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The San Francisco waterfront is listed on the National Register of Historic Places for good reason. Its picturesque old landmarks, like the Ferry Building and the Bay Bridge, have been featured in many period books, TV shows and films, from Jack London stories and novels to the 1970s TV series. The streets of San Francisco.
The future of San Francisco’s waterfront, however, is not assured.
In 2016, the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed part of the city’s urban shoreline on its list of America’s Most Endangered Historic Places, in part because of the threat of sea level rise. Today, San Francisco is considering drastic measures to save its historic coastline.
Waterfront landmarks in many cities are increasingly threatened by flooding and sea level rise caused by human-caused climate change. St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Italy, and the Venice Beach boardwalk in Los Angeles face similar challenges to San Francisco.
But the increasing scale and frequency of climate-related threats, the high costs and effort involved in saving heritage sites, and competing ideas about what is worth saving and what is not , can make it difficult for cities to know where their priorities lie.
“The whole issue of climate change and historic preservation is right on the waterfront,” said Elaine Forbes, executive director of the Port of San Francisco. The agency manages a 7.5-mile stretch of the city’s bay-facing waterfront.
As she watched ferries come and go on a sunny afternoon near her office on one of the city’s recently renovated historic piers, Forbes said sea level rise has not historically posed as great a threat to San Francisco as major earthquakes.
This has changed.
Parts of the main road along the seafront have been flooded due to heavy rains in recent years. The state estimates the water could rise to about two and a half feet above its current level by 2060, and potentially up to seven feet by the end of the century.
“I would say it’s clear that by mid-century we’re going to need intervention,” Forbes said.
The city is considering how to strengthen its sea wall, sections of which are 140 years old. It also plans to physically move some of the historic waterfront structures out of harm’s way.
The most important of these is the Ferry Building.
“To prepare for sea level rise, which is coming, we may have to raise this building up to seven feet,” Forbes said, looking at the tourist-heavy landmark.
The Ferry Building sits in the middle of the waterfront. It has been a beacon for travelers arriving by ferry since the late 1890s. The upscale boutiques and fine dining restaurants attract many visitors. It’s hard to imagine what it will take to physically raise the enormous white structure with its clock tower this tall.
“We heard it loud and clear everywhere: It has to be saved,” Forbes said, adding that it will happen no matter the cost or effort involved. Details of the project have not yet been revealed.
“What will happen to the rest of the city?
Since 2017, the city has conducted extensive studies and outreach to determine how to make its coastline more resilient. Last year, the organization solicited feedback on a set of proposed strategies through public meetings, focus groups and shoreline walks. A recent report states that “preserving the historic nature of the Embarcadero” – that’s the part of the waterfront where the Ferry Building is located – is one of the public’s priorities.
Not everyone NPR spoke with necessarily feels the same way.
“The Ferry Building, if you want to raise it seven feet, that’s going to save the Ferry Building. But what’s going to happen to the rest of the city?” said Sanaz Tahernia, a digital health professional who lives in one of San Francisco’s waterfront neighborhoods. “The community is what makes San Francisco. Not these buildings.”
Tahernia is one of several people NPR spoke with recently on the waterfront about what’s a priority when it comes to protecting San Francisco’s landmarks from sea level rise. They had all different points of view.
“It would just be something to see the change, whether it goes well or whether it goes bad,” said Raymond Tillery, a student and skateboarder who grew up in one of the city’s waterfront neighborhoods. “Like it’s for the people or it’s for profit or something.”
“It would be a shame if all these old buildings were torn down,” said Mary Mulcrone, a visitor from Ireland whose family lives in the San Francisco Bay area. “But I think all over the world, with global warming, we’re going to see entire countries underwater.”
“I don’t want to see any part of the city affected if we can do something, honestly,” said Dakari Tillery, a security guard at the Ferry Building and a San Francisco native.
Saving the city’s coastline
Preserving historic buildings is just one small part of San Francisco’s overall waterfront resilience agenda. Other priorities include strengthening emergency response systems and protecting natural habitats.
The Port of San Francisco estimates the project could cost billions of dollars. Forbes said there were difficult decisions to be made about safeguarding the future of the city’s waterfront cultural heritage.
In a statement to NPR, the San Francisco Port Authority said ongoing community feedback helps inform its proposed plan to save the city’s coastline. This plan is expected to be released early next year.
“Where heritage is often most vital is where it is experienced and used,” said Marcy Rockman, a Washington, D.C.-based consultant and researcher who focuses on the impact of climate change. human impact on cultural heritage.
Rockman said all neighborhoods have heritage, not just those with plaques on buildings. She said she hoped San Francisco’s approach would balance caring for less visible but deeply valuable aspects of the city, with important heritage places like the Ferry Building.
“We can’t hold back the sea. But we can advance some of what’s important about this place,” Rockman said. “What would you like it to be?”