While National Park lands are a major destination of the planned streetcar extension to Fort Mason, connecting western Fisherman’s Wharf to regional transit and the rest of the waterfront is a big benefit as well. Market Street Railway illustration, Robert Campbell photo.
Did the F-line split Fisherman’s Wharf in two? Anecdotal evidence suggests it might have, albeit accidentally, to the detriment of the western part of the Wharf area. But a solution is at hand: an extension of vintage streetcar service westward to Aquatic Park and Fort Mason, a project now in environmental review. This project, currently led by the National Park Service with strong Muni support, promises very positive impacts for the western Wharf area as well.
Changing Historic Patterns
Fisherman’s Wharf is San Francisco’s biggest visitor attraction. As such, it’s a critical part of the city’s economy, in good times and bad. Until the late 1960s, what people referred as ‘the Wharf’ was almost literally that: the boat harbor next to Pier 45 that was home to the city’s fishing fleet, crewed mostly by Italian immigrants and their descendents. The string of restaurants surrounding the harbor was included and not much else.
But in 1957, Muni realigned its cable car service, piecing together parts of two lines to make a new ‘Powell-Hyde’ line that, for the first time, directly linked the heart of the city’s retail and hotel district to Aquatic Park. Tourists just wanting a cable car ride happily climbed on board the Hyde cars only to find an empty dirt lot at the other end, along with a bunch of industrial buildings.
But this new, visitor-friendly historic transit line soon helped inspire visionary developers, including William Matson Roth and Leonard Martin, to convert some of those old industrial complexes into shining new retail attractions such as Ghirardelli Square and The Cannery. Gradually, the definition of ‘Fisherman’s Wharf’ expanded, in the minds of both visitors and merchants, to stretch from Ghirardelli in the west all the way to Pier 39, developed in the late 1970s, in the east.
The two cable car lines distributed public transit visitors evenly across the western and central parts of the Wharf. (The Powell-Mason line’s terminal at Bay & Taylor has served the area since 1888.) The eastern edge of the Wharf area, anchored by Pier 39, counted mostly on automobiles to bring its visitors, as clearly evidenced by the enormous garage adjacent to the facility.
When the F-line opened to the Wharf in 2000, visitor travel patterns changed again. Now, in addition to the two north-south cable car lines reaching the Wharf, there was attractive east-west vintage rail service directly linking downtown via The Embarcadero, where it replaced an infrequent Muni bus that no one rode.
Looping through much of the Wharf on Jefferson Street heading west and Beach Street heading east, the F-line was an immediate hit with riders and today carries far more people than the Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde cable car lines combined. Some of the F-line ridership has come at the expense of the cable cars (the $5 cable car fare and long turntable lines in summer no doubt play a role in this), but most F-line riders appear to be people who otherwise would have either taken a private automobile or a taxi. Bottom line, though, the F-line has made it easier and more attractive for people to reach the Wharf. At least part of it.
When people ride into the Wharf area on F-line streetcars, they pass sights they’ve seen or heard of before. Pier 39. Restaurant Row. And, just before the Jones Street terminal, the fishing fleet’s harbor. So, the strong temptation when getting off the streetcar is to walk back to explore these attractions, rather than walking westward. Watch where people go when they get off the F-line cars at the terminal and this pattern becomes visible. Similarly, visitors who start their Wharf visit at Pier 39 and walk westward often stop when they see the F-line terminal at Jones and take the streetcar back downtown, figuring (wrongly) that the end of the line is the end of the attractions. Given this, perhaps it is not so surprising that some attractions in the western part of the Wharf have seen static or declining visitation since the F-line opened.
Back to ‘Plan A’
There’s a little irony in this, because Muni’s original plan for historic streetcar service, dating back to 1979, called for the line to go all the way through the Wharf — past it, in fact, to use the 1914 railroad tunnel to reach Fort Mason Center.
But by the time planning for the F-line extension began in earnest, the originally proposed Fort Mason terminal had been pulled back to the central Wharf area for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was opposition to the whole streetcar concept by some wharf merchants concerned about losing a handful of automobile parking spaces.
Muni’s H-line ran through Fort Mason from 1914 until 1948, but never connected it directly to Fisherman’s Wharf. The streetcar shelter (left) is still there, as are the buildings, now National Park Service Headquarters for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Bob McVay photo, Walter Rice collection.
Now, wharf merchants unanimously support the F-line and are calling for additional service to handle the demand, which at 23,000 daily riders is way beyond Muni predictions.
Seven years ago, the then-executive director of the Fisherman’s Wharf Merchants Association, Al Baccari (now a member of Market Street Railway’s advisory board) began lobbying to implement Muni’s original plan of streetcar service all the way to Fort Mason. His reasons? The Fort Mason Center area had grown steadily in popularity through its mix of performing arts venues, galleries, and exhibition space, to attract more than 1.5 million visitors annually, despite no direct Muni connection to the Wharf or Downtown. Many of those Fort Mason visitors, Baccari reasoned, would take an attractive streetcar to get there, stopping to eat or shop at the Wharf on the way. The Wharf would also gain a quick attractive connection to Fort Mason’s ample affordable meeting space, helping its hotels attract more conference business.
That spark of interest from Wharf merchants was enough to rekindle the proposal. The National Park Service, as part of a park master plan, had been reserving the abandoned — but intact — 1914 railroad tunnel between the foot of Van Ness Avenue and Fort Mason Center for rail transit. The Park Service also saw how attractive streetcar service would provide a pollution-free alternative for visitors to reach its San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, enabling children and families from all over the Bay Area to reach the park easily on public transit. It would also give them the ability to expand visitor capacity without having to expand parking. This too, helps merchants in the western Fisherman’s Wharf area.
Rebalancing Wharf Transit
The extension has the important benefit of reunifying the pieces of Fisherman’s Wharf by rebalancing transit access between its eastern and western portions. After studying several possible east-west alignments of the extension, Beach Street was selected as the route for environmental and historic preservation reasons. Among other advantages, this allows the placement of streetcar stops in both directions directly opposite the Hyde Street cable car turntable, providing a mini-transit hub to visitors wishing explore the Wharf area. The streetcar tracks alone provide a clue to visitors getting off the cable cars that there’s something to see where the tracks lead.
Going east from Hyde, the tracks pass The Cannery and the foot of Columbus Avenue, gateway to North Beach, and then continue on Beach to connect to the existing F-line track at Jones. (Coming west on Jefferson from the current Jones Street terminal, the extension would go west to Leavenworth, then swing one block south to meet the eastbound line at Beach.)
Going west from Hyde, the extension’s track reaches Ghirardelli Square and the Maritime Museum, now undergoing a multi-million dollar renovation by the National Park Service. Indeed, a key reason for such strong support of the extension by the Park Service is the exposure streetcar riders will get to the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park (including the Maritime Museum, Aquatic Park, the Hyde Street Pier’s historic ships, and Municipal Pier).
Along with the tracks, the streetcar extension will bring the existing F-line’s upgraded streetscape to the western Wharf on the streets it follows, including ornamental streetlights/trolley wire supports and passenger boarding areas. This further reunites the Wharf area visually.
Market Street Railway has been closely involved with the extension planning process since it began, serving as an advocate and facilitator through a role on the technical advisory committee created by the National Park Service, which is leading this phase of the project.
An Environmental Impact Statement is underway and once a draft is published, public comment will open to take feedback. Though it has been slow, the project continues to progress.
Earlier expected to be operated as an extension of the forthcoming E-Embarcadero line running along The Embarcadero from Mission Bay to Fisherman’s Wharf, Muni now considers it possible that rider demand would cause the extension to be operated as part of the more frequent F-line instead, with the E-line terminating at Jones Street. (Either way, both the E and F lines would operate between Jones Street and the Ferry Building.) Further study, public comment, and operating experience will inform the ultimate operating decisions.
Whatever the operating details, a vintage streetcar extension would clearly help reunite Fisherman’s Wharf in addition to its many benefits to the National Park Service, which has funded the studies and would fund much of the project construction as well. The core construction costs are estimated at around $30 million, not counting contingency, plus $10 million for a seismic retrofit of the tunnel, which is planned to be funded separately. Five million dollars of the extension project has already been funded; additional funding is being sought from sources that do not conflict with such Muni priority projects as the Central Subway. Depending on funding availability, the extension could be carrying passengers by 2014.
As of 2010 planning work continues slowly, but steadily, despite SFMTA budget troubles. Market Street Railway will continue advocating for this and other historic transit projects with the support of our members.