Yerba Buena Gardens Mixed-Use Development

Master Planning Mixed Use Development-Conceptual Design
Project Number:
Olympia & York, Marriott Hotels, Beverly Willis
24 acres between 3rd and 4th Streets and Market and Howard Streets, San Francisco, California
Project Name:
Yerba Buena Gardens Mixed-Use Development

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.


  1. Chester Harman, cited by Benjamin Forgey, “Mix and Match: San Francisco’s Messy Urban Renewal Marvel,” Washington Post, February 11, 1995.
  2. San Francisco OKs Redevelopment Plan,” Los Angeles Times, July 28, 1985.
  3. Jim Powell, “Beverly Willis Listens,” Savvy, November 1982, 50.
  4. Reginald Smith, “___[Add title of article here]_____,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 31, 1984.
  5. Katherine Bishop, “San Francisco Feels Developer’s Fall,” New York Times, May 24, 1992.


  • “Yerba Buena Gardens.” MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour. PBS Video. 18 November 1993. [YBG history only, no Willis designs]
  • “Yerba Buena Gardens.” Multi Image Show. Wernher Krutein Productions. March 1984. [final schematic design presentation]


  • Forgey, Benjamin. “Mix & Match: San Francisco’s Messy Urban Renewal Market.” Washington Post 11 February 1995.
  • Woodbridge, Sally. “Yerba Buena Gardens Opens in S.F.” [No Paper Name], 29 January 1994: 7.
  • Bishop, Katherine. “San Francisco Feels Developer’s Fall.” New York Times 24 May 1992.
  • “S.F. Okays Redevelopment Plan.” Los Angeles Times 28 July 1985.
  • Adams, Gerald. “YBG Agreement Finally Okayed.” San Francisco Examiner 31 October 1984.
  • Smith, Reginald. “YBC Gets a Go-Ahead.” San Francisco Chronicle 31 October 1984.
  • MacKenzie, Janis. “Success By Her Own Rights.” San Francisco Business 19 August 1984: 25.
  • Adams, Gerald. “Yerba Buena Gardens, Our City-Within-a-City, Up for Public Scrutiny.” San Francisco Examiner 11 July 1984.
  • “Design News: Redevelopment Renascent in the City by the Bay.” Architectural Record July 1984: 49.
  • Temko, Allan. “Yerba Buena’s Post-Modern Potpourri May Work.” San Francisco Chronicle 1 May 1984.
  • “Yerba Buena Project Unveiled.” Real Estate West May 1984.
  • “Yerba Buena’s Bright Promise.” San Francisco Examiner 17 April 1984.
  • Abouzeid, Pamela. “No New Costs Foreseen for Yerba Buena.” The Tribune 16 April 1984.
  • “Green Light for Yerba Buena.” San Francisco Chronicle 14 April 1984.
  • Adams, Gerald. “Controversy Missing From New Yerba.” San Francisco Examiner 13 April 1984.
  • Killdoff, Marshall. “Big Plans For Yerba Buena.” San Francisco Chronicle 13 April 1984.
  • Killdoff, Marshall. “Yerba Buena Project Grew While it Waited.” San Francisco Chronicle 13 April 1984.
  • Maloney, Cahill. “Yerba Buena Plan Unveiled.” San Francisco Progress 13 April 1984.
  • Smith, Reginald. “$1 Billion Project South of Market.” San Francisco Chronicle 13 April 1984.
  • “The Big Money Involved in the Yerba Buena.” San Francisco Chronicle 13 April 1984.
  • Adams, Gerald. “City Unveils Yerba Buena.” San Francisco Examiner 12 April 1984.
  • Adams, Gerald. “Feinstein’s New Plan For Yerba Buena.” San Francisco Examiner 12 April 1984.
  • Smith, Reginald. “Huge Yerba Buena Project Details Ready Next Week.” San Francisco Chronicle 6 April 1984.
  • Adams, Gerald. “City Finally to Unveil Big Plan for Yerba Buena.” San Francisco Examiner 4 April 1984.
  • Adams, Gerald. “How Final Yerba Buena Blocks Will Get Filled In.” San Francisco Examiner 4 April 1984.
  • “$1 Billion Worth of Work.” Pipelines April 1984.
  • “Panel Extends Yerba Buena Negotiations.” San Francisco Examiner 1 January 1984.
  • Adams, Gerald. “Green Light Near on Yerba Buena.” San Francisco Examiner 14 December 1983.
  • “Yerba Buena Housing.” San Francisco Chronicle 6 April 1983.
  • “Another Delay for Yerba Buena.” San Francisco Examiner 1 January 1983.
  • Munz, Michelle. “New Hope for Yerba Buena.” San Francisco Business Journal 20 December 1982.
  • “Blueprints By the Bay.” Savvy 11 November 1982: 48-49.
  • Adams, Gerald. “Rough Sailing for Four Yerba Building Plans.” San Francisco Examiner 30 August 1982.
  • “Seminar Series Continues.” Icehouse News July 1982.
  • Adams, Gerald. “Yerba Buena Condo Towers to Exceed City Height Limits.” San Francisco Examiner 7 April 1982.
  • Adams, Gerald. “Yerba Buena Gardens Project Not in Jeopardy.” San Francisco Examiner 10 March 1982.
  • Woodbridge, Sally B. and John M. Woodbridge. Architecture: San Francisco The Guide. San Francisco: 101 Productions, 1982.
  • Jarvis, Jeff. “Moscone Center Opening to be the Starter of Others.” San Francisco Examiner 11 November 1981.
  • “Yerba Buena Center Faces a Second Study.” San Francisco Examiner 11 November 1981.
  • Britton, James II. “Will Grass Become Greener in the City’s Future?” San Diego Union 8 November 1981.
  • “How Could the Supervisors Have Approved Yerba Buena Center?” San Francisco Bay Guardian 4 November 1981.
  • Killdoff, Marshall. “Yerba Buena Design Selected.” San Francisco Chronicle 7 October 1981.
  • Navarro, Mireya. “Yerba Buena Esplanade Plan Gains Support.” San Francisco Examiner 30 September 1981.
  • Adams, Gerald. “Building Blocks of Yerba Buena.” San Francisco Examiner 23 September 1981.
  • Killdoff, Marshall. “Terraces’ Plan Getting Support.” San Francisco Chronicle 23 September 1981.
  • Mitchell, Dave. “Public Lands (Damns) Yerba Buena Plan (Plans).” San Francisco Examiner 23 September 1981.
  • “A Choice of 3 at Yerba Buena.” San Francisco Examiner 22 September 1981.
  • Killdoff, Marshall. “Next Yerba Buena Fight – Designs for Center.” San Francisco Chronicle 21 September 1981.
  • Adams, Gerald. “A Boo-boo Spoils Developer’s Party.” San Francisco Examiner 14 September 1981.
  • Adams, Gerald. “Plan for Yerba Buena Project is Unveiled By Developer.” San Francisco Examiner 11 September 1981.
  • Haloney, Cahill. “Planners Think ‘Elaborate’ for Yerba Buena Center.” San Francisco Progress 11 September 1981.
  • Killdoff, Marshall. “Three Ideas Displayed For Yerba Buena Center.” San Francisco Chronicle 11 September 1981.
  • “Olympia & York.” [Advertisement for Public Viewing of Models] [No Paper Name], September 1981.
  • “Yerba Buena School Site Approved.” San Francisco Examiner 5 August 1981.
  • “Three Concepts for YBC Design Go to September 22 Public Workshop.” YBC Garden News August 1981.
  • “The Yerba Buena Plan.” San Francisco Chronicle 26 July 1981.
  • Hinkle, Warren. “A Frisco Fight Brews Over St. Pat’s Rectory.” San Francisco Chronicle 22 July 1981.
  • “The New Look of Yerba Buena.” San Francisco Examiner 13 July 1981.
  • Adams, Gerald. “Garden-Like Setting Proposed for 3 South of Market Blocks.” San Francisco Examiner 10 July 1981.
  • Killdoff, Marshall. “Sneak Preview of 3 Yerba Buena Plans.” San Francisco Chronicle 10 July 1981.
  • Mewhinney, Mike. “Plazas, Gardens For Yerba Buena Center.” San Francisco Progress 10 July 1981.
  • “Festive Mix of Shops, Gardens for Yerba Buena.” San Francisco Examiner 9 July 1981.
  • “Get on With Yerba Buena.” San Francisco Chronicle 1 June 1981.
  • Demoro, Harre W. “South of Market Makes Way For Yerba Buena Center Development.” San Francisco Business Journal 9 February 1981.
  • Adams, Gerald. “Cold Water Dashed on Lane.” San Francisco Examiner 10 December 1980.
  • Adams, Gerald. “City Picks Olympia & York for Yerba Buena.” San Francisco Examiner 21 November 1980.
  • Hsu, Evelyn. “Yerba Buena Center Developer Selected.” San Francisco Chronicle 21 November 1980.
  • Adams, Gerald. “The Man Who Must Make Magic at Yerba Buena.” San Francisco Examiner n.d.
  • Adams, Gerald. “Is There Magic in Yerba Buena’s Twinkling Lights?” San Francisco Examiner n.d.
  • “Olympia & York Family Tree.” San Francisco Chronicle n.d.