Love San Francisco's Waterfront? Get to Know the Embarcadero Seawall.

Did you know that everything along San Francisco's beautiful Embarcadero waterfront is protected by a Seawall? If you have never heard of the Embarcadero Seawall before, you are not alone.

The Embarcadero Seawall, built more than a century ago, stretches over three miles from Fishermanís Wharf to just beyond AT&T Park. Image courtesy of the Port of San Francisco.

BY KIRSTEN N. SOUTTHEY

Published: July, 2018

 

Did you know that everything along San Francisco’s beautiful Embarcadero waterfront is protected by a Seawall? If you have never heard of the Embarcadero Seawall before, you are not alone. The Seawall is essentially a rock retaining wall that stretches over three miles from Fisherman’s Wharf in the north to Mission Creek, just beyond AT&T Park in the south. Next time you visit Pier 14 at low tide, look back on the city and you’ll see the Seawall.

 

The Embarcadero Seawall transformed what was once a tidal mudflat into the thriving waterfront we know today—all of today’s activity along our northern waterfront can be attributed to this vital piece of infrastructure. It is no exaggeration to say that San Francisco became a maritime city because of our Seawall.

 

San Francisco’s Seawall was built more than a century ago, before the Golden Gate Bridge, before Coit Tower, and way before modern engineering techniques to address earthquakes. Construction was a major feat and after serving us well for over 100 years, the Seawall is now in need of significant improvements to withstand the next major earthquake and prepare San Francisco for increasing flood risk from sea level rise.

 

In 2015, the Port of San Francisco initiated the San Francisco Seawall Earthquake Safety and Disaster Prevention Program (Seawall Program), to strengthen our Seawall for public safety, adapt to sea level rise, and envision a waterfront that is resilient and sustainable for generations to come.

 

Positive Signs for Initial Funding

The port is committed to an equitable funding strategy for strengthening the Embarcadero Seawall, which will include local, state, federal and private support.

 

The Embarcadero Seawall just passed a crucial step in receiving the first funds it needs for critical repairs. At the federal level, the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) dedicated $500,000 to study flood risk management of the Seawall in their FY18 Workplan. At the local level, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a $425 million General Obligation Bond measure on June 18.  The measure would require two-thirds voter approval and will not raise tax rates. The port is also working closely with California State Assemblymember David Chiu, State Senator Scott Wiener, and Assemblymember Phil Ting on AB 2578, state legislation that is estimated to provide up to $60 million for this phase and up to $340 million over the life of the program. The $500,000 federal funds from USACE are critical to the long-term federal funding strategy.

 

“The port is so grateful for the support from local, state and federal leaders to find funds to improve the Seawall,” said Elaine Forbes, Executive Director of the Port of San Francisco. “The Embarcadero Seawall will cost billions of dollars to rebuild and we are encouraged that government at every level, and private funding sources will share the cost to rebuild this critical piece of infrastructure, that so many Bay Area residents rely on.”

 

This funding is part of the first phase of the Seawall Program that will address immediate life safety improvements and protect the historic piers and wharves, local businesses, iconic destinations such as the Ferry Building, PIER 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf, recreation facilities, and acres of downtown San Francisco neighborhoods that are protected by the Seawall. Possible improvements in Phase One include strengthening the ground below and landside of the Seawall, constructing new Seawall segments, strengthening or replacing bulkhead walls and wharves along the Embarcadero Promenade and relocating or replacing critical utilities.

 

The entire rebuild of the Embarcadero Seawall is estimated to cost up to $5 billion and take several decades to complete.

 

Key to Transportation, Economy, and Seismic Safety

The Seawall is the backbone of our regional transportation system and supports key utility networks and infrastructure, including Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), Muni Metro, and ferry transportation systems. Every day, over a million people use transit routes that terminate downtown or along our waterfront—and the role of the Seawall is only increasing. Ferry ridership in the Bay Area is skyrocking, with a 94 percent increase since 2012. San Francisco Ferry is working on the downtown ferry terminal expansion to address all the new ferry riders. At the same time, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) is beginning a major earthquake retrofit of the Transbay Tube. The Seawall has never been more important to making sure residents can travel safely and efficiently.

 

“The Seawall supports critical utility and transportation infrastructure that Bay Area residents and visitors rely on,” said Rachel Hyden, Executive Director of the San Francisco Transit Riders.  “The Seawall is essential for regional commuters.”

 

Our waterfront serves as a critical emergency response, evacuation and recovery area for the city and the region. In the event of a disaster, evacuation zones will be set up along our waterfront to help move residents out the city and vital supplies into the city.

 

In addition, the Seawall protects over $100 billion of assets and economic activity. These assets at risk are 10 to 40 times greater than the investment needed to strengthen the Seawall. We simply can’t afford not to act.

 

Early Planning Stages

The Seawall Program is currently in the early stages of planning, following an extensive vulnerability study. Immediate seismic upgrades are targeted for completion by 2026. Planning, environmental review and design activities will identify disruptions and seek ways to minimize construction impacts.

 

The Seawall Earthquake Safety Program will create thousands of jobs during the life of the program. The Port of San Francisco will work with the San Francisco Office of Economic and Workforce Development as it negotiates contracts for Embarcadero Seawall construction work (expected in the early 2020s) to make sure that these contracts encourage employment for San Francisco residents, including First Source Hiring and Local Hiring.

 

The Seawall Earthquake Safety Program is a city-wide coordinated effort initially spearheaded by Mayor Ed Lee and with full support from Mayor London Breed. The Port of San Francisco will continue to work with the Mayor’s Office and the Board of Supervisors and other city agencies to ensure the project is managed efficiently and cost effectively.

       

We can’t afford to not act now. We must do everything in our power to make sure we have a safe Embarcadero Seawall today and for future generations.  To stay engaged with the Seawall Program, visit www.sfseawall.com.

Left image: Improvements to the Embarcadero Seawall are needed to prepare San Francisco for increasing flood risk from sea level rise. Photo by Dave Rauenbuehler. Right image: The Seawall is essentially a rock retaining wall built before modern engineering techniques to address earthquakes. Port of San Francisco.

King Tides give a glimpse into the future of what sea level rise could mean to the San Francisco waterfront along the Embarcadero. Port of San Francisco