The Northbank's Successful Sibling: The Embarcadero

July 8, 2015 12 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Judging from the most recent Jacksonville Landing charrette, the courthouse parking lot falling into the river, indecision on a new convention center, and many focusing on shipyards a mile away from the Northbank core, we are a community that has no idea of what we want our urban St. Johns River waterfront to become. While we continue to circle the wagons, here's a look at one of the country's most successful urban waterfronts: The Embarcadero.

Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2002, San Fransico's Embarcadero is the country's largest in-tact historic urban waterfront. Constructed atop an engineered seawall on reclaimed land between the 1860s and 1920s, the Embarcadero features many attractions that have been suggested for downtown Jacksonville over the last several decades or that already exist on the Northbank waterfront today. It's history also aligns with the history of the rise and fall of downtown Jacksonville's Northbank waterfront.

Ferry Building

In Spanish, embarcadero means "the place to embark". In the early-20th century, the plaza in front of the Embarcadero's Ferry Building was one of the busiest areas of foot traffic in the world, behind London's Charing Cross Station and NYC's Grand Central Terminal.

Initially, the Embarcadero's piers were primarily dedicated to inland trade and transport, fostering California's agricultural industry. By the same token, Jacksonville's piers came alive in the late 19th century, as a major logistical center during the Reconstruction of the South, following the Civil War, and transport down the St. Johns River.

Bay Bridge

During World War II, both waterfronts became major military logistics centers for the war effort. In addition, the construction of bridges, the Bay Bridge (San Francisco) in 1936 and Main Street Bridge (Jax) in 1941, led to rapid decline of these district's ferries.

If that's not enough, a combination of the transition to container shipping and mid-20th century-half completed elevated freeways, the Embarcadero Freeway and the Hart Bridge Expressway, sent both districts into steep decline.

Like Blount Island and Talleyrand's impact on Jacksonville's downtown riverfront trade, the Port of Oakland replaced much of the Embarcadero's port operations after the transition to container shipping.

In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake occurred in Northern California, severely damaging the Embarcadero Freeway and forcing its closure. Instead of reconstructing the damaged highway, which carried 70,000 vehicles a day, a decision was made to demolish and replace the structure with a "context-sensitive" boulevard featuring Muni streetcar tracks in the median, wide sidewalks, landscaping and bicycle lanes.

The Embarcadero

This decision was so controversial that the mayor at the time, Art Agnos (a graduate of Florida State University) was defeated in his re-election campaign, due to opposition from the Chamber of Commerce and Chinatown residents who wanted the freeway rebuilt. While that decision cost Mayor Agnos, it transformed The Embarcadero in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In 2003, its Ferry Building was retrofited into an upscale gourmet marketplace. Furthermore, other areas of the former freeway's footprint were redeveloped as high density housing, office, retail and commercial space.

Many of The Embarcadero's old wharfs have been retrofitted into a variety of uses, including covered parking to support businesses and attractions in the vicinity.  On June 16, 2006, the Port of San Francisco unveiled a monument at Pier 14 to Mayor Agnos honoring his vision, "This pedestrian pier commemorates the achievement of Mayor Agnos in leaving our city better and stronger than he found it."

There are many applicable ideas for revitalization that The Embarcadero, which is now a 2.5-mile promenade, offers for Jacksonville's Northbank waterfront. We'll let you sort through The Embarcadero's photo tour and see if you can suggest a few.  However, we will say that the dominating them that ties them together is multi-modal connectivity and the clustering of complementing uses, within a compact pedestrian scale setting. Also worth noting is the political sacrifice of Mayor Art Agnos, for the long-term betterment of the community. Enjoy!

Next Page: Images of the Embarcadero through the eyes of a Jaxson

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