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The rebirth of a landmark

On March 15, 2003—10 years ago today—the newly renovated San Francisco Ferry Building reopened its doors. The historic landmark and international culinary destination is such a Bay Area institution that it’s hard to imagine a time when it did not hold that beloved place in the hearts of food lovers, but the transformation was many years in the making.

Completed in 1898, the Beaux Arts-style building originally served as a transportation hub, and as many as 50,000 ferry passengers passed through its halls each day. With the construction of the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges in the mid-1930s, transportation patterns shifted and the building fell into disuse. By the late 1950s, the interior was diced up into offices, and the façade was disconnected from Market Street, hidden behind the Embarcadero Freeway.

When the double-decker freeway was demolished after being damaged by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, public interest in the building was renewed. The Ferry Plaza Farmers Market sprouted up across from the building several years later, founded by the San Francisco Public Market Collaborative, a collection of local food advocates, restaurateurs, and developers. These seeds were planted for making the Ferry Building a hub for the city’s blossoming food culture.

A Visionary Blueprint

In 1998, the Port Commission issued a request for proposals to redevelop the Ferry Building with the goal of reinvigorating the waterfront and rehabilitating the landmark’s original features, such as the historic clock tower, west façade, and Grand Nave.

Amid fierce competition, numerous plans were submitted, but the one that won out was presented by Bay Area developer Wilson Meany and property manager Equity Office. Their vision for the building was a world-class food marketplace that, together with the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, would showcase the region’s agricultural bounty and food traditions. By this time, the San Francisco Public Market Collaborative had become CUESA, which remained a force in realizing this vision.

“We wanted a place that was authentic to the region, the food movement, and our local artisans and farmers,” says Michele Meany, who was on the original development team with her husband, Chris. It helped that the team of planners and architects was local, with strong ties to the food scene. “We knew what the community would want, and we wanted visitors to come and see what the locals were doing and eating.”

While activating the waterfront building for a compelling economic and public use, the joint proposal would restore the landmark to its past glory. The 500-square-foot stalls on the ground floor (originally used as a baggage area) would be remodeled as shops for local artisan food producers, while the larger spaces would become restaurants and cafés, and the upper levels rented out as premium office space. The 660-foot skylight would be restored, and new cutouts in the second floor would allow ambient light to radiate down to the marketplace floor.

With plans approved, the $100-million restoration process began in 2001. The Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, which had moved to a parking lot on Green Street when redevelopment of the Embarcadero roadway began, would soon have a permanent home.

Building Momentum

When the building reopened in March 2003, Equity had secured leases with a handful of vendors, but there were still many vacancies. “After the dot-com bust and the 9/11 attacks, we had a hard time convincing small businesses to make the commitment here,” says Equity Office Senior Property Manager Jane Connors.

It wasn’t until the farmers market moved back to the Ferry Plaza on April 26, greeting an estimated 30,000 visitors—three times the attendance at Green Street—that the building’s potential became obvious. Connors recalls, “People suddenly realized this is what it’s going to be like, and it was incredible.” By the end of the week, Equity received letters of intent for the rest of the spaces.

Over the years, the marketplace and the farmers market have complemented each other, while keeping their separate identities. “There’s a synergy and a symbiotic relationship between the Ferry Building and the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market,” says Connors. “That partnership has been an essential part of the building’s success.”

Along with renowned restaurants like the Slanted Door, the Ferry Building has housed more than a dozen Ferry Plaza Farmers Market mainstays. Acme Bread, Cowgirl Creamery, and Hog Island Oyster Company were among the earliest tenants. Other businesses incubated at the farmers market have joined them over the years, including Blue Bottle Coffee, Capay Organic (Farm Fresh to You), and Prather Ranch Meat Co. This summer, Rancho Gordo will be next to open a storefront.

“We were trying to do an extension of the farmers market on a seven-day-a-week basis inside,” says Meany, who manages the leasing. In 2010, the building introduced kiosks in the hallway of the nave, which have allowed other businesses, like La Cocina and G.L. Alfieri Farms, to set up small permanent stalls.

The Foundation of Community

The renewed Ferry Building has made good on its promise to become a world-class marketplace, catering to an estimated 16,000 visitors a day and 6 million visitors a year. Connors attributes much of that success to staying true to the planners’ original vision and encouraging an environment of collaboration among the merchants.

Over the years, that community has grown as new spaces have become available. Equity is always on the lookout for new niches to fill, and a number of small businesses have set up shop after coming recommended by the marketplace merchants. “Whenever we think we have a vacancy coming up, we go to our current tenants and ask, ‘Who’s doing what? What exciting things are happening?’” says Meany.

To foster connections between neighbors, Equity expects restaurants to make their best attempt to source ingredients from within the marketplace and farmers market. “The Ferry Building is like a large banquet table of all these great abundant choices in the Bay Area under one roof,” says Connors. “These tenants are using each other’s products, and they’re supporting each other.”

“It feels like a family,” Meany concurs. “It just feels very warm.”

Photos courtesy of Equity Office. Artistic rendering by Jennifer Johnson.

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