Strange as it sounds, San Francisco’s future can be seen at the long-dying Pier 70, where buildings that were once filled with ironworkers stood vacant for decades.

Newly restored industrial landmarks along 20th Street are filling with employees from companies that largely didn’t exist a decade ago. Behind this, construction workers are literally laying the foundation stone for a 28 hectare project that combines old and new buildings with 9 hectare squares and parks.

In terms of historical preservation alone, the rebirth of Pier 70 is already an architectural triumph. The planned buildings and squares promise to be the city’s next attraction on the bay.

The changes, however, are inextricably linked to the city’s technology-driven economy – a force that allows long-awaited improvements to finally materialize, but seem alien from what was before.

These cultural aspects add a new layer of the newest neighborhood to the long history of the majestic yet no-nonsense structures in the historic Union Iron Works neighborhood, a 66-acre area south of Mission Bay and east of Dogpatch that is being redeveloped as a city.

A car drives past Gusto headquarters, a historic building that was renovated near Pier 70 in San Francisco, California on Tuesday, March 12, 2019.Gabrielle Lurie / The Chronicle

As early as the 1870s, the mud flats that covered a large part of the area were filled in for industrial purposes. The oldest surviving collection of structures is also the most impressive – a series of machine shops built between 1885 and 1917 near the entrance to Pier 70 on 20th Street and Illinois Street.

The red brick facade, 175 feet long, facing west, has arched windows under a roof that reaches 62 feet high. The stores have now been restored by Orton Development, along with the more ornate buildings across the street where the bosses had their offices.

World War II brought another round of construction, including a massive shed-like manufacturing hall and a six-story concrete warehouse, both of which will remain. However, after the 1950s, work ceased and owner Bethlehem Steel sold Pier 70 to the Port of San Francisco for $ 1 in 1982.

While ship repair firms occupied the large dry dock of Pier 70, the port spent 25 years trying to find a way to revitalize the rest of the district. This culminated in a master plan for 2010, followed by the selection of Orton to restore the historic core and Brookfield Properties to manage the southern half of the property.

Orton’s work is almost complete, although the neoclassical former administration building on the 20th and Illinois is still being renovated by tenants from Restoration Hardware, which will also include a roof park. The 1885 building and its outbuildings were completed last year. The complex has already received a design award from the California Preservation Foundation for its renovation.


Orton and his team, including Marcy Wong Donn Logan Architects and heritage preservation architect Mark Hulbert, accomplished a difficult task. The burly machine-factories have been carefully restored to repair damage caused by rain from ripped roofs to the scavengers that stripped off all the materials that could be sold for scrap.

But they haven’t been cleaned up too much. The exteriors look like they haven’t changed much, and evocative remnants of San Francisco’s industrial past are ubiquitous.

There are notices of this along 20th Street, such as the speckled scoreboard with its faded instructions to “report any injuries.” But the big drama is inside.

For example, go into the white brickwork between the two long wings of the workshops. It has been converted into a public atrium, and from there you can peek into the arched innards of Gusto, the tenant who occupies the east wing. In the dark alcoves just below the summit, between discreet mezzanines added on either side to create additional rental space, see what a chubby hook looks like.

Michael Hutto works in the Gusto offices as construction can be seen outside the window on Wednesday March 13, 2019 at Pier 70 in San Francisco, California.Michael Hutto works in the Gusto offices as construction can be seen outside the window on Wednesday March 13, 2019 at Pier 70 in San Francisco, California.Gabrielle Lurie / The Chronicle

Take a closer look – it’s a 50-ton bridge crane attached to girder-like crane rails that stretch across the large, gaunt void.

Unfortunately, most of us get no closer to these sturdy talismans than the solitary vicarious view I’ve described.

While the 2010 master plan for the port provided for “great cultural use” as well as retail and restaurant areas on the ground floor in the oldest buildings, everything except the public atrium was rented to tenants who like to work behind closed doors.

Gusto, a cloud payroll and human resources company, was founded in 2012 by Stanford graduates in Palo Alto and today employs more than 500 people. The rest of the machinery space is rented from Uber, the brash hail shipping company, as research and development space.

The massive Pier 70 with its 62-foot-high ceiling houses the personnel company Gusto.

The massive Pier 70 with its 62-foot-high ceiling houses the personnel company Gusto.

Gabrielle Lurie / The Chronicle

On the flip side, the space that wasn’t rented from Restoration Hardware is filling up with employees from Juul, the e-cigarette maker that is widely believed to fuel the steam craze among American teenagers.

Juul’s presence upset the longtime Pier 70 watchdogs. But companies like Juul and Uber are controversial and not illegal. You can argue that they are in line with the 2010 master plan call for Pier 70 to be a “hub for innovative industries” – no matter how uncomfortable this makes many of us feel.

You can restore the old industrial buildings. You can’t bring back the old industry, especially if you are restoring historic buildings to strict standards.

Brookfield’s much larger project is behind a wall at the end of 20th Street. And while the finished product should be more diverse and accessible than the historical core, there are amazing aspects to it too.

The imported soil now slopes upward from worn concrete slides to streets and plazas up to 10 feet above the previous topography. It’s an altitude set to be safely above the projected sea level rise for 2100.

Several derelict buildings at this end of Pier 70 were demolished that year. The concrete warehouse will be converted into apartments while the fabrication shop – closer to the bay – will be raised 10 feet to adapt to the new environment.

The elevated landscape sets the stage for Brookfield’s first phase. In addition to the new and restored structures, Slipways Commons will be a 3 acre park stretching out from the water. It is flanked by a new six-story apartment building in the south, designed by Kennerly Architecture, and the World War II structures to be restored in the west.

“Pier 70 is not about one thing. It’s that collection of rooms and scales, ”said Richard Kennedy of James Corner Field Operations, landscape architect for the Brookfield project. “We want what turns out to be tough but lovable.”

In the old factory hall, where ship hulls were assembled, Brookfield provides for a lower level, which is filled with so-called “public areas with light industry, manufacturer and artist studios, local retail, food and open space”. Slipways Commons, as well as boardwalks to be added in the following phases, are designed as city-wide attractions.

Brookfield plans to develop at least 1 million square feet of commercial space and up to 3,000 residential units by 2028 – 30 percent of which is reserved for lower-income residents.

The only piece of Pier 70 up for grabs is the 13-acre dry dock and ship repair facility on the northeast corner. It was closed in 2017 and the port has not yet been able to find a new operator.

The dry dock was one of the last pockets of well-paid heavy industrial jobs in San Francisco. But the city is in a disruptive mode that is closely tied to the global economy. Pier 70 makes this a huge relief, no matter how comforting our historic buildings may be.

John King is the urban design critic for The San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @johnkingsfchron