neighborhood, Fourth Street, will open early next year.

And those other blocks, the central bulk of the neighborhood? They’re still indefinitely dormant, victim to yet another recession, and there’s no telling when it will be filled. Maybe soon, maybe not.

Click on the maps and use the zoom tool to view full-size.

Mission Bay December 2009
Mission Bay December 2009
Mission Bay's future, according to planning
Mission Bay’s future

These maps, designed by Mission Local, are based on walking around Mission Bay and interviews with developers and the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency.

A Little History

“From its conception in 1981, Mission Bay was regarded as the economic engine that would drive San Francisco into the 21st century,” wrote Dan Levy in an Oct 19, 1998 Chronicle story.

One might ask why so much waterfront property would lie fallow for three decades, defying the rest of Bay Area real estate. And yet – passively resisting its cozy, geographical relationship with the highway, Caltrain, Bay Bridge, and downtown SF – the land slumbered until the beginning of this century.

That’s not to say that developers, city officials, and San Franciscans themselves hadn’t been populating the land in their heads all this time. But they could rarely agree on how high the buildings should be, or what percent should be residential and at what price. Or when they did agree, a recession would tank those plans.

Dianne Feinstein, Willie Brown, Walter Shorenstein, Gavin Newsom – San Francisco’s big names all had a hand in Mission Bay, and the land itself hearkens back to California’s original VIPs, the railroads.

The land came late. The railroad company Southern Pacific filled in the northern section of Mission Bay by the late 1800s, and debris from the 1906 earthquake helped to fill in the rest, according to Chronicle archives.

After serving as rail yard, Mission Bay was mostly a wasteland by the 1970s.

Santa Fe and Southern Pacific merged in 1983, creating a subunit called Catellus, which handled non-railroad business. Catellus spun off from the railroad in 1993, taking Mission Bay with it.

1990s to the Present

These various landowners concocted several plans for the area, the last of which the city approved in 1991. Then came the recession, and nothing was built.

Under new management – notably the politically-connected Nelson Rising, who joined in 1994 – Catellus rewrote the vision for Mission Bay into a sort of biotech utopia mixing life science research with life science companies and a hospital. Discarding the 1991 plan, it successfully wooed UCSF to the area and worked extensively with the city and residents to foster consensus.

By 1998, amidst the upswing of the dot com boom, an elaborate, block-by-block plan was approved, with special biotech zoning and 28 percent affordable housing. Binders of land swaps created new roads and parks, molding the acreage to the city’s street grid. Then came the dot com bust, slowing, but not halting, investment. UCSF began installing its Mission Bay campus, and the northern areas saw a lot of construction.

Catellus sold off most of its land to Farallon Capital Management, an equity company which filed the land under a project called Focil-MB, LLC.

Focil is now the master developer and responsible for installing infrastructure like roads, traffic signals, utilities and parks. Focil, or Farallon, pays the newly-formed Mission Bay Development Company to run this development for them.

Meanwhile, Catellus merged with ProLogis in 2005 for a total purchase price of $5.3 billion, according to U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filings. Catellus still owns at least four blocks (36-39), leased to UCSF, which has an option to buy in 2014. UC itself owns 14 other blocks, according to UC. Catellus did not respond to phone calls.

A road in Mission Bay was named for Catellus’s CEO Nelson Rising, though Rising himself has moved on from Catellus and is now president and CEO of Maguire Properties. Willie Brown was honored with the UCSF medal for his work to get land in Mission Bay to the university at no cost.

What’s Next?

Condos gleam next to fenced-out bay access. Some dockside elements remain, rotting bits of pier in the bay, houseboats, ships moored at the Port Authority, and The Ramp restaurant. There are industrial vestiges like the dormant cement plant rusting away next to the Shorenstein buildings, sparkling twin office buildings that house biotech companies.

There are long sight lines and elaborate landscaping next to weeds, chain link, rubble, trash, and tarped-over piles of mildly toxic dirt.

Look near Mission Creek for spotless condos and apartments, a new park, and a public library. South of this, there’s a whole lot of nothing to see until you get beyond the Mission Bay Boulevards, where you can find biotech, offices, and the life sciences campus, along with a few satellite institutes and centers.

In just a few years UCSF’s Mission Bay campus has congealed into an actual destination, with foot traffic, a farmer’s market, housing, and a plaza with a few small restaurants. The campus is laboratory research-focused right now, but doctors and med students will be on hand in a few years.

UCSF says its children’s, women’s and cancer patient hospitals will be completed by 2014. A warehouse on the south-eastern edge of the property along Mariposa and Third Streets is currently being demolished, and site preparation for the hospitals will begin next year.

Several residential blocks and at least one of the biotech/office-zoned lots are – in theory – for sale. Focil owns them and will not say what is going on with the lots, who or how many have expressed interest.

Bosa Development Corporation owns two of the remaining empty residential lots. The second installment of Bosa’s Radiance condos was stalled but will eventually become reality perhaps beginning summer of 2010, according to Dennis Aurelio, a company spokesperson. The other empty block awaits better economic times for development.

The 1998 plans call for 6,000 units of housing in Mission Bay; 2,385 are built. Affordable housing is mixed in with market-rate housing, and 700 below-market-rate units are completed, with 1,000 more planned.

Because planned streets and parks are funded through incremental tax, the master developer installs these as the blocks are sold and developed, according to the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency. Money is short because construction is minimal right now, and thus the city has asked California’s senators for about $50 million in federal money to work on two sets of road improvements.

San Francisco will be moving its police headquarters from the Hall of Justice on Bryant Street to a new building to be constructed at Third and Mission Rock Streets, where there will also be local fire and police stations.

The original plans set aside a block in the west for the school district, but the district has yet to make any kind of decision about what to build here. Mission Bay locals support a new elementary school, as well as the installation of science training facilities for the entire district in cooperation with neighboring UCSF.

The cement mixing company across Third Street is owned by Alexandria Real Estate Equities, as is the four-block partial swamp across Third Street from UCSF. Alexandria also owns two blocks directly north of the empty lot.

Alexandria builds life science buildings exclusively, and owns the lion’s share of land zoned for biotech in Mission Bay. It owns the lots between the railroad tracks and Owens Street, where it has constructed several buildings. The publicly-traded company has a policy of not speaking with the press, and it did not return calls.

Meanwhile the Port Authority owns most of the choices bits of land along the waterfront, but none of that is within the Mission Bay planning process.

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Anrica is a science reporter and twice Cal grad, with a degree in engineering and a master of journalism. She's a Bay Area native and lives in Oakland. She's enjoyed wide-ranging professional endeavors, including shoveling manure, researching human signaling proteins, volunteering in a leprosy hospital, using an atomic force microscope, and modeling the electricity grid.

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  1. I agree with all of the above commentators. It is an excellent, factual article. And it is not full of self inflating comments. The one point that could have been mentioned is the hoped for job generation which the City planned at 25,000. This is part of the whole process of the City (any city) having to constantly reinvent itself in order to meet changing times and evolving economies. It would be interesting to know how many jobs now exist, and therefore how far we need to go.

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  2. Please explain the following :
    [para.2] “the 300 hundred acres”
    Did you mean “the three hundred acres” ?

    [last para.] “most of the choices bits”
    Did you mean “most of the choicest bits” ?

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  3. Great article! Well researched. Eloquently written. Clear presentation of complex subject. Of interest to those living in San Francisco, and those who’ve been there and left at least part of their heart in this vibrant city. Thanks for the maps!

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