Greening the Port of San Francisco’s Backlands
In the mid-1990s, the Port of San Francisco’s planning and environmental staff collaborated to establish green guidelines for land use and development of the Port’s maritime facilities from Piers 80 to 98. One of the Port’s early moves was to turn Pier 98—bay fill that became a brownfields site—into Heron’s Head Park, a dedicated wetlands habitat. Owned and maintained by the Port, it provides a sanctuary for 78 different species of birds—and an ideal place to study the shoreline ecology of the south waterfront and how its flora and fauna have been impacted by industrial pollution.
The heart of this area is the Backlands, which takes in Piers 90 and 94. The majority of its 47 acres was undeveloped—as bay fill, it required foundations that were too costly for most industrial buildings. The development of Mission Bay forced the concrete and gravel suppliers located there to move to the Backlands. Norcal’s recycling plant was already in operation at Pier 96, close to barge and rail service. Bode’s and Hanson’s new concrete and gravel plants were required by the Port to be green by design and operation. Both plants also take advantage of service from barges and ships. Their open hard surface lots are paved in permeable concrete. Stormwater runoff is addressed by surrounding open areas and parking lots with bio-swales planted with reintroduced native plants.
Bode and Hanson have both made green part of their brands, installing large public displays of their sustainable building products. They jointly sponsored an ornamental garden on Third Street that helps form a green gateway to the Bayview. They also helped defray the cost of cleaning up a former dumping area at the end of Pier 94 to create another wetlands. New soil has encouraged native grasses and shrubs to grow, creating a home for local and migrating birds—a nature preserve in the making. Discarded tires and appliances, long buried by other debris, are removed as they continue to surface.
The Port’s latest master plan for the Backlands’ 47 acres identifies potential tenants with both the means to build and operations that suit the green program. They are a bio-diesel processing plant and San Francisco Public Utility Commission’s wastewater treatment digesters. The oldest tenant in the Backlands is a tallow company. Due to clean air restrictions, it’s no longer allowed to process the grease it collects from local restaurants, so it’s been shipping the waste to Port of Stockton and from there across the Pacific to China. By locating a bio-diesel plant next door to the tallow company, the grease can be processed locally in a sealed system and then converted to bio-diesel fuel.
Greater synergy will also be realized by relocating the wastewater treatment digesters to the Backlands from their current site in a residential neighborhood half a mile away. The new treatment plant will be able to separate the organics and process them appropriately, either cooked directly into fertilizer or sent to the bio-diesel plant to be turned into fuel. The latter process will use the high concentrations of methane that are a byproduct of water treatment as fuel—another example of the Backland’s “virtuous cycle.”
What’s next for the Backlands? Logically enough, the Port hopes to attract sustainable industries, locating them adjacent to Cargo Way, creating a “green cluster” along the south waterfront. They envision improving public access on this road, which links Third Street to Heron’s Head Park, to integrate the adjoining Bayview district with the regional Bay Trail and San Francisco’s Blue Greenway. By reconnecting the city to the Bay in a way that signals a new attitude toward its ecological integrity, the Port’s efforts are as full of promise in their own way as the removal of the Embarcadero Freeway.