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Plan to save San Francisco's Ferry Building from rising sea levels to impact businesses

Business tenants question plan to prepare S.F. Ferry Building for sea rise
Business tenants question plan to prepare S.F. Ferry Building for sea rise 05:04

One of San Francisco's most iconic landmarks will undergo major construction to address rising sea levels.

Ambitious engineering project will raise San Francisco Ferry Building seven feet 06:11

The Port of San Francisco and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are planning on raising the historic Ferry Building by as much as seven feet.

The timeline for the project is currently unclear, but billions will undoubtedly be spent to ready miles of shoreline for generations to come. That plan is also sure to impact the businesses housed in the Ferry Building

Inside the kitchen of the famed restaurant Boulettes Larder, chef Amaryll Shwertner preps a Japanese inspired seafood egg custard known as chawanmushi.

"It's made with slip jack tuna, and beautiful wakame seaweed," said Shwertner.

Her take on chawanmushi is one of her favorites.

"We'll be poaching some scallops and using that as garnish. It's a lovely first course seafood dish quite delicate but full of flavor," said Shwertner.

Schwertner and Lori Regis are co-owners who established the fine-dining restaurant twenty years ago.

Foot traffic inside the Ferry Building has improved since COVID, and the economic climate is better, but much is still missing.

"There are still too many vacant spaces that are large holes," explained Regis.

Regis says those "large holes" are other high-end eating establishments that have closed their doors, one by one.

"The building has lost something over the years that is difficult to bring back," said Regis.

Small businesses like Boulettes Larder are battling to thrive again, while city, state, and federal agencies are entrenched to preserve the historic Ferry Building for generations to come.

Climate experts predict King Tides will only become more frequent in the coming decades, offering a glimpse of what's ahead if nothing is done.

"Eventually, it's gonna become not just a splash, but actually, you know significant amount of water coming over and filling that that entire area there at the at the bottom of market Street," said Army Corps of Engineers Director of Civil Works Brian Harper.

Harper is spearheading the federal effort to save San Francisco's seven-and-a-half mile shoreline along the Embarcadero.

"What we envision is bringing up the grade of the shoreline, so essentially bringing up the ground level along that stretch of the Embarcadero, and that would mean also raising the adjacent boards and the buildings themselves," said Harper.

If and when buildings will be raised to combat sea level rise is uncertain. Congress must approve the USACE's current study, estimated to be completed in late 2025 or 2026.

Business owners like Regis are deeply concerned about the future of a vibrant shoreline, but can't focus heavily on looming decisions that are out of their hands.

"We can't really worry about that at this moment but there isn't going to be a shovel hitting the ground anytime soon," said Regis.

Harper says the short-term fix is to construct a small-scale barrier, rather than decades of design and construction to raise buildings along the Embarcadero.

"We want to postpone that as far into the future as we can by managing the risk through lower level, less intrusive project actions first," said Harper.

A small-scale land barrier would address a one-foot rise in sea level, and localized flooding which would disrupt transit and the BART station nearby.

The Port of San Francisco has been working closely with Hudson Pacific Properties, which is the long-term lessee of the city's Ferry Building.

"They've asked me, 'When does it happen? When do the shovels hit the ground? When does the construction tape go up?' We're working with them so they can have better sight to that," said Executive Director of the Port of San Francisco Elaine Forbes.

As multiple agencies and parties collaborate on long-term fixes that will last decades, operators will eventually have to make some hard decisions about whether the Ferry Building and its surroundings are economically viable during construction.

For the immediate future, business owners like Schwertner and Regis are in need of policy changes to give them a chance.

"I think the city could help us a lot by some of the policies around taxation, healthcare, and minimum wage," said Regis.

The rapidly changing landscape of new retailers inside the Ferry Building isn't helping.

"We don't know who our neighbors are and what it's going to feel like, so it does keep us a little bit uncertain about our future," said Regis.

That's the predicament for Regis, while a larger climate-driven problem looms in the not so distant future.

Hudson Pacific Properties has expressed objections to what's proposed.

They declined an on-camera interview, but Senior Vice President of Development Planning & Government Affairs Chris Pearson issued a statement that reads in part, "We also urge the Corps and the Port to confer with and take into consideration the very real concern of the stakeholders along the waterfront that this Plan, intended to save the waterfront, could instead cause its early demise if not undertaken in a more cautious and incremental fashion."

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