The Evolution of the Ferry Building for the 21st Century

How did a transportation hub transform into a world-class public food market?

As one of the most famous landmarks in San Francisco, the Ferry Building has played an important part in the development of the city in multiple ways. From its position on Market Street near the city’s financial, banking and transportation district, it has served as a figurative gateway for residents and visitors but also as a literal one on account of the ferries that arrived and departed from this spot since it was opened at the turn of the 20th century.

However, once the Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge were opened, the amount of ferry traffic drastically reduced, and the building had a difficult time finding a new identity. The unique layout and iconic clock tower were not enough to keep people interested, and few envisioned it would ever be able to regain the relevance it once held.

Luckily, a renovation in 2003 saw the building reopened as a world-class public food market, which has helped redefine the building’s presence and history for a whole new audience. This evolution has led to the development of a variety of economic opportunities while also creating a destination that draws thousands of residents and tourists on a daily basis.

Bridging the Past and Present

The Ferry Building was first opened in 1898, and it served as a major transportation depot along the water. Ferryboats were turning into the main way that travelers and commuters were able to reach the city, which made the Ferry Building an essential hub for San Francisco. At its peak, as many as 50,000 people a day commuted by ferry. They were greeted by the building’s Grand Nave, which is a 660 foot long hall decorated with brick, terra-cotta detailing, and exposed steel trusses.

Until the 1930s, the only practical way to reach San Francisco was by water, which helped make the Ferry Building one of the busiest terminals in the world for 25 years. Things changed in the 1940s though, as the building saw a rapid and steep decline in traffic due to the availability of the automobile. Additionally, the creation of the Embarcadero Freeway in 1957 cut off the Ferry Building from the rest of Market Street, which severed its historic connection to the city. The central public and decorative space had by this time been turned into office space.

However, the removal of the freeway in 1992 created an opportunity for the building to reclaim that history and acquire a new identity. Ten years of planning, design and investment went into the rehabilitation of the Ferry Building, which saw the interior totally transformed. The restoration of the Grand Nave was essential to this development, which would once again illuminate the entire building.

Today, the Ferry Building contains a public food market that is organized along the Nave. Ferry traffic has also been renewed as boats operate at Larkspur, Sausalito, Vallejo, and Alameda. In this way, the traditional function of the building has been restored, but there’s so much more going on with and at the building.

These restoration efforts have enabled an entirely new experience for anyone who comes here to take a ferry ride, but also for a whole new set of residents and tourists.


A Walk Through and Around the Ferry Building

Some have described the experience at the Ferry Building as a feast for the senses, and a quick look at the variety of merchants that are housed here explains why that is the case. There are numerous beverage, event, food, goods & wares, grocery and shop merchants that offer a variety of distinct products. Whether it’s artesian organic cheese or a one-stop destination for mushrooms, the different kinds and types of shops that fill the space is impressive.

Additionally, the restaurants and cafes that populate the Ferry Building allow visitors to either sit down for a relaxing meal or grab something quick. These restaurants vary in popularity, as some visitors have waited 45 minutes even with a reservation. Despite frustrations with wait time, this popularity has helped create a draw for residents and tourists alike.

Walking around the famous Nave gives visitors a sense of the history that is inherent in this space, and it’s easy to appreciate the architecture and décor that are all around it. The skylight illuminates the entire area while the personality of the space can be noticed in subtle and obvious ways. Small mosaic tiles of a variety of sea creatures can easily be missed by casual observers, but it’s much more difficult to miss the statue of Mohandas Gandhi, which was presented to the city of San Francisco in 1988.

Appreciating the space is about more than just what’s in it though. The Ferry Building sits near the Bay Bridge, which allows viewers to capture an incredible view of the massive bridge. It’s also right across from Sue Bierman Park and a short walk down to a number of famous piers, including Pier 39. All of this can be seen and experienced before or after a ferry trip to a variety of locations throughout the region.

Those ferry rides as well as the stores within the building are the most evident economic opportunities that are present in the Ferry Building, but they’re not the only things that have impacted the financial situation in a small or large sense.

Redefining an Economic Opportunity

There are nearly 50 full time merchants in the Ferry Building operating a variety of businesses. The economic impact these establishments have been able to leverage and create is considerable, but the direct revenue that these organizations have been able to generate isn’t the only thing to consider. There are many other opportunities that have been opened up because of the way this space has been redefined.

When the Ferry Building first opened, the major economic impact of the building was associated with the ferries that carried passengers all over the bay, but that ferry traffic was mainly for daily commuters. Now though, ferry traffic serves an entirely new audience of people on vacation or taking a day trip. These are people who want to spend the day on one of the islands or along the coast, and the building is perfectly positioned to provide this service. It’s a service that will be expanded, as the state currently has plans to create ferry services to Hercules, Redwood City, Martinez, Antioch, Treasure Island, Berkeley, and Richmond.

Additionally, private events, filming & photography, tours and bike rentals are just a few of the additional revenue opportunities that have been created in account of the traffic the building sees on a daily basis. Whether someone stops by everyday or just once, there’s something for them to see or do. This sense of purpose resonates throughout everything in the building.

The importance of redefining this space to serve an entirely new audience cannot be understated, and it was part of the process associated with the planning, design and investment that went into the rehabilitation of the Ferry Building. This redefinition has helped to impact the culture that exists along the Embarcadero and even San Francisco itself.

Creating an Identity

After being renovated and reopened in 2003, a conscious effort has been made to the artisan food community and to fostering the values of that community at the building. Stakeholders are focused on a vibrant gathering of local farmers, artisan producers, and independently owned and operated food businesses and the customers they serve. The Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, which some have said is the city’s most popular farmer’s market, is held on the grounds around the building on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and showcases this spirit in a literal manner.

Travels going to and from a ferry have a reason to stop at one of the many shops in the building, but the focus on creating a world-class market has pulled in an audience that have no plans to step on a boat. This has enabled the building to develop identities for both sets of people and ensure they’re able to view and experience it in different but equally profound ways.

Historically, many of San Francisco’s parades and marches have begun at the foot of Market Street in the shadow of the clock tower, which itself has been a powerful signal and symbol along the waterfront. Historically, it was a beacon to land and water traffic, but it has a whole new identity for the thousands of people who see it from the land or the water.

That sense of transformation isn’t limited to the clock tower though. The Ferry Building today doesn’t function the way it was originally intended to, but that only makes the popularity of the building that much more informative.


Transforming a Legacy

After the ferry traffic decreased at the Ferry Building, the original purpose of the building was displaced. The space was transformed in the 1950s when it was turned into office space, but this transformation never quite served the space, and never created the kind of impact that the original building had. It was a lost opportunity that was corrected with the early 2000s renovation.

Ferry’s still operate at the building, but they’re running for a very different type of clientele today. That audience is a robust one, as is evident by the fact that the state is looking to expand services. This underscores the importance of understanding when something needs to change, and what can happen when that isn’t recognized.

The renovation of the Ferry Building was designed to protect the legacy of the building while transforming it to make it relevant for the people living and visiting the city today. Doing so has helped it secure an important part of the future of the city and region.



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Jeremiah Karpowicz

Jeremiah Karpowicz always envisioned a career as a screenwriter, but found the autonomy and freedom he was looking for in the digital space. He has created articles, videos, newsletters, ebooks and plenty more for various communities as a contributor and editor. Get in touch with him on Twitter.