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Saving SF’s Ferry Building from the Sea

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The view of the Ferry Building in downtown San Francisco. (Lindsey Moore/KQED)

Sea level rise threatens communities along the Bay and some iconic cultural heritage sites along the San Francisco shoreline.

So when the water comes for iconic sites like San Francisco’s Ferry Building, how do we save it?


Episode Transcript

This is a computer-generated transcript. While our team has reviewed it, there may be errors.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: I’m Ericka Cruz Guevarra and welcome to The Bay. Local news to keep you rooted. So the San Francisco Ferry building is a staple of my commute. When I’m on my way home, I love watching the building get bigger and bigger as my bus goes down Market Street, and when I’m inside waiting for the ferry, I like to look up at the tall ceilings. It’s buildings like this that put San Francisco’s waterfront on the National Register of Historic Places. But the future of the waterfront isn’t secure.


Chloe Veltman: The state estimates the water could rise roughly up to two and a half feet above its current level by 2060 and potentially up to seven feet by the turn of the century, which is extraordinary to think about.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: San Francisco is considering lifting the ferry building by seven feet to save it from the sea. Today, a conversation with NPR culture correspondent Chloe Veltman about saving San Francisco’s ferry building and how we talk about protecting cultural heritage in a warming world. Stay with us.

Chloe Veltman: In 2016, the National Trust for Historic Preservation put a whole chunk of the city’s urban shoreline on this list of the US’s most endangered historic places.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Chloe Veltman is a culture correspondent for NPR who’s based in San Francisco.

Chloe Veltman: That stretch is focused on the Embarcadero area and encompasses all sorts of buildings. Really, it’s every historic building along the San Francisco waterfront, including those at Fisherman’s Wharf and all the way down to Bayview Hunters Point. The state estimates the water could rise roughly up to two and a half feet above its current level by 2060. And potentially up to seven feet by the turn of the century, which is extraordinary to think about.

Elaine Forbes: The the whole issue of climate change and historic preservation intersects right at the waterfront.

Chloe Veltman: Elaine Forbes, she’s the executive director of the Port of San Francisco. And so her agency manages a seven and a half mile stretch of the city’s bay facing waterfront.

Elaine Forbes: So we know we have a now problem. I would say it’s clear by mid-century we need to have had intervention.

Chloe Veltman: So she’s very much at the center of trying to figure out what to do about rising sea levels and, of course, the perpetual threat of earthquakes on the waterfront in San Francisco. Forgive me.

Elaine Forbes: Let’s drill in talk.

Chloe Veltman: Let’s take a walk. Why not? It’s kind of warm that.

Elaine Forbes: It’s really warm.

Chloe Veltman: Well, she took me along the waterfront and showed me some interesting sites. There are a couple of areas not far from the ferry building that have already been raised up, actually.

Elaine Forbes: And if you look at the height of the deck for the agricultural building compared to the ferry terminal, you can see the story of preparing for climate change right in front of you.

Chloe Veltman: It’s so interesting. If you look, you’ll see the AG building is separated from the ferry building. There’s a channel of water around it and it’s it’s lower. It’s like two or three feet lower than the new raised up ferry gate. It’s really unnerving when someone points out.

Elaine Forbes: I think that’s that’s true for a lot of the public in terms of understanding what we’re facing and what it looks like on the ground, because it can be sort of conceptually confusing until you see it in the built form, like, oh, it’s very obvious what they’re facing. Here you also see.

Chloe Veltman: I go there all the time and I’ve never really realized what was going on until she showed me this.

Elaine Forbes: Thing. Here you also see crumbling infrastructure, seismic vulnerability, sea level rise risk. Beautiful historic facility.

Chloe Veltman: Yeah. So what’s going to do you.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Well, that’s so interesting because it sounds like the city is already taking action. How are they talking about what to do about the ferry building?

Chloe Veltman: Well, they have a whole plan that they’re developing and it’s a huge plan. And it isn’t just about the ferry building and it isn’t just about historic landmarks. Right. But they haven’t yet said exactly what they’re going to do. They’re still in the planning phase. But this federal funding and this local tax dollars, for example, in November 2018, voters in San Francisco supported Proposition eight, which is a San Francisco bond initiative, and it provided $425 million to upgrade and repair a portion of the seawall. They do need to think about how to physically move some of those historic structures, like, for example, the ferry building.

Chloe Veltman: They’re also talking about beefing up the emergency response systems. Of course, the seawall is part of that and protecting natural habitats. We’re looking at billions of dollars and they are doing a lot of work to engage the community. They’ve done a lot of community walks, a lot of meetings. People are able to ask questions. This has been going on for a few years now. And the city the Port Authority’s saying that this feedback is going to help inform its draft plan for saving the city’s shoreline, but they’re not going to release that plan. They don’t think, until early next year, they tell me.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: How important is it to Elaine that the ferry building be saved along with the rest of the shoreline?

Chloe Veltman: You know, we spoke about the ferry building and we focused on the ferry building, in part because it is such an iconic structure and because saving it is potentially going to require taking really drastic action. I mean, can you imagine what it might take to raise this massive building with its big clock tower up potentially by seven feet?

Elaine Forbes: The ferry building is is one of the city’s most important historic facilities. And it’s iconic. You really can’t imagine a book, a novel, a movie, anything of importance about San Francisco without an image of the ferry building.

Chloe Veltman: Yeah, she does care about it. You know, and because they’ve heard a lot of a lot from the community that that people want that building to be safe, probably because there is a sense of attachment to it.

Elaine Forbes: We’ve heard loud and clear everywhere it’s to be saved.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: It sounds like Elaine is very invested in making sure the shoreline in San Francisco is protected. And I know you walked around and asked people about how they feel about saving the ferry building in particular. How would you describe the range of thoughts people had about this?

Chloe Veltman: Well, I spoke to several people who feel that all of San Francisco is important. I mean, locals who’ve grown up in the city their entire lives who would like, in a sense, the city, not to discriminate, you know, one building versus another building, which you might say your full name.

Dakari Tillery: Yes, I’m Dakari Tillery.

Chloe Veltman: Dakari is a security guard at the ferry building. I think he’s in his twenties and he grew up in the Western addition Fillmore neighborhood.

Dakari Tillery: Everything that was kind of meaningful to me growing up has been like tore down or reconstructed or pushed out or whatever the case is.

Chloe Veltman: I caught him on a break. He was sitting on a bench looking out at the water behind the ferry building. Even though he doesn’t live on the waterfront. He definitely wants the city to think about all the parts of the city. He wants his whole city saved.

Dakari Tillery: These are places that people go to every day. People fly from other countries all over the place to come over and see. So that would be a waste of a beautiful city or a beautiful landmark just because we can get it together or whatever the case is.

Chloe Veltman: I also spoke with somebody who isn’t so interested in specifically seeing the ferry building saved from rising sea levels.

Sanaz Tahernia: Oh, I mean, I think community structures are way more important.

Chloe Veltman: Her name is Sanaz Tahernia, and she lives in one of the waterfront neighborhoods in San Francisco near the ball park. I met with her as I was walking across the plaza in front of the ferry building, and we stopped to have a quick chat while we were looking up at the clock tower, the.

Sanaz Tahernia: Ferry building, if you want to ride it seven feet, that’s going to save the ferry building. But what’s going to happen to the rest of the city? There’s people that live all along the water. I mean, the community is what makes San Francisco not these buildings.

Chloe Veltman: Yeah. And.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: One question I feel like this story raises is this question of like, what makes something worth saving in the face of climate change? And I feel like that’s kind of a big question Chloe.

Chloe Veltman: Yeah, it’s a massive question, Ericka, And it’s one that people in charge of managing what we call cultural heritage spaces have to grapple with. There are ways you go about thinking about this complex problem. It’s sort of a balancing act. And so you can sort of think of it like a Venn diagram. So one of the circles is what in your community is most meaningful, most culturally significant? That’s in one circle.

Chloe Veltman: The second circle is what’s the most feasible thing Like, what do you actually have the resources to do? That’s the second circle. And then the third circle is about the level of risk. How likely is this building or this other piece of cultural heritage going to be underwater? So you’re thinking about all these things, and ideally, the things that you decide to save need to be in the middle of that Venn diagram, you know? So that’s I mean, that’s one way that a lot of the experts are thinking about this.

Marcy Rockman: Things that have to do with heritage are still seen as being sort of a luxury.

Chloe Veltman: Marcy Rockman is one of this country’s foremost experts on climate change and cultural heritage.

Marcy Rockman: There’s something that’s nice to have, but they’re not seen as essential.

Chloe Veltman: She feels very strongly that cultural heritage is not just about old buildings with plaques on them, right? Every community has cultural heritage, and it’s really important that cities and municipalities that are trying to figure out their way through this problem about what to save and what to let go of. Consult locals, talk to communities, listen. Listen to what they have to say about what really matters to them.

Marcy Rockman: So love to see is more support for all communities to help figure out what matters about this place, what is happening to it? What are the parts you most want to carry forward? And then how do we do that? And where heritage is often most fatal is where it is lived, lived and used.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: The story that you did on the Ferry Building is part of a series from NPR about the threat that climate change poses to cultural heritage sites. Why do you think this is important to talk about?

Chloe Veltman: Yeah, it’s really important, Ericka, because a lot of the conversation, both in politics and the media about climate change, has traditionally focused on the science. But the problem is that data can be really hard for most people to wrap their heads around. And it’s only when you have these extreme weather events and then they threaten the things that we love, our cultural heritage, the things that we hold most dear to us. It could be, you know, the paintings that your kids made at school in your own home.

Chloe Veltman: I mean, that can be cultural heritage, right? As well as the local old pub in my my neighborhood growing up in England, you know. It’s only when you see terrible fires and floods and other extreme weather impact those things, that climate change starts to feel really tangible. Really, my series for NPR is exploring this connection between the things that we value in the world and how those are impacted by the increasing amount of devastating floods, wildfires and extreme weather events.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Well, Chloe, I really appreciate you sharing your reporting with us. Thank you so much.

Chloe Veltman: It’s a pleasure. Thanks, Ericka.


Ericka Cruz Guevarra: That was Chloe Veltman, a culture correspondent for NPR who’s based in San Francisco. This 23 minute conversation with Chloe was cut down and edited by senior editor Alan Montecillo. Producer María Esquinca  scored this episode and added all the tape. Shoutout as well to the rest of our podcast team here at KQED, that’s Jen Chien, our director of podcasts, Katie Sprenger, our podcast operations manager, Cesar Saldana, our engagement producer, and Holly Kernan, our chief content officer. The Bay is a production of member supported KQED. I’m Ericka Cruz Guevarra, thank you for listening to the Bay. Peace.

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