SAN FRANCISCO – There's a hidden corner of the City by the Bay where rusted cranes used to build WWII battleships loom over dilapidated artist studios, where working-class fishermen bob up against first-class ocean liners docked for repair.
Residents of San Francisco's Dogpatch neighborhood overlook the rough-and-tumble Pier 70 waterfront and bask in the smell of fresh fish, the cacophony of fog horns and Canadian geese, the jumble of Victorian cottages tucked between corrugated barns and industrial brick icons of the late 1800s.
It's a nautical nugget where few tourists have ventured. A secret stash of cheap artist studios in old clapboard pier offices commands a view of the rusted bones of crumbling canneries, metal scrapyards and silent smokestacks. And it has one of the only working boat yards in San Francisco, where boaters can dry dock for repairs and grab a beer at The Ramp.
The city plans to redevelop Pier 70, hoping to capitalize on its historic charms while providing badly needed jobs, commercial and residential space — all while maintaining the neighborhood essence that dates back to the mid-1800s when the Union Iron Works, Bethlehem Steel, Pacific Rolling Mills and the Spreckels Sugar refinery dominated the waterfront.
"The winds of change are blowing south and it's time to get Pier 70 and this area back into economic use," said Kathleen Diohep, project manager at the Port of San Francisco for the redevelopment plan. "We want to have the capacity for companies to grow and we think that Pier 70 offers opportunities that are unlike anything else."
The Port is tasked with restoring the two dozen buildings from what's been described as the most intact 19th century industrial complex west of the Mississippi River. Diohep insisted most of the historic buildings would not be razed and that new structures would integrate nicely. The Port is working with developers who will present their proposals to a citizens' advisory group Wednesday.
The roughly 1,000 residents, artists and small business owners, shipyard workers, fishermen and boat builders are passionate that their historic surroundings and lifestyle not be harmed.
"I don't think the people in the city staff positions understand the nuances of what happens down here," said Allen Gross, a retired San Francisco Opera set carpenter who is restoring the Folly, a wooden cutter built in 1889.
Gross, 63, has been working on the Folly for more than five years and hopes to race the boat in the spring, launching from the San Francisco Boatworks just down the street from Pier 70. Wearing canvas overalls filled with rags and tools, the gray-bearded Gross shouts out greetings to others washing, scraping and painting their boats. They all express anxiety about losing this lifestyle.
"I think the folks at the port are seeing the slick, upscale stuff like what they've done out on the Embarcadero," Gross said. The restored piers along the Embarcadero waterfront from the stadium where the Giants play baseball, under the Bay Bridge and up to the historic Ferry Building are now filled with tony restaurants, bakeries, coffee sellers and pricey artisan cheese and chocolate shops.
"They're going to have all this kind of frou-frou upscale stuff, and what they're going to lose in all of that are some of the things that are part of the fabric of this city," Gross said.
The gritty neighborhood at the foot of Potrero Hill on the eastern side of the city peninsula once manufactured supplies for the California Gold Rush and the Transcontinental Railway.
Ships built at Pier 70 supported U.S. military engagements from the Spanish American War to the two world wars, including Admiral George Dewey's flagship, Olympia, and the battleships USS Oregon and USS California.
Hundreds of steamboats, ferries and freighters were assembled by the men whose families resided in Dogpatch, named for the wild dogs that sniffed around the butchers and slaughterhouses of the 1800s. The families were mostly Irish, Italian and Russian immigrants as well as African-Americans who came up from the South during the maritime boom of World War I.
The shipyard today has the largest floating dry dock on this side of the Pacific, where massive cruise liners come in for inspections and repairs and tiny tugs get their underbellies scrubbed free of barnacles.
The artists, filmmakers, architects and designers in the three-story, wood-frame Noonan Building at Pier 70, built in 1941 by the government as war production offices, overlook an auto impound yard and a rusted-out warehouse. On a clear day, they can see across the San Francisco Bay to the massive Oakland cargo port.
They are besotted with the ambience and the rental rates.
"This is the only place that artists can actually afford," said Jason Sussberg, a filmmaker with Dogpatch Films. "San Francisco is a place that values its artists and innovators; that has to be more than just a slogan."
Sussberg and his three colleagues pay about $800 a month for their 1,300 square feet of open space on the second floor of the Noonan. Natural light pours in off the bay.
"Even if they do tear down the Noonan Building, or they upgrade it, they should at least have subsidized rent or something that makes it so that we're not priced out," he said.
At the same time, the 29-year-old filmmaker called it "kid of tragic" to see so much architectural glory boarded up.
"I'm kind of torn," he said. "It's gorgeous and I love to see the smashed windows, the wild cats running around and the graffiti. It's totally fantastic and bizarre, but at the cost of all this wasted space, it's just not worth it."
Janet Carpinelli, a graphic designer and Dogpatch resident for 30 years, said most residents would agree. They are eager to see those beloved buildings restored to their glory after so many years of neglect.
"We have the bones of a really fantastic area here and we just want to see it enhanced," said Carpinelli, president of the Dogpatch neighborhood association. "But we don't want to see it developed in spite of the historic buildings; everything has to be done in this organic way to encompass the history. We don't want the new buildings to obscure or overpower the historic ones."
The historic ones include rare examples of modified Renaissance Revival in red brick that withstood the catastrophic 1906 earthquake, as well as rusticated stucco, granite staircases and fluted Doric pilasters alongside warehouses made of corrugated iron.
People here don't want the revival to follow the path of Mission Bay, the waterfront just north of Pier 70. The old Southern Pacific Railroad Company yard is now a biotechnology hub of tall glass structures and shiny new hospital and research facilities for the University of California San Francisco. Its detractors say that while the development has been an economic success, the San Francisco soul is missing.
Diohep insists that won't happen at Pier 70. She said most of the buildings within the 70-acre district are listed on the National Register of Historic Places as being under consideration for preservation.
While the Noonan Building might be moved to make way for development, the more architecturally significant structures should remain. Even the two rusted, graffiti-laden mobile gantry cranes will stand tall at Slip 4 for a public park to be called Crane Cove.
The company bidding to do the bulk of work on the most prized buildings believes the area can be revitalized without compromising character.
"It's a challenging Rubik's Cube of opportunity," said Loring Sagan, head of design at Build Inc., a boutique firm partnering with historic preservation specialists, Equity Community Builders.
They will recommend several cornerstone tenants to jumpstart activity. Those include headquarters for the Burning Man festival; incubator space for the life sciences firm Prescience International; and Conxtech, a company that builds sustainable steel structures.
The Union Iron Works powerhouse with its massive pneumatic compressors still intact might make a great gathering site for entertainment, restaurant and bars, he said.
But the start-ups and artists won't be forgotten, said Sagan, himself a sculptor. He plans to call on bigger tenants to provide subsidized space for artists in the new historic zone.
"It's a fertile ground for creativity down there," Sagan said. "And we see that type of fertility as a necessary ingredient for our project to be successful."