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San Francisco’s Eco-Evolution

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Photo: Amanda Marsalis

My second move is to dash down to the Ferry Building, originally completed in 1898 as the main gateway to the city. In 2003, after years of painstaking renovation, it reopened as a foodie haven with more than 30 vendors, selling everything from locally produced olive oil to chocolates. There’s a farmers’ market on Tuesdays and Saturdays where the produce includes California specialties like navel oranges, avocados, and artichokes. The Saturday farmers’ market is over for the day by the time I arrive, so I take a seat at the Hog Island Oyster Bar inside the Ferry Building. I order a half-dozen Sweetwater oysters, harvested in Marin County’s Tomales Bay, and a Scrimshaw Pilsner, brewed up the coast in Fort Bragg. It’s local food, untainted by corporate culture, unsullied by jet travel. Al Green’s greatest hits are playing on the sound system. I’m eating organic, drinking organic, looking out at the bay, listening to Green sing “Love and Happiness,” and thinking about how supremely intertwined virtue and pleasure are in this town.

Actually, I think that’s the real draw. People don’t come to San Francisco just for its values, they come because those values are always presented as part of an enviable lifestyle. Later in my visit, I mention to Chez Panisse’s Alice Waters, the inventor of California cuisine and lately a proponent of the Slow Food movement, that while green activism is often identified with things you can’t have—rules and prohibitions—this revolution in dining seems very much to be about pleasure. “It is,” she says. “It’s all about bringing people to biodiversity and sustainability through pleasure. By eating heirloom tomatoes, you can be doing exactly the right thing and having the flavor and experience. It’s the best.”

But even San Francisco, as alluringly progressive as it often is, does not wholeheartedly embrace change. It can be a confounding place: slow-moving, provincial, and weirdly dysfunctional. I’ve been visiting at regular intervals since I was in college. On my first trip, in the 1970’s, bleary-eyed from nights spent in a series of hellish post-hippie crash pads, I wandered into the lobby of the Embarcadero’s Hyatt, one of the first of those John Portman–designed atrium hotels, and thought that I’d somehow crawled out of the miasma left over from the Summer of Love and into an amazing vision of the future. Later, in 1999, I moved to San Francisco and lived there for three years, from the height of the dot-com boom to the bottom of the bust. Again, I found the city was sometimes excruciatingly stodgy and at other times dizzyingly future-forward.

There’s a spot where you can see this duality, the sleepy old city that refuses to change and the radical, cutting-edge city that is always miles ahead of everyone else. Happily for the values tourist, this spot is a tower with an observation deck, in Golden Gate Park. The De Young Museum, an aggressively 21st-century building by the Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron, completed in 2005, is clad in recycled copper—perforated to shade the building while letting daylight in—which will turn green as the metal patinates. Its café serves food from growers and providers within a 150-mile radius. The art collection is expansive and absorbing. And from the observation deck of the distinctive wedge-shaped tower, a mere 144 feet tall, there’s a panoramic view of San Francisco. Gaze north and the view is of the Richmond district, an endless, timeless, monotonous swath of small-scale pinkish stucco houses. But swivel east and you look directly across the shady Music Concourse at the new Academy of Sciences. Designed by Renzo Piano and scheduled to open in September 2008, it’s got an undulating green roof—an artificial terrain dotted with seven hills, planted with beach strawberries, miniature lupine, and California poppies.

Also in Golden Gate Park, the new Academy of Sciences is expected to be the largest public LEED-certified building in the world. It will have highly efficient heating and cooling systems and natural ventilation; produce a relatively small amount of solar power (5 to 10 percent of the building’s needs); and use recycled materials, including insulation made from blue jeans. Visitors will likely not notice most of the green features, but instead be swept away by the exhibitions, which are to include a multilevel rain forest, the world’s deepest coral-reef tank, and some very imposing snakes. “I think an anaconda goes on this side,” says my tour guide, Kip Trexel, the project director for Webcor Builders. The Academy’s living roof, though, will be a crowd-pleaser—a deck will allow visitor access—and also a draw for wildlife, including the threatened San Bruno elfin butterfly.

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