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History of Yerba Buena Gardens

YBG History
A transformation from neglect to a model of urban renewal and community pride.


A History of Transformation*

The history of Yerba Buena Gardens is one of transformation. The downtown San Francisco site once was part of a challenged neighborhood. Today, it is part of an 87-acre urban redevelopment project and is recognized as one of the top 30 urban parks in the nation with a mixture of housing, open space, cultural facilities, children’s facilities, a convention center, and commercial development. The work of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency and the community transformed the area and this one-of-a-kind destination is now considered a model for how to improve public space and urban areas.

Yerba Buena’s Early Days

After a brief stint as a gold prospectors’ camp in the mid-19th century, San Francisco’s South of Market area evolved after the Civil War into an important service sector, geared largely to the city’s port. Dockworkers and merchant seamen formed a majority of the population, and industrial infrastructure and workers’ housing came to dominate the landscape. As early as 1870, almost one-third of San Francisco’s boarding houses and half of its lodging houses were located South of Market. The area’s distinctive demographic pattern grew more pronounced over the following decades, reaching a peak when war workers flooded into the port during the 1940s. Building codes and aesthetic standards fell by the wayside as housing the massive influx of workers took first priority.

Failed Renewal Plans | 1950s-1960s

In 1953, amidst the optimism of the postwar housing boom and urban renewal, nearly 20 blocks in South of Market were designated a redevelopment zone by one of the nation’s first redevelopment agencies. The area’s fate was sealed in 1961, when changes in container technology shifted port activity to Oakland and deprived the neighborhood of its livelihood. By this time, city planners had begun to see the South of Market area as a promising adjunct to the financial district; the redevelopment zone accordingly migrated east and north toward Market Street, shrinking by nearly 10 blocks along the way. For the next decade, conceptualizations of “Yerba Buena Center” featured large-scale commercial development – convention center, sports arena, theaters, a museum, office buildings, and retail – designed to promote gentrification of the surrounding areas. These visions, however, ignored that approximately 4,000 people already lived in the South of Market area. In 1967, to make room for Yerba Buena Center, their homes were demolished. Various lawsuits challenged dislocation, financing, and environmental concerns, including the successful 1970-1973 Tenants and Owners in Opposition to Redevelopment (TOOR) suit over the relocation process. Development halted.

A New Path to Success | 1970s

In 1976, Mayor George Moscone appointed a Select Committee to study the area and produce a consensus design vision, explicitly encouraging citizen input through public hearings and discussions. This committee affirmed what were to be the most enduring elements of the project: the commitment to subsidized low-income; the goal of mixing a variety of commercial uses and public facilities; and, importantly, the idea of locating the convention center expansion underground and covering it with a public garden and other amenities. The Redevelopment Agency required developers to set aside land and funds for cultural institutions such as museums, exhibits, and theaters.

The Vision Realized | 1980s-Today

The guiding vision for Yerba Buena has been that of a genuine neighborhood: a diverse mixture of different uses and constituencies co-existing in a new downtown community. The project was integrated into the city, both architecturally and programmatically. The result has been a balance of interests rather than a one-dimensional – and ultimately fragile approach.

This inclusive process resulted in a series of diverse projects being completed that did not ignore the bottom line economics or the aesthetics of the project or neighborhood goals. In 1993 the Esplanade and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts opened and the initial Moscone expansion was completed. In 1998, the Central children’s area, including ice rink, Childcare Center, and Children’s Creativity Museum opened. A year later, Metreon opened. During 1987-1990, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art decided to relocate to Yerba Buena. It opened in 1995 and is currently undergoing a new expansion.

Yerba Buena has also seen the building of low-income housing, low-return childcare centers, and precious acres devoted to open public space at a time when other cities focused narrowly on visitors and tourist traffic. A healthy commercial life with diverse retail and entertainment venues, and selected internationally known architects to design a stylistic showcase of cultural and entertainment facilities. At a time when other urban entertainment districts and major urban redevelopment projects are discouraging youth from “hanging out,” Yerba Buena actively invites them in. Bowling alleys, skating rinks, teen oriented cultural facilities and creative electronic programming for older youth at the Children’s Creativity Center are all there at a time when urban economics could easily have allowed for more profitable construction.

One of those elements, Yerba Buena’s central gardens, the Esplanade, is the cohesive public element that ties the complex project together and connects it to the surrounding blocks. An extensive ramp and fountain system, capped by an overlook, relates surrounding restaurants and cafés to the green and performance areas and to a Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial below. Entrances to Metreon, the Visual Arts Center, and the Performing Arts Center all open onto the green, and SFMOMA’s main entrance aligns with an east-west walkway that also joins the Center for the Arts to Metreon. The park is the heart of the district, well maintained, and well suited to its passive functions as well as to the approximately 120 programmed events in the spring, summer, and fall.

A Public Private Partnership Model

San Francisco has reaped a number of benefits from Yerba Buena. Aesthetically, it has raised its worldwide stature by becoming a showcase for the giants of “new” architecture. In social terms, key developments include an improved commitment to low- and moderate-income housing in the downtown area, increased cooperation within the city’s arts community, and the enlivening of the downtown financial area. Politically, the City and Redevelopment Agency will leave this project extremely well educated in the process of urban renewal. Further, Yerba Buena’s economic impact is considerable. Beyond bringing in tourist and tax dollars, the project has shown a promising ability to generate jobs. The spirit of cooperation continues between the private and public sectors as part of model that has stood the test of time.


*Content from the Rudy Bruner Award given for development of extraordinary urban excellence to serve as national models.

Yerba Buena Gardens | At the Cultural Heart of San Francisco