It would be misleading to describe this swath of Mission Bay as ugly. It's transcendently ugly.
Hulking towers resembling Stalinist Lego structures protrude from the earth; the streets are wide and unpopulated, giving the enclave the feel of a backlot movie set. You could shoot a strange film here, because Mission Bay is a strange place. The buildings looming over its reclaimed soil, like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five, have come unstuck in time. They simultaneously resemble the loopy, modernist tomorrow an ambitious architect could sell a developer on in 1968 and, jarringly, our current vision of a loopy, modernist tomorrow.
Mission Bay manages to appear both archaic and futuristic. It transcends time, and, unfortunately, aesthetics.
When you have a foot in both the past and the future, the present becomes an unsettling place. That's the case in San Francisco, a city in flux. And nowhere is it more evident than Mission Bay, a rapidly changing neighborhood where, it seems, every day is marked by a new Stalinist Lego tower and another step on the long march of progress.
A massive, ungainly vacant lot with a ramshackle fence strung around it isn't exactly a mark of "progress." But that's where your humble narrator locates one of the few people straggling through this abandoned locale on a recent weeknight. He's nearly obscured by the massive growths of fennel exploding out of the fence; with every fierce blast of wind these give off a sharp, licorice odor. From a distance, all that can be discerned of the man is the outline of his hood and the glint of his binoculars.
He's here for the birds.
You'd never spot it from the T-Third line, which, itself, has come unstuck in time and rumbles by at agonizingly lengthy intervals. And you wouldn't notice it from the sidewalk as you strolled to AT&T Park or Cirque du Soleil after ditching your car within one of this city's few remaining hamlets in which free parking is a given.
In the midst of the sprawling vacant lot is a shoebox-shaped marsh, perhaps 70 yards long and 15 yards wide. The man — a doctor at a nearby clinic, it turns out — lifts his binoculars to his eyes. He ignores the fast-food wrappers and cigarette butts and pulverized liquor bottles composting at his feet and gazes through the fence.
There is grandeur in this view of life. A Canada Goose waddles, slowly, behind a quartet of fuzzy chicks ambling along the water's edge. Killdeer and willets warble in the distance and, an arm's length away, a barn swallow alights nimbly atop a marsh plant. A red-winged blackbird, whose coloring more closely resembles that of the baseball team playing a few hundred yards down Third Street, isn't having it.
"Red-winged blackbirds are super territorial," explains the man as the creature springs into action. "He'll chase everyone off."
But that's not going to work for much longer. Soon, this wetland will be claimed by harbingers of progress that no bird can dispel. This is the "Salesforce Site" last week sold to the Golden State Warriors for an undisclosed king's ransom. The isolated swamp will, in a few short years, be transformed into the new epicenter of San Francisco; the ethereal arena the team quixotically attempted to erect atop rotting piers will, instead, be located here. So will 18,000 fans attending ballgames, concerts, tractor pulls, or whatever else the team's owners host on-site to pay off their hefty investment.
No doubt about it: The fennel-scented winds of change are bearing down upon us. But change is endemic to this quadrant of San Francisco. It is written, in steel, on the very ground beneath our feet.
The geese. The goslings. The blackbirds. The marsh: What we are really looking at is, in all likelihood, a ditch. A pit. A gaping hole left in the wake of excavations to remove toxic soil from what was once a vast rail yard. The flora and fauna obliviously enjoying a temporary reprieve are a mark of nature reclaiming a site that, itself, is decidedly unnatural.
Mission Bay, notes San Francisco natural history educator Joel Pomerantz, used to be an actual bay. The large, crescent-shaped body lapped up against where the Townsend and Seventh traffic circle now stands; a narrow tidal slough trickled all the way into the Mission near General Hospital. Some of the land abutting the proposed stadium site's eastern boundary wasn't filled in until the 1940s.
If the birds and birders are on borrowed time, the developments replacing them are on borrowed land. Railroad tracks run underfoot and alongside the marsh; splayed, rusting slabs of metal project from its bank.
For decades, all that was found here was plenty of nothing. Dirty Harry police chases could safely careen through the vicinity without risk of flattening UC San Francisco personnel or blasting through the ground floor rec room of a start-up and mowing down techies on beanbag chairs. The sprawling Southern Pacific yard, a remnant of San Francisco's industrial era, occupied a gargantuan hunk of the city's southeast. In fact, the massive Catellus corporation deeply involved in Mission Bay's metamorphosis is, itself, a spinoff of Southern Pacific.
San Francisco ain't much for big trains these days. But big development atop the embers of its industrial past is a burgeoning enterprise. The present-day marsh and future stadium was, formerly, a train depot, a cement plant, then a parking lot.
Perhaps it's understandable why the structures mushrooming here are so banal and hideous. It's challenging to offer an architectural nod to a realm marked by reclamation from the sea via landfill, industrial warehousing, industrial decay, and, incongruously, a driving range in the midst of a city where land is valued like beluga caviar.
Attempts to do so can come off a bit ridiculous. Before pulling the plug on a massive office park, Salesforce put forth plans to do up the land in a way a gosling might appreciate: "Landscaping of the open spaces will include various water features that lead from 3rd Street to Terry Francois Blvd, the visual axis to the Bay — fountains, runnels, a large vernal pool that will expand and contract, depending on the season or use in the center, terminating in a wetlands mazes [sic] that celebrate and connect the space to the Bay."
Last week, SF Weekly broke the story that the Warriors had finally abandoned the increasingly ludicrous proposition of erecting a waterfront-clogging stadium atop derelict piers unfit to host a flamenco troupe. Team flacks and personnel put on a master class in not returning our phone calls or messages and, when they deigned to do so, were not in a position to opine on whether a future Mission Bay stadium will come equipped with vernal pools and a wetlands mazes [sic].
A well-known architectural trope is that mazes do not mix with fans who've enjoyed a beer or two at a ballgame. Let's assume that's a nonstarter. What is certain, however, is that the team won't be forced to appease the gauntlet of overlapping federal, state, and local regulatory bodies overseeing development on piers and waterfront land, as the previous plan would've required; the Bay Conservation and Development Commission's jurisdiction stretches only 100 feet inland.
The Warriors' site is 115 feet off the shore. In basketball terms, the team is now lined up for a free throw as opposed to a half-court heave.
The bird-watcher and your humble narrator wander away from the wetland, over the train tracks, and toward parts of the city in which the buildings don't resemble Rubik's Cubes. Transforming the refuge of birds and birders alike into a glimmering stadium appears to be something that won't require an act of God, to say the least.
San Francisco is a complicated place. Emotional attachments to nature scenes lead to nostalgia over a ditch in a vacant lot. A murky ditch atop landfill. A hole once buried beneath a cement plant and a rail yard and filled with contaminated earth. Now, a locale without a heart and soul is poised to become the heart and soul of the city. A dilapidated scrap of land will be transmuted into a gem. People will flock here from miles around.
And then they'll go home. The birds, meanwhile, will be merely the latest San Francisco residents forced to fly from this city.