great spaces: AN EPHEMERAL WATERFRONT

This series of posts looks at humble, yet great spaces.  They are not the kind of spaces taught in architectural history classes, they aren't monumental, they don't shout.  They are the kind of spaces that often get overlooked.  They are simple, comfortable, lovable spaces; the kind the world could use more of...


It has become an all-too-common sight in coastal American cities; the decaying vestiges of once-bustling ports.  The United States began as a collection of port cities dotting the Atlantic coast, and these ports were its lifeblood for many years.  However, the steady creep of gentrification and the cost of living in many American cities has driven the port facilities away.

Many of our waterfront cities are built with their backs turned to the water.  It is an understandable, if unfortunate, design decision.  The working waterfronts of yesteryear were hardly pleasant places, which resulted in cities being focused away from the water.  Lucky for us, there is a movement in many cities to reclaim this land.  Forgotten industrial areas are being reshaped into parks, residential, offices, and more.  The revitalization of empty lands and buildings is surely a positive, however the loss of industry in America and its cities can also be seen as a negative.  Hopefully, planners will find a way to preserve the industries while also creating a more inviting waterfront for all to enjoy.

San Francisco is one such former port city; where all along the Embarcadero beautiful pier buildings have been restored to varying modern uses, allowing this waterfront street to become in many ways the center of city life.  A little further South from the bustling Embarcadero, on the east side of San Francisco, is an area still waiting for its renaissance.  The Dogpatch neighborhood was once a thriving shipbuilding hub, but now has only a single ship-repair facility left.  It is a neighborhood in transition, and therefore the subject of many major development projects.

new design proposal for crane cove park           image: sfport.com

One such project that aims to revitalize areas of the waterfront is Crane Cove Park.  It is going to take former industrial land and redevelop it as a park.  The redevelopment could potentially take a street considered almost an alley, and turn it into a lively, park-front asset to the neighborhood.  Most of the land that will become Crane Cove Park is currently vacant, but one slice of the land to be converted is currently a quaint, little parklet.  This public shore area has a certain unpolished charm that is impossible to replicate, as it is forged over the years through an odd marriage of care and neglect.  The care coming from spirited local residents, the neglect coming from the larger authorities.

The tiny, informal public shore that will be enveloped and redeveloped as part of the new Crane Cove Park. 

This small area has a few subtle characteristics that contribute to the unique success of this forgotten park.  It is comprised entirely of crumbling concrete from a different era.  There are no sea walls.  In fact, the rising tides temporarily swallow up some of the surface of the park, creating a sandless beach.  The fractured concrete and runaway tides would hardly stand up to modern safety codes.  But, the irregular forms and intimate connection to the water are what make this such an inviting place to come and relax away an afternoon.

The design for the new Crane Cove Park looks to regularize this area of the shoreline.  The level of the ground will be raised.  Sea walls will be built.  Railings will be installed.  And the water will be kept at a distance from people.  That connection one feels with the water will be lost.  The water will be something to be looked at, not so much touched.   

At the current park you might see a dog jumping in the water after a toy their owner just threw, someone exploring the cove via stand-up paddleboard, or a child playing in the "beach".  And all of this feels a little closer because of the unhindered connection one has to the water here.

The new design does have a beach area where much of these activities can be enjoyed.  But, now it will be separated from the other activities.  There is a separate seating area, a separate playground area, and a separate green area.  No longer will one be able to enjoy all of these experiences at once.

The new Crane Cove Park will surely be a lovely addition to this growing neighborhood, and will likely help promote development of the beautiful, vacant, industrial buildings next door at Pier 70.  However, it's worth remembering the happy accident of a parklet that turned into a cozy, intimate spot.  It can teach us a lot about what makes a successful public space.

the change in tides plays a huge role in how one interacts with the park