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Low-carbon neighborhood takes root at former power station site on San Francisco waterfront

Power Play

Low-carbon neighborhood takes root at former power station site on San Francisco waterfront

In a nod to the area’s industrial past, the Potrero Power Station Mixed-Use Project will see several older structures, including a towering smokestack, preserved and repurposed. (Courtesy Steelblue/Perkins and Will)

What was once one of San Francisco’s filthiest industrial sites, the old Potrero Power Generating Station at Potrero Point, is on track to be redeveloped as a new 29-acre neighborhood—a “mixed-use modern metropolis” as one local news outlet has dubbed it—complete with 2,600 residential units (30 percent earmarked for lower-income residents), abundant public green space totaling six acres, retail, restaurants, a YMCA, educational and childcare facilities, and more.

As reported by Bisnow, the sprawling waterfront mega-development in the city’s Dogpatch neighborhood will also include 1.5 million square feet of “office and life sciences space” and a 250-room boutique hotel located within the bones of the old Unit 3 Power Station (a natural gas-burning steam turbine), which developers plan to leave standing at the site along with other adaptive reuse-targeted structures. Construction on the Potrero Power Station Mixed-Use Project (PPS)​, which received a unanimous blessing from the San Francisco Planning Commission earlier this year followed by an enthusiastic green light from the city’s Board of Supervisors, is set to kick off as soon as late summer, pending pandemic-prompted delays. Developer Associate Capital, which purchased the site for $86 million in 2016, is spearheading the ambitious project while Perkins and Will is overseeing the master plan for what it calls a “ sustainable, resilient neighborhood that embraces wellness.”

a street scene at a purposed mixed-use development on the san fransisco waterfront, the former Potrero Power generating Station
Vehicular traffic will be scarce on the streets of this low-carbon mega-development perched on the San Francisco Bay. (Steelblue/Perkins and Will)

The Potrero Power Generating Station was first established in the late 19th century and significantly expanded and modernized over the decades. Following years of outcry from community activists over pollution, in 2010 Governor Gavin Newsom ordered that the facility be closed for good. After over 100 years in operation, it was taken offline by energy provider NRG Energy early the following year. At the time of the facility’s closure, the Unit 3 Power Station, built in 1965, was one of the oldest power plants still operating in California.

While vestiges of the waterfront site’s industrial past, including a 300-foot-tall smokestack, will, as mentioned, remain for a bit of gritty-historic oomph (at the request of area residents per Bisnow), the ground-up neighborhood that will take shape in the coming years couldn’t be any cleaner.

As recently detailed by Smart Cities Dive, the development could potentially include on-site thermal energy plants, in which waste heat from commercial buildings is captured and used for space and water heating needs in the community’s residential buildings. The neighborhood will also eschew car usage in favor of extensive bike and cycling trails and a shuttle system that will provide frequent access to the nearest BART station. There will be parking for private vehicles (925,000 gross square feet of it per the Planning Commission) but the neighborhood’s primary thoroughfares will largely be car-free. All buildings will meet or exceed LEED Gold standards.

an illustration of a lively waterfront scene on a redeveloped industrial site in san francisco
Perkin and Will’s master plan includes extensive public outdoor space nestled along the once-industry-dominated waterfront. (Steelblue/Perkins and Will)

“It’s been a very thoughtful and intentional plan for a mix of uses,” Geeti Silwal, an urban planner and principal at Perkins and Will, told Bisnow. “It’s an opportunity to see how neighborhoods can be planned and developed to be complete communities.”

Nonprofit preservation group SF Heritage has applauded the decision to preserve and breathe new life into many of the old power facility’s historic structures, many of which played an integral role in the growth of industry in San Francisco in the early 20th century. “In addition to providing much-needed affordable housing and open space, the project includes a big win for historic preservation,” wrote the group earlier this year.

Work on the Potrero Power Station Mixed-Use Project will take place over six phases and span an estimated 16 years.