When the San Francisco Association of Realtors redrew their city map in 2010, they split SoMa into two districts: one still known as SoMa and another, bounded by Fifth Street to the west, Second Street to the east, Market to the north and Harrison to the south. The new district was given the name “Yerba Buena” after its centerpiece, Yerba Buena Gardens.
While some bristled at the idea of giving a new name to what had been half of SoMa for decades, the reality is that Yerba Buena had been a distinct neighborhood since even before 1966, the year the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency (SFRA) designated it as an urban renewal area.
According to the book “Transforming Cities: New Spatial Divisions and Social Transformation,” the birth of modern Yerba Buena dates back to 1953, when developer Benjamin Swig “put forth his redevelopment proposal for the area in his plan entitled The San Francisco Prosperity Plan.” Swig’s specific vision did not ultimately come to light, but portions of it were adopted into the SFRA plan several years later.
Redevelopment did not come easily to Yerba Buena. The plan faced strong neighborhood opposition and went through a series of community-driven tweaks. It wasn’t until 1981 that the first sign of its first implementation, the Moscone Center, was realized and the early 1990s before Yerba Buena’s building boom was in full effect.
Now that it has been christened a “real” neighborhood, Yerba Buena seems determined to establish itself as one. In the past 20 years it has become perhaps the most urban of San Francisco’s urban neighborhoods, with high-rise office and residential towers, luxury hotels, large mid-rise condominium complexes and several of the city’s most dynamic museums, including SFMOMA, the Contemporary Jewish Museum, the Museum of the African Diaspora, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and the Cartoon Art Museum.
Yerba Buena is a neighborhood with varied personalities. Close to Market Street it’s an extension of San Francisco’s Financial District. Weekday mornings find its sidewalks clogged with workers, conventioneers and visitors (the district contains a number of hotels including the W, the Westin, the St. Regis, the Intercontinental, the Marriott Marquis and the ultra-high-end Four Seasons). Further from Market it more closely resembles SoMa, with light industry and warehouses, some hiding ambitious restaurants and tech start-ups.
Despite its proximity to the city’s business core, Yerba Buena is a true “mixed-use” neighborhood, offering mid-level and high-end housing within steps of some of the city’s most significant office buildings. On sunny days, workers and residents gather in the district’s hub, Yerba Buena Gardens, for impromptu picnic lunches, brown-bagging it with something from the Whole Foods on Fourth and Harrison or perhaps grabbing something to go from a nearby restaurant, maybe at one of the newly-opened places in the rehabbed Metreon center. The more adventurous can stroll over to Fifth and Minna Streets, where food trucks set up for Off The Grid several times a week.
Yerba Buena Gardens is not only a playground for adults; it also adds a family-friendly element to this bustling urban district. It features a large playground, a bowling alley, ice-skating, an outdoor amphitheater and the Children’s Creativity Museum. The seasonal Yerba Buena Farmers Market and the annual Yerba Buena Festival promote community togetherness and add to the neighborhood’s personality… as if it needs it.
It’s got a new name, new buildings and an optimistic vibe but Yerba Buena still allows peeks into its past. Pre-war buildings dot the landscape, some containing long-time local businesses like Adolph Gasser Photography (181 Second Street since 1950), others high-profile tech concerns like Yelp (the 1925 Art Deco Pacific Telephone Building – once the tallest in San Francisco — at 140 New Montgomery). Small businesses still have their place in Yerba Buena.
It’s appropriate that Yerba Buena, in reality a longtime established neighborhood, now wears a shiny new name. It is growing as fast as any other district in San Francisco, its persona changing a little with each new project. As a center for culture, business and a buzz-worthy lifestyle, there’s not much in San Francisco that can compete.