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case study tHe ferry building

The Ferry Building is one of San Francisco's most cherished landmark buildings. The renovation was founded on two key ideas - one architectural and one programmatic. Architecturally, the project team proposed to return the building's lost soul, the dramatic 660-foot long nave. Programmatically, recreated nave would provide a new public use for the building by housing a public market, showcasing the very best of the Bay Area's food purveyors.


The Ferry Building was constructed in 1898 by noted architect Arthur Page Brown. The Colusa limestone building replaced an earlier wooden terminal located at the same spot, the terminus for ferry service around the Bay and the portal to San Francisco at the foot of Market Street. The building was the starting and end point of a journey across America. It was from here that passengers reached the Transcontinental Railroad in Oakland from which the railroads ran a ferry service.

At its peak usage in the early decades of the 20th Century, the Ferry Building served more people per day than any building West of the Mississippi. But with the construction of the Golden Gate and the Bay Bridges, ferry traffic declined and ultimately ceased in the late 1950’s.

The Ferry Building was converted into an office building, with most of its public spaces being cut up and filled in. The Bay-facing side of the building, which once looked out onto ferry slips, was closed in and the building began decades of an insular life that removed it from the everyday life of the city. This separation from nearby urban life was dramatically compounded by the construction of the two-story elevated Embarcadero Freeway, which ran in front of the building, effectively hiding the building from the city.

The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake structurally weakened the freeway, giving the impetus for its removal. After the removal of the freeway a farmers market sprang up in the space left vacant in front of the building. Over the next decade there were many debates over what should occur at the Ferry Building, culminating in an RFP from the Port of San Francisco in 1997. The owners of the building, the Port of San Francisco, recognized the opportunity they had to revitalize the waterfront, and sponsored a competition for the building’s renaissance.


BCV Architects was the Retail Architect within a multi-faceted team of developers, designers, preservationists and financial investors led by developer Wilson Meany Sullivan that won the competition with a public/private collaboration on a mixed use concept, with a world class food marketplace and premier office space above. The key element securing this victory was the restoration of the 660 foot nave that had been covered up during various renovations, and the conversion of the former ground floor baggage area into the Ferry Building Marketplace.

The vision for the project was to anchor the Marketplace with select established local food retail and restaurant operations, such as Slanted Door, Acme Bread, Cowgirl Creamery and Scharffenberger Chocolate. Once those groundbreaking tenants signed on, the team offered smaller tenant spaces to incubate small food producers who had never had a retail outlet before. Some of these tenants included long-time Bay Area wholesale businesses like Hog Island Oysters Company and McEvoy Olive Oil. Others were vendors from the already-established Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market, who were ready for the step-up to a daily operation. These vendors included Frog Hollow Farm, Prather Ranch Meat and Far West Fungi.


Although BCV had developed a fairly complete design for the Ferry Building Marketplace at the time of the competition, we believed the project deserved a careful study of existing and historic market precedents. The Design Team embarked on a European trip that would be invaluable for research and background.

The team explored the historic markets of London, Paris, Milan and Venice. Topics that were studied ranged from the urban - how the buildings and their functions integrate into the life of the city - to the technical, such as shop size and servicing. Although no longer a true food market, the physical dimensions and architectural character of London’s Covent Garden became a touchstone.

The relationship of Paris’ markets to the surrounding urban fabric, along with the city’s thriving street markets, illustrated the ways in which the Ferry Building Marketplace could function as an iconic and important destination within San Francisco. Paris institutions Hediard and Fouchon, along with Peck in Milan, inspired the team in the ways that food could be merchandised. Venice’s Rialto Fish Market taught us important lessons about how to engage the water’s edge.


The design for the Ferry Building Marketplace weaves together strategic new construction within the historic fabric of the original building. The designers’ intention was to celebrate historic character of the building while breathing new life into the building. The ground floor Nave became defined by tiled archways and steel gates at each vendor stall. The tile relates to the historic brick above, and the gates to the building’s steel trusses.

The design purposely narrowed the width of the original Nave’s dimension at its ground floor expression, to create an intimate public space. A grand promenade around the perimeter of the second floor office level looks down on the Market.  Three east-west pedestrian connectors cut through the building from the Embarcadero to the water, accented with a decorative graphic band above that celebrates Bay Area towns and cities of the local foodshed. The goal was to create an authentic, working Market Hall amenity to the Class A office space above, that would come to life early each morning, and be washed down at the end of the day.


As befits a complicated, historic adaptive reuse project supported on piles over the San Francisco Bay, the Ferry Building’s construction yielded many dramatic moments during its deconstruction and rebuilding.


The specific vision for the Ferry Building Marketplace was to provide a uniform armature and “vanilla shell” for future demised spaces, including planning for the different tenant types, sizes and adjacencies that would contribute to a vibrant and dynamic market environment. The evolution of the market since its opening in 2004 has seen a dynamic growth of several small tenants to larger spaces, fulfilling the goal of incubating local vendors.

The common armature provided a framework within which different tenant  expressions could be inserted. This approach supported a variety of producers and encouraged the individual design and brand expressions that contribute to the vitality of an authentic market.

BCV was also the architect for many of the Ferry Building’s original and long-term tenants, and assisted Gott’s Roadside, Acme Bread, Capay Organic, Hog Island Oyster Co. and others in creating their ideal shop within the market framework.

©2023 :: BCV Architecture + Interiors
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