A Digital Journal - San Francisco Public Works
In the Works
Embracing the architectural concept of “genius loci” – the spirit or sense of place – a Public Works design team is telling the story of the Alameda Creek Watershed with a new museum building and botanical garden that draws inspiration from the natural surroundings.
An unassuming country lane in the southern Alameda County town of Sunol leads visitors to an architectural gem – a water temple designed by renowned Bay Area architect Willis Polk and modeled after the Roman Tempio di Vesta in Tivoli, Italy.
Esteemed architect Willis Polk designed the Sunol Water Temple, which opened in 1910. The installation of new landscaping will make the landmark even more enticing for visitors.
At 60-feet tall and held up by 12 Corinthian columns, the 110-year-old landmark was built by the Spring Valley Water Co. to showcase the historic convergence of two natural sources of water in an area now known as the Alameda Creek Watershed. These lands served a thirsty San Francisco as it rebounded and grew after the 1906 Great Earthquake and Fire.
The ceiling of the Sunol Water Temple showcases painted wood panels.
Today, a new interpretive museum and botanical garden, designed by an integrated team of San Francisco Public Works architects, landscape architects and engineers, are springing to life nearby. The building and landscape project will continue to tell the story of the Alameda Creek Watershed – its human and natural history and the role it plays in San Francisco’s water-delivery system.
An architectural rendering of the south face of the museum and botanical garden.
The $27-million Alameda Creek Watershed Center is sponsored by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission – the City department that operates the Hetch Hetchy Regional Water System. The network spans from the Sierra Nevada to San Francisco and includes a portion of the 38,000-acre Alameda Creek Watershed located in both Alameda and Santa Clara counties.
In designing the building, Paul De Freitas, the lead Public Works architect on the Alameda Creek Watershed Center project, leaned into the architectural concept of “genius loci” – the spirit or sense of place.
Architect Paul De Freitas explains the relationship between the building and botanical garden.
The museum building draws inspiration from the surrounding natural and fabricated landforms of the creekside – berms, basins and cliff-faced escarpments.
A fabricated berm, covered in mulch, hides much of the north side of the Alameda Creek Watershed Center.
As a counterpoint to the exclamation point of the water temple, the structure exists as part of this topography and landscape, half-buried into a planted hillside and only fully revealing itself once visitors have ventured through the exhibition spaces or botanical garden outside.
“We wanted the focus to be on the water temple when people come onto the site, and then deliberately pull the users away from it, both physically and mentally, taking them to a different place where they can understand the natural and human history of this special place. We want to create the backstory about why there’s a Roman temple in Sunol,” De Freitas said.
“Together with our landscape architects, we conceived of an experience where the building and landscape develop as parallel journeys through an ecological transect of the watershed,” he added.
The building itself is long and slender, analogous to the flow of the creek through the landscape, cutting through bedrock canyons, creating inhabited spaces in undercuts, riffles and pools. “We want you to come into the building like you’re part of the water – a stream entering a rocky canyon,” De Freitas said. “We want it to be a journey of discovery.”
Architect Paul De Freitas shows the interior of the center, which is still under construction.
The northern elevation of the new building, which is what visitors will see first, is largely hidden by a berm concealing the full extent of the building. The south façade features large expanses of operable glass walls, visually and physically connecting the building spaces with the interpretive gardens outside and the views of the riparian woodland and Alameda Creek.
Reflective windows on the center’s south side capture the terrain.
The building materials also are a direct representation of this site. The use of cast-in-place concrete highlights the fact that the Sunol Valley is a massive deposit of alluvial gravels. These gravels are literally what the center is built with. The board-formed concrete walls hint at the historic constructions of the water filter galleries on site, which provided half of San Francisco’s drinking water prior to Hetch Hetchy’s construction a century ago.
Cast-in-place concrete walls convey the gravel deposits in the area.
Flanking the building to the south, the 2.5-acre garden represents the Alameda Creek Watershed’s botanical diversity and is organized along the transect of the watershed and its plant communities – moving from mixed evergreen forest, through an oak savannah, to Diablan sage scrub and onto a needlegrass meadow.
The landscape design aims to capture the full scope of the watershed’s flora diversity in the botanical garden.
A hallmark of the center is an 8,000-gallon aquarium, built to replicate a streambed that will be stocked with steelhead trout native to Alameda Creek. Other features include a hands-on discovery lab and a multi-purpose room that community groups can use for events. Interactive interpretive exhibits will spotlight the area’s flora and fauna, the history of the water system and the history of the Muwekma Ohlone, the indigenous people who lived on the land.
Two of the center’s interior murals showcase the watershed’s history.
Muwekma Ohlone tribal members were involved in the development of the interpretive exhibits and content – ensuring that their history and culture remain at the forefront of how the story of their land is told.
Construction began in 2020 and is scheduled to wrap up later this year, with the center set to open in early 2023. While the center will be open to all visitors, school groups will be the target audience.
The garden and landscape surrounding the center will be planted with more than 22,000 trees, shrubs, plants and grasses – each one grown from seed collected from the Alameda Creek Watershed.
The SFPUC set up a nursery on the property, where the seeds from more than 100 unique species are grown in containers before they’re planted in the ground.
Joia Fishman, a biologist, waters plants in the nursery created for the project.
The garden features axial paths relating to the classical geometry of the Sunol Water Temple. This month, crews are building a streambed that will meander through the garden on the south side of the building. The stream will be fed by both rainwater and water from a reflection pond that will be replenished with water from the aquarium.
Pedro Ortega, a cement mason, sets rock to form the new creek bed.
“The landscape design is a celebration of the flora, fauna and peoples of the Alameda Creek Watershed,” said Nick Ancel, the principal Public Works landscape architect on the project. “We wanted to honor the native peoples of the land, the Beaux Arts water temple and the beauty and diversity of plants to create a botanical garden with a sense of meaning and place.”
The Sunol Water Temple sits in the background of the botanical garden.
Cooperation among City agencies, such as Public Health, Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing and the Fire Department,
is essential for the safe and successful transition of street dwellers into shelter and supportive services.
to Street Homelessness
The number of people living without shelter in San Francisco dropped 15 percent over the past three years, a positive trend captured in the City’s biennial homeless count released this month.
The Point-in-Time Count, a federally mandated one-day, on-the-ground survey conducted this year on Feb. 23, identified 4,397 people living without shelter in the City. Overall, 7,754 unhoused residents – sheltered and unsheltered – were counted, a 3.5 percent decrease from 2019.
“We have a lot of work to do, but this shows we are moving in the right direction,” said Mayor London Breed.
City officials attributed the reduction in part to the multi-department Healthy Streets Operations Center that focuses on encampment resolutions. The team is made up of social service and health outreach workers, police and Public Works street cleaners, with support from the Fire Department, 911, the Department of Emergency Management and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.
A member of the City’s HOT Team provides information about local shelter availability to a person living on the Hemlock Street sidewalk.
“It operates as a well-oiled machine that at its core is a deep partnership among City departments, each doing its own part,” said Sam Dodge, who oversees the operation.
Encampment resolutions are led by services, with the goal of moving people off the street and into a more stable living environment. Before an encampment is cleared, the people living there are offered shelter. That could be space at a Navigation Center, a government-funded hotel room, a traditional congregate-style shelter, the City’s cabin campus, a designated tent space at a City-sanctioned Safe Sleeping site or a supportive housing program. The Public Works design, construction management and building trades teams worked on many of these projects.
During the first three months of 2022, Healthy Streets conducted 102 operations, engaging with 932 individuals. Their work largely but not exclusively focuses on the Tenderloin, Civic Center, Mission, Cathedral Hill, Polk Gulch, Potrero Hill and Bayview neighborhoods, which see the highest concentration of encampments.
With each operation, the team posts notices at an encampment at least three days in advance to alert folks of an upcoming resolution.
With each operation, the team posts notices at an encampment at least three days in advance to alert folks of an upcoming resolution. Outreach workers then go through and talk to people about services and offer placement into shelter. On the day the encampment is cleared, outreach workers are on site in the early morning helping people gather their belongings. The outreach team also arranges transportation to the shelter sites.
Public Works hotspots encampment crews follow. Personal belongings left behind are bagged up and brought to the department’s Operations Yard for storage, where the owners have 90 days to retrieve them. Our crews then remove the trash left behind at the site and steam clean the area. One block can take hours to address.
Public Works crews carefully and patiently remove debris and clean up around encampments in Fern and Hemlock alleys.
“It’s not unusual to see new people come and set up encampments in the same locations. We’ll send outreach back to engage them and set another resolution. The good news is that most people we place are able to change their lives and not return,” Dodge said. “We don’t mind the work because the people of San Francisco deserve a change.”
Check out this bird's-eye view of the new mural at Battery Bridge. (Video: Downtown SF)
Battery Gets a
In 2020, during the first of year of COVID, our typically hustle-bustle Financial District was quiet and generally empty. But now, two years later, downtown is reemerging as a place to be, and San Francisco Public Works, nonprofits, property owners, businesses and artists are making it happen.
An example: The once-busy, two-lane Battery Bridge – the stretch of Battery Street between Market and Bush streets – was transformed after the City closed this block to traffic when Market Street went car-free in January 2020.
In a collaboration involving the Public Works Landscape Architecture and Operations teams, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and Downtown SF, a Community Benefit District organization serving the Financial District and Jackson Square neighborhoods, the Battery Bridge space became a pedestrian plaza with planting and seating.
Prior to the street mural installation, planters and seating took center stage on the Battery Bridge.
This new public space sparked the imagination of the neighborhood and led to a broader envisioning of ways to bring joy and life back into downtown public spaces – particularly at Battery Bridge.
“We are currently going through a process of reimagining downtown after lockdown,” says Melissa Buckminster of Downtown SF, which led the Battery Bridge improvement efforts. “It’s a different space than it used to be. It’s clear we need to adapt our thinking about the Financial District so that it can become a much more human-centered, pedestrian-focused area. We want people to slow down and linger in our public places.”
Nationally and internationally, there has been a movement of creative placemaking that has drawn on artists to envision vibrant, colorful and active public space. With that in mind, Downtown SF imagined a unique street mural that could serve as an outdoor carpet for activity at Battery Bridge. ArtSpan, a local nonprofit that supports a network of artists, suggested the Peruvian artist Claudio Talavera-Ballón for the commissioned work.
A closer look at the mural reveals the vibrancy of its colors.
Talavera-Ballón’s 1,900-square-foot mural, titled “Estero en Movimiento” (Estuary in Motion), takes inspiration from Drakes Estuary in Point Reyes National Seashore. The swirl of colors will serve as a backdrop to seating, performances and other activities.
New pedestrian plazas and other urban inventions challenge our notion of the traditional uses of the public right of way. And Public Works has been partnering with other City agencies and neighborhoods to make this happen.
As the caretaker of the public right of way, Public Works must ensure that it continues to be safe, accessible and beautiful for all. That’s where our Bureau of Street-use and Mapping comes in – working closely with Downtown SF and other community groups through the permitting and planning process. The Bureau of Street-use and Mapping team has been developing new permit structures and ways to support creative and safe uses of San Francisco’s public right of way.
The new Battery Bridge mural is a moment of surprise in the Financial District landscape. It invites residents, workers and visitors to slow down and interact. And it brings joy to those in the nearby office buildings, who catch a bird’s-eye view of this fanciful estuary in the City.
Flusher trucks wash down the street after the Bay to Breakers participants pass through.
On Your Mark,
Get Set, Clean!
The outdoor spring events season kicked into high gear this month with the return of Bay to Breakers on May 15, the only-in-San Francisco part race/part moving party that starts on the east end of the City and ends on the western edge.
After a two-year hiatus due to the COVID pandemic, the popular happening drew tens of thousands of participants and spectators and generated lots of trash – everything from sweaty t-shirts and empty water bottles to abandoned lawn chairs.
Using push brooms, our team of corridor workers tackle litter after Carnaval (left). A Public Works mechanical sweeper truck vacuums up post-Carnaval trash (right).
Our street cleaning crews followed close behind the racers, using brooms, shovels, rakes, leaf blowers and pickers to tackle the litter. Our mechanical sweeper trucks went through next. The flusher trucks capped the cleanup operation with a roadway wash-down.
The Public Works’ Department Operations Center team that worked the Bay to Breakers event.
We ran a similar operation over Memorial Day weekend for the Carnaval Parade in the Mission, with about four dozen workers on our street cleaning team following the revelers down Mission, 24th and 15th streets. The 44th annual high-energy parade took place this year on May 29.
San Francisco’s Majestic City Hall was alit with the branded colors of San Francisco Public Works in celebration of Public Works Week 2022.
Each spring, San Francisco Public Works comes together during National Public Works Week to cheer the past year’s standout projects, honor the dedicated public servants who made them happen and celebrate our collective achievements.
A highlight of the week is our annual Employee Recognition Awards, held this year on May 17.
We gave out four Project of the Year Awards, by division.
Fireboat Station No. 35 won the award for the Building Design and Construction division. As the only floating fire station of its kind in the world, this showstopper project plays a singular role in the City’s public safety network, as it allows the San Francisco Fire Department to respond to emergencies more quickly along the waterfront and in the Bay itself. In addition, the innovative design allows the structure to rise and fall with the tides and projected sea-level rise.
Fireboat Station No. 35 floats on the Bay just north of the Bay Bridge.
Led by Magdalena Ryor, Public Works managed the complex project that started with fabrication of the massive base float in China and now can be found at its permanent home at Pier 22½ off The Embarcadero.
The top prize in the Infrastructure Design and Construction division went to the Geary Boulevard BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) West project. This much-needed and comprehensive overhaul of the City’s busiest transit corridor involved more than 50 Public Works engineers, designers, project managers and public affairs staff.
The addition of red bus-only lanes on Geary speeds travel for Muni riders.
The scope of work performed on Geary was extensive, and included traffic signal upgrades, roadway repaving and a variety of mobility and safety improvements, including new curb bulb-outs, new crosswalks, improved bicycle infrastructure and enhanced medians. The key component of this project are the newly created bus-only lanes that have made Muni bus travel along Geary at least 20 percent faster.
On the department’s Operations side, the top honor went to Neighborhood Beautification Day, a program run by our Community Engagement Team that signaled the department’s return to holding large-scale volunteer events after the COVID pandemic emerged. The monthly event, which rotates through the City’s 11 supervisors’ districts, brings together residents, community groups, businesses, faith-based organizations and schools who work alongside our crews on greening and cleaning projects.
A young volunteer pitches in by spreading mulch.
Not only does the work benefit neighborhoods, but it also builds community and bolsters civic pride. Each event draws more than 100 volunteers, and sometimes triple that number. They plant trees, weed medians, remove graffiti, pick up litter and spruce up street furniture.
Neighborhood Beautification Day requires an all-hands-on-deck approach, with a team of more than 30 employees from across the Operations division pitching in to ensure that volunteers sign up, work is fully planned out, and the day’s work runs smoothly.
Our Finance and Administration division’s Project of the Year award went to the budget team for their painstaking work on developing two distinct budgets for the upcoming budget cycle to reflect the impending split of Public Works into two separate departments.
The official Public Works’ budget book.
We added a new honor this year. The Best in Show Award was presented to the Tenderloin Emergency Response operation in which 45 Public Works employees kicked into action after Mayor London Breed declared a State of Emergency in the central City neighborhood. The department initiated an intensive street cleaning operation in the Tenderloin and helped develop and construct the new Linkage Center at the edge of UN Plaza where people with substance abuse and behavioral health issues living on the streets can access services.
Filled trash bags and clean sidewalks in the Tenderloin. There’s a correlation.
Another new award was launched this year: Team of the Year. For that, we recognized the department’s CONNECT cohort. Formed in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic to support both our essential frontline employees working in person and the office staff who suddenly found themselves working from home, the CONNECT team worked with heart and creativity to keep staff connected and let them know they’re important and valued.
The CONNECT Team wears holiday hats during a winter event at our Operations Yard.
This month’s Love Our City: Neighborhood Beautification Day brought more than 100 volunteers to North Beach, Russian Hill, Lower Polk, Chinatown and other District 3 neighborhoods to work with Public Works crews on greening and cleaning projects.
The May 7 workday kicked off with a short welcome rally at Francisco Middle School where we were joined by Supervisor Aaron Peskin. Volunteers then broke into teams to plant trees, spread mulch around gardens, paint out graffiti and prune back overgrown shrubs. And have fun!
Francisco Middle School students and their families plant trees.
One Saturday each month, the Love Our City: Neighborhood Beautification team focuses on a different supervisorial district.
Officers from the San Francisco Police Department's Central Station came out to help us clean the neighborhood.
Next month, on June 4, we’ll be in District 8 neighborhoods, among them the Castro, Noe Valley and Glen Park. The kickoff is at Mission High School, 18th and Dolores streets. Registration starts at 8:30 a.m. Click on this link to sign up, or visit sfpublicworks.org/loveourcity.
Volunteers load green waste into our truck for transport to the compost pile.