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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

San Francisco’s port lands redevelopment

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I was in San Francisco just over a week ago, for the first time. One of the many things I did was try out the new T-Third Street light rail line, which fully opened earlier in April. While riding the latest addition to that fine city’s legacy streetcar system, I happened upon San Francisco’s waterfront regeneration project.

I write my impressions of San Francisco’s waterfront redevelopment just as Toronto seeks to do the same with the chosen MVVA proposal. There are some differences: San Francisco does not have a river to rehabilitate and revitalize like we do with the Don, and while both areas are disconnected from the rest of the city by elevated expressways, Toronto’s Portlands are a bit more isolated geographically.

The brand new T-Third Street LRT line opened only a few weeks earlier, replacing a diesel bus route. This LRT line connects the lower income Visitacion Valley, Hunter’s Point and Dogpatch neighbourhoods with the downtown core, via the Muni Metro streetcar subway under Market Street (another project the TTC may emulate with the Eglinton-Crosstown Line of Transit City). The T Line also runs through the Mission Bay district.

I was immediately struck by how similar San Francisco’s Mission Bay was to our Portlands. The Light Rail Vehicle crosses an old shipping channel on a drawbridge (reminded me of the Cherry Street bridge), while on one side, residential development lines the waterway, as far as the elevated Interstate 80 ramps (another interesting parallel to the Gardiner). There are no plans to bury Interstate 80, as it also serves as the approach to the Bay Bridge to Oakland.

The completed residential buildings, all low-rise, look similar in size and form, but the varying colours of the bricks makes them look attractive from a near distance. A new public library just opened here as well, just on the north side of the channel.

Further south, the lands are completely barren, made up of parking lots and vacant lands, all of which will soon be built upon. In the middle of this is a new campus for the University of California at San Francisco, complete with student residences, while across the street, construction is underway on a commercial/industrial development.

When complete, there will be 6000 new housing units, of which 28 percent will be affordable housing, geared to income, as well as 800,000 square feet of retail space, 6 million square feet of office and high-tech industrial space, a large hotel, 49 acres of parks, and a new school, and a firehall and police station.

It was also interesting to note that the light rail line (which is in the middle of Third Street, with high-platform boarding) was built just as development was underway, rather than built after the demand made it necessary. While the route replaces an important bus route, it will certainly help make the neighbourhood more attractive (only 10-15 minutes to the Financial District), as well as provide better service for many of San Francisco’s most marginalized neighbourhoods. Here, the light rail line obviously has signal priority though signalized intersections, speeding up service. Meanwhile in Toronto, streetcars on Spadina or Queen’s Quay are held up because the Transportation (should read: Roads) Department has not turned the system on.

You can find out more by going to the Mission Bay Redevelopment site.



  1. It has to be said that the US Federal government is putting a lot of money to revitalize American city cores. That is something that will not happen in Canada simply because our Federal government only exists to make Quebec happy to ensure they stay in the Confederation, and as such they don’t give a rat’s ass about Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, etc (even though we are the ones that pay the bills). This country needs a huge political shift where cities and their surrounding areas are at least as important as the provinces. The Feds should be decentralizing their powers and finances to our city-states, and not the to useless provinces of this country. I know, I know… there would have to be a major change in the constitution, and that is why everything will stay the same and our cities will keep degrading. Forget about the MVVA proposal, it ain’t happenin’. Toronto used to be an example for all North American cities, now we are looked upon with disdain and pity (with the exception of Detroit).

  2. I’m all for Canadian cities getting a bigger slice of government finances. But North America looking upon us with “disdain and pity”?

    I lived in Seattle for a few years. For most Americans I met, Toronto is simply off the radar, just like the rest of Canada. If pressed, the vague sense of small, clean, and well-run lingers, even in ways no longer deserved. The only people who pitied me for being from Toronto were fellow ex-pat Canadians (doing so half-jokingly).

    Seems to me the easiest place to find disdain and self-pity of Toronto is in Toronto. A few weeks back, Toronto was the runner-up in one study’s North American city of the future, behind Chicago but ahead of Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Guadalajara, Baltimore, Montreal, Mexico City, Boston, Miami — and every other city of 2 million or more. The Star’s initial mid-day web article was positive. But by the next morning, the angle was that “[Chicago] soars while [Toronto] shuffles”. I don’t know if the original take even made it to print.

    Back to SF: I agree it’s really useful to look at other cities. Their successes should be a source of inspiration, not self-pity.

  3. San Fran’s transit system is what Toronto’s would be if we were complacent. In the central city there are trolley buses that come once every 15 minutes packed to the brim and a subway system that tunnels its way out to low-density suburbia. If you think that the Spadina subway was misguided, it’s got nothing on the 15 mile BART extension through a mountain valley to far off Dublin Pleasanton. Meanwhile roads like Van Ness and Geary are crying for something beyond the occasional accordion bus and they’re even less likely to get it than a downtown relief line or Queen street subway in Toronto.

  4. Matt, I didn’t mean that the American people look at Toronto, I know they don’t even know we exist (and that is how I like it). I was talking about city politicians in American cities, I can guarantee you that most mayors in America’s big cities know Toronto and our mayor and I was referring to those people.

    The fact is most US cities are going through a renaissance whereas here in Toronto we are falling back. There might be many cities that still have to catch up, put the point here is that they are catching up. The only positive about Toronto is its low crime rates when compared to the US, when it comes to renovation, infrastructure, culture, job creation, etc, we are getting worst and worst. I see how this city was just 10 year ago and how much it has fallen behind, TTC services are in the pit, our streets are dirtier, our roads are crumbling, more homeless in the streets, these are thing you can not deny.

    I don’t have disdain for Toronto, the disdain I have is for the people that let things reach this point, I anguish over the huge potential this city has which is constantly being wasted, but I will always love my city, even if one day it becomes a cesspool like Detroit.

  5. =====
    when it comes to renovation, infrastructure, culture, job creation, etc, we are getting worst and worst. I see how this city was just 10 year ago and how much it has fallen behind,
    Things were at their worst in the late Harris years. We are still severely behind on the infrastrucutre front, but in most other areas there’s been a mild-to-robust resurgence. Toronto is hardly in any decline, but it is indeed saddled with some serious problems, mostly due to senior governmental downloading.