Around 1960, the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency flattened all of the buildings on a 24-acre site covering the four city blocks between Market, 2nd, 3rd, and Folsom streets in downtown San Francisco. Because this area south of Market Street, known then as “Skid Row,” housed the poor and the homeless, its bulldozing ignited politically controversy. By one account, forty-eight residential hotels were destroyed and 4,000 people displaced.
The agency visualized the Yerba Buena Garden site as a social and economic bridge. By populating the area with new housing, offices, hotels with active street retail, and cultural facilities, it would connect the thriving financial district and Union Square retail area to the blighted industrial zone, thereby revitalizing it. The agency had floated other design solutions over the course of some twenty years, but these failed to gain political traction. In 1979, it tried again, launching a national competition to find the right developer.
In 1980, the master-plan concept put forward by the Olympia & York, Ltd, the Marriott Corporation, Beverly A. Willis, Partnership, Ltd., won the competition. During an interview with Savvy magazine, the Agency’s project director, Helen Sause, explained, “We picked Willis because she is sensitive to what we want and resourceful enough to deliver it.”
Yerba Buena Gardens’s winning design responded to the interest on the part of the city and its citizens to create a more humane and visually interesting setting than those earlier proposed. The ambitious “superblock” re-development project envisioned by Kenzo Tange for the agency in the early 1970s was rejected by the city. In contrast, the 1980 winning team elaborated on the concept of an urban garden as the center of the development.
Consisting of 1,250,000 square feet of office space, a 1,500-room hotel, 250,000 square feet of retail space, 350 apartments, and an exhibition and performing arts complex, the master plan created transitions in scale, use, texture, and access that seamlessly rewove the urban fabric into an integrated whole. Ground-level components became an extension of the downtown north of Market Street, creating a comfortable pedestrian streetscape. A series of open spaces sited for maximum sunlight offered a variety of outdoor environments.
During a three-year process directed by agency staff, many concepts were designed, hundreds of plans drawn, and numerous models made. In 1984, the plans were finally approved by the agency and the city. “Yerba Buena Projects Get a Go Ahead,” announced the San Francisco Chronicle.
Then, financial disaster hit. Olympia & York experienced severe financial difficulties associated with their Canary Wharf development in London. It withdrew its commitment to the agency, forfeiting the $22.2 million deposit it had paid for the right to develop the land. The city used these funds to build the envisioned arts center and the theatre with the final plans developed by others. On May 24, 1992, a reporter for The New York Times quoted a spokesmen for Olympia & York and the redevelopment agency, saying they were “eager to reassure the public that enough money is in place to complete the visual and performing arts centers now under construction, touted as the finest cultural complex since the construction of Lincoln Center.” Construction of the Marriott Hotel, San Francisco’s largest, was also completed, but the development partnership abandoned the rest of the project.