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Making room for the long-term
legacy of Mission Creek Park

This site plan rendering of Mission Creek Park shows the main elements of the park; (1) the decomposed granite walkway meandering along the creek edge, (2) the glass pavilion, (3) built-in landscape steps, an open lawn that rises with (4) sweeping knolls, and (5) two upper trails (one a sidewalk, the other a bike path)run in between double rows of lemon-scented gum trees. (C) EDAW 2004: Photography by Don Lee

Transforming an old industrial site into an evolutionary park capable of sustaining one of San Francisco's most progressive urban developments required forward-thinking design.

The Mission Bay Redevelopment

Mission Bay in downtown San Francisco, Calif. is undergoing a 300-acre urban redevelopment that aims to create a thriving mixed-use community with a master plan that includes more than $5 million square feet of commercial and industrial space, a 500-room hotel, 850,000 square feet of retail space and 49 acres of parks and recreational areas, including a newly constructed 3.5-acre waterfront park that runs along Mission Creek.

The Catellus Development Corporation, a San Francisco-headquartered real estate investment trust, is developing Mission Bay on a former industrial site that sits on the city's waterfront, an area know as China Basin. The 300-acre area is being developed as a public-private partnership between Catellus and the master developer and majority property owner, under agreements with the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency and the city. Those agreements not only create new commercial space, but also provide public benefits, including new housing and an open connected park system. Those agreements not only create new commercial space, but provide public benefits, including new housing.

Woods benches set on decomposed granite are surrounded by Japanese holly.

Designs for Mission Bay began in the late '80s, with EDAW, Inc., a San Francisco based design, land planning and environmental analysis firm, creating the original master plan. Since then, several other firms (most recently Skidmore Owings & Merrill LLP) have contributed to new and revised master plans for the promising site. In 1999, EDAW's Jacinta McCann, principal designer, and Michael Cannon, senior designer, took over the Mission Creek Park design.

Construction on the Mission Bay development site began in 1999 with an estimated completion date of 2050. Considering that hefty timeline, to say that the development is forward-thinking is an understatement. The needs and wants of future users seem to have been considered in every detail from the construction of public facilities to infrastructure, including a state-of the-art, all-fiber-optic network. Incorporating these cutting-edge data infrastructures should make Mission Bay even more of a destination for the next generation of city-dwelling technology users.

The central lawn of Mission Creek Park, a 3.5 acre oasis of grass, trees, granite footpaths, and curved benches. (C) EDAW 2004: Photography by David Lloyd

The ambitious redevelopment is predicted to be an employment engine for San Francisco, eventually representing approximately five percent of the city's job base at full build-out, and promising 6,000 new residential condominiums and apartments to house the eager workers. Considering the projected growth of Mission Bay, the redevelopment could be the equivalent of an urban "field of dreams", promising that as Catellus builds, they will come; "they" meaning the projected community of 11,000 residents and 31,000 workers expected to inhabit the new space by its 2050 completion date.

Part of Mission Bay's draw is the new University of California San Francisco medical and research campus; the largest biomedical university expansion in the country. The new campus, which is expected to employ 9,100 people within its 43-acre site, should also attract technology-based companies sure to find a prestigious home within the 300-acre Mission Bay development. More than 450,000 square feet of the $1.5 billion campus space has already been built and another 900,00 are under construction with an expected full build-out in 15 to 20 years.

A 12-foot-wide granite path meanders along the creek edge, moving towards the pavilion and outdoor plaza. (C) EDAW 2004: Photography by David Lloyd" (C) EDAW 2004: Photography by David Lloyd

At the forefront of the Mission Bay redevelopment is Mission Creek Park, a 3.5-acre oasis of grass, trees, granite footpaths, benches and a cafe overlooking the San Francisco waterfront area called the Central Basin. The park represents the first installment of a 15-acre park connected to Mission Bay's network of smaller parks, greenbelts and biking and jogging trails. "The park is a very important first piece of the development of open space at Mission Bay because it functions as a gateway into the bay," says McCann. "It also shows the community the quality of the future park system planned at Mission Bay and should encourage future investment in the bay."

McCann and Cannon, who led the park's site design, began drawings in late 1999, on a fast track to complete the initial design concepts by mid-2000, with construction completing in the fall of 2003. "The city wanted to provide public open space before they began selling residential, because this area is on the edge of the city–there's not a lot down there; ball fields, parking lots and industrial sites," recounts Cannon.

As visitors look southeast toward the end of the park they can see the San Francisco Giants Stadium and the Fourth Street Bridge in the distance. Pressure-treated wood pilings placed in the channel provide a resting place for waterfront seagulls. (C) EDAW 2004: Photography by David Lloyd

Walking through the park today on a winding creek-side path flanked with flowing grasses and the soft bend of willows, it's hard to imagine the previous condition of the Mission Creek Channel. "This site was just horrible to begin with," avowed Cannon. "For years the creek had been a junkyard with old tires and beams and pieces of concrete sections and rip-rap along the creek--it was awful."

Transforming this former industrial site into a progressive waterfront park full of open space and a healthy ecological habitat meant taking advantage of the natural assets of the site. With this in mind, the landscape features passive recreational space oriented toward the creek, using materials and curving lines to create a soft natural interface with the restored creek edge.

The parks long-term mission, to create a sense of place for its future community, also provides one of its greatest landscape design challenges. "The park must be flexible enough to change as this development moves forward," says Cannon. To do this "we had to balance the needs of the developer, the redevelopment agency and the community."

The park is invaluable to the community because it plays a significant role in reestablishing the habitat and the ecology of the creek channel. McCann and Cannon's design of the park restored the creek edge to a more natural bank configuration by removing junk materials like broken asphalt and riprap, remnants of the sites industrial heritage. The site was regraded and planted with a mix of native plants suited to the tidal environment of the bay.

The park during grading operations. McCann and Cannon's design of the park restored the creek edge to a more natural bank configuration by removing junk materials like broken asphalt and riprap, remnants of the sites industrial heritage. The site was regraded to prepare for planting of native plants. (C) EDAW 2004: Photography by Glen Phillips

Finding the right plants for this environment was essential, so McCann and Cannon developed a plant pallet in association with an ecologist who specialized in San Francisco's environment. The resulting mixture of plant material stabilized the creek, minimizing riprap.

Of course, the grading plan had to take into account these tidal inundations as well. "The channel has a difference in water height at high tide of about 12 feet," explains McCann. "We worked with an engineer to develop the grading plan, then the old concrete and other materials were removed. The bank was regraded and new riprap was brought in where the bank needed protection."

While the park undoubtedly has improved the ecological health of Mission Creek Channel, it also offers a refreshingly open scenic space within a densely populated urban environment. "It's where a business person or a resident can go for a breath of fresh air and momentary respite from the everyday world," offers McCann.

Michael Cannon echoes her sentiments, "What we set out to do was to design a park that could accommodate these uses; retail, commercial, and residential. We tried to not make the park too stuffy or too busy; to accommodate a range of passive recreation activities; to not presume too much--to be very flexible in the way it could be used."

Seventy-five-foot-long concrete lawn steps stair their way up a berm, forming natural amphitheater seating. Each end of the concrete steps is inset with Bega lights. (C) EDAW 2004: Photography by David Lloyd"

The Major Design Elements

The Mission Creek Park offers trails that follow the creek, curved landscape steps that form a natural, outdoor amphitheater, a small glass pavilion and cafe for sipping cappuccino and an open lawn that rises with sweeping knolls.


Three park trails parallel Owens Street, which runs the length of the park. The two upper trails, one a sidewalk, the other a bike path, stretch like twin sidewalks flanking the street. Both upper trails are made of asphalt and are 12 feet wide. "The bike lane was dyed with a tan mix to set it apart from the sidewalk, making it look more park-like and less vehicular," noted Canon. The bike trail is an important part of the park's integration within the larger Mission Bay area because "it will connect, at future stages, to other bike paths that will extend through Mission Bay, connecting along the streets to parks and other development areas," states McCann.

The lower trail, made of decomposed granite, is a more informal walkway that allows visitors to get close to the water as it meanders along the renewed creek edge, swinging by the landscape steps and cafe. "We picked decomposed granite because we wanted to make it a more casual path and have it tie in with the more natural edge that we restored along the channel," noted McCann.

Landscape steps

To create a natural outdoor amphitheater, McCann and Cannon staggered three tiers of 75-foot-long curved concrete benches, embedding them as parallel arc's set into a small berm. "We wanted to create a space that could be ready for a performance or just a place for people to gather and sit and enjoy the view," says Cannon. "We didn't want anything too flashy, so we tucked the seats into the berm so they really felt like part of the park. It's a place where people can sit and have a view of the park, looking over the creek and into the San Francisco skyline."

Newly planted weeping willow trees will serve as a wind buffer near the cafe building with California gray rush in the foreground. (C) EDAW 2004: Photography by David Lloyd"

These partially embedded lawn steps use concrete as a band for seating, with round fluorescent lights subtly recessed into each end of each step. The curved concrete adds a little industrial flair to the design, says Cannon.

Glass Pavilion and Cafe

The architecture firm of Tom Eliot Fisch collaborated closely with McCann and Cannon in the design of the park pavilion, a contemporary 1,000-square-foot glass, metal and block structure complete with indoor cafe, created as a "destination" for local residents. The glass walls of the transparent pavilion present a sanctuary from the elements on windy days while retaining a nice view over the creek and into the city skyline. Food services, restrooms and seating are offered inside the pavilion. Extending from the exterior pavilion, a paved, outdoor plaza offers seating underneath a canopy of Chinese tallow trees. Forward-thinking design is demonstrated in future plans (around 2009) to build a pedestrian bridge over Mission Creek, connecting the park plaza to residential areas on the northern side of the channel.


Cannon and McCann came up with a creative way to maximize the lawn while working around a budget constraint. "We were going through the budgeting process and we couldn't get a playground, so we really wanted to create some playful mounds for kids could run around on. We built a cone shaped mound and a big, long, linear mound that kind of replicated what was underground--the buried underground channel," says Cannon. "We wanted to give reference to things emerging underneath the ground--to call attention to the three-dimensional movement of the earth."

The landscape design included ornamental grasses, such as Mexican Feather grass, at the channel bank edge to accentuate the seasonally windy site in San Francisco. (C) EDAW 2004: Photography by David Lloyd

The east lawn enables visitors to sit on the lawn and overlook the creek and city skyline. The knolls also function to screen out the cars from the adjacent roadway. The lawn design functions as a passive recreational space, where visitors have ample open room to throw a Frisbee, read a book or just take in the view of the city skyline.


The concept behind the overall planting design was to "plant things in large masses to give a stronger feel to the park, punctuating it with a few specimen trees," states Cannon. Within that concept plantings were chosen with seasonal considerations in mind. "In San Francisco, even in winter, you can sit out on the terrace and the sun will be out; so we were conscious of selecting trees that looked good all year round." Punctuating the lawn, Chinese scholar trees will keep their beautiful structure throughout the winter months.

Evergreens like Indian laurel, Victorian box and cajeput tree offer year-round color while serving double duty, by screening out street noise as well. A few Yoshino flowering cherry trees near the meandering granite path complement the park with subtle color in spring. Because this can be a seasonally windy site, ornamental grasses like Mexican feather grass, maiden grass and big blue liriope bring movement to the landscape. Quick-growing Chinese tallow trees, standing in perfect groups near the glass pavilion, offer contrasting seasonal color, with leaves that turn red in the fall.

Study model of Mission Creek Park. Quick-growing Chinese tallow trees, standing in perfect groups near the glass pavilion, offer contrasting seasonal color, with leaves that turn red in the fall. Yellow-twig, western and red-twig dogwoods along with several willows and ornamental grasses were planted along the restored channel bank. Photo courtesy of Catellus

Along Owens Street, double rows of lemon-scented gum trees form a refreshing canopy for the bike path and sidewalk underneath. Coolibah trees (Eucalyptus microtheca), an evergreen from Australia, run nearest to Owens Street.

McCann and Cannon consulted with Wetland Research Associates to develop a palette of native plants to restore the direct edge of the channel. Yellow-twig, western and red-twig dogwoods along with several willows, including weeping willow, arroyo willow and corkscrew willow, were planted along the channel bank. This shoreline vegetation attracts birds seeking refuge in the foliage. Pilings placed in the channel are reminiscent of the industrial history of the site while providing a resting place for seagulls, as typically happens along waterfronts.

Outdoor Amenities

The park is scattered with numerous amenities, including urban benches, curved lines, a modern bike rack, trashcans, lights and signs. All the "furniture" at Mission Bay adheres to a modern European style. "All the architects got together and advised Catellus and came up with Mission Bay standards, which designated the theme of the park's amenities; stating the details of things like the color, texture and finish of sidewalks," recalls Cannon. "We just tried to simplify, simplify, simplify, and eventually we got down to what the core elements were. We had a rigorous review with the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency on the proposed standards for every bench and bike rack: Even the utility covers in sidewalk--they were all thought through."


This was a fast-track project requiring extensive coordination between the agencies, the community and other stakeholders. McCann and Cannon had a window of five to six months to create design development and construction drawings–a very ambitious pace considering the level of coordination needed between the city, engineering teams and the Catellus Development Corp. "It's a small park, but it was very complicated," asserts Cannon. There was an existing 7-by 7-foot boxed sewer line running underneath the ground that could not be disturbed. "We weren't sure of its precise depth. It was built in the 1930s, and we weren't sure how accurate the surveys were at that time." The channel location worked out perfectly in the end–it was buried deep enough to allow a smooth grade transition down to the channel.

Mission Creek Park as it nears completion. Photo courtesy of Catellus

The other complication, according to Cannon, was that the entire area is in a liquefaction zone. "Probably the biggest technical challenge was designing for settlement," states McCann. "Depending on the weight of materials, settlement happens at different rates. We had to make sure we could plan the plaza so that it could connect seamlessly to the pedestrian bridge–planned to cross over the channel at a future date–to make sure that the building would connect to the path with a safe relationship."

Completion of the First Phase

The first phase of the park was completed in October 2003. "There will be a second phase of the park, which will proceed when it's triggered by the development at Mission Bay," states McCann.

Overcoming a site's challenges on a fast track project of this complexity and importance is taxing, but the legacy this park will offer its future users will be worth it. "This was a fun project," says Cannon. "The client was really great–they wanted to make positive change and build a community."

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December 10, 2019, 7:21 pm PDT

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