Making a San Francisco Destination Rooted in Bay Area Traditions: An Interview with Chris Meany of Wilson Meany

by: Diana Banh, CPSM
Urban Planning
Historic Preservation
Chris Meany, co-founder and managing partner of Wilson Meany, the owner of San Francisco's Ferry Building, talks about how the market hall concept of the Ferry Building came into being.

This is part of a series of extended interviews conducted for the article “Crafting Authenticity for Retail Destinations” by Sean Slater for Urban Land

Why do you think so many people are looking for a sense of authenticity in the places where they shop and dine?

Chris Meany: We’re dealing with a world in which you can now buy anything online and have it delivered. Office tenants now cram twice as many people into a given amount of space as they used to. And as populations move to cities, commute times have gotten to be so long that people are confronting real issues about how they spend their time. In places like the Bay Area, the economics of living mean that people can’t afford to live in a house the same size as their parents did. All these trends make people want to engage with the outside world differently. Retail is now no longer just about buying goods, it’s also about having an experience.

The population today is also quite jaded. They’ve seen everything. Thirty years ago, what did the mall bring you? A sanitized, much more manageable version of a main street. The retailers could control their environment. But then consumers started to realize they were mice being lead through a trap, and they rejected it.

So today, we have to ground our projects in something that is real, that gives an experience that people feel is legitimate, not contrived. Authenticity is not the same thing as historicism. An authentic retail environment can be a supercontemporary, futuristic looking thing. It’s all specific to the context.

When the Ferry Building was finished, it took about a year or two to really get humming. Then I started getting calls from people saying, “We want you to do another Ferry Building.” If you believe that you can take something like the Ferry Building and transport it somewhere else, then you miss what it’s about.

With the Ferry Building, you brought back the historic bones of the building, exposing the beautiful Great Nave to the public once again. But how did you hit upon the mix of retail tenants?

Meany: We needed something that would act as a destination draw, something rooted in the Bay Area. I thought of the local farmer’s market that was originally in front of the Embarcadero. I remembered when I had first come to the city years ago that a very popular draw was Macy’s Cellar in Union Square, where the store had its cookware along with a restaurant. Ghirardelli Square used to have a ground-floor gourmet market where people would buy bread and cheese and go outside and watch the water. People have always liked the retail/social experience of places like that. So my initial idea was to create that kind of experience, which had some antecedents in the Bay Area, and bring the farmer’s market back to the Embarcadero.

Then our development team took our architects to Harrods Food Hall in London, Pike Place Market in Seattle, Rialto Market in Venice, and a number of other places. It was about ten days of intense touring. Each team would come back, have a glass of wine, and sketch and talk. We were trying to find what we were seeing in these market places that was consistent that we could import. But we saw lots that weren’t successful, and it was because they mimicked others. The successful ones were all uniquely adapted to their particular place. They didn’t follow the rules. They were quirky, local things.

I think it’s why the project was ultimately successful. We said, “Actually, the Bay Area does have a food tradition. But it’s not Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s not Macy’s Cellar. The Bay Area has a series of artisans and chefs who share a belief in sustainable agriculture. So we’re going to invite them to cohabitate.” We would create a retail street with a series of stalls under the Great Nave.

Did you actively seek out tenants?

Meany: Very early on we identified Eleanor Bertino, who provides communication strategy services to the organic and sustainable food community. I retained her to be an ambassador. For three years, 1998 through 2001, my wife and I would go to the farmer’s market, and Eleanor would introduce us to people. By the time we started building the project, we had a lot of people who had softly signed on. Then 9/11 happened, and tourism here dried up for a year. Almost all of the people that we had tentatively signed up had to pull out. We had to start over again.

We’d go out and make personal appeals. And we were successful in getting people to believe that we were trying to do the right thing, that we were listening and we were crafting something that would work. But people were distrustful of us because we were a for-profit developer. Ultimately we got saved by a few of the tenants themselves. I can’t tell you what motivated them. We had now been talking for years to people like Peggy Smith and Sue Conley at Cowgirl Creamery and Steven Sullivan at Acme Bread. There were four or five tenants who were well known in the Bay Area. They said, “We will agree to go into your project, with certain conditions. You make individual deals with us, but if one of the other people back out, we all will. As long as you’ll give us co-tenancy rights, we’ll take the flyer.”

In the post 9-11 deal, raising money was really hard. So we got very creative. We thought it was inappropriate to just fund tenants. People try to buy tenants all the time. So instead, we crafted very small spaces. We had those spaces open directly onto this dramatic space, so that people wouldn’t have to rent congregating space. They would rent just what they needed. We tried to put money into the common areas so that the tenants wouldn’t have to. And then we said, “We’ve set it up so you have to raise small amounts of money. But you have to raise it.” Ultimately, we got everybody open.

A lot of the appeal of the Ferry Building is that it’s slightly different every time you go. Obviously the farmer’s market adds that because of the seasonal nature of the goods. But there are certain things I always want to see when I go to the Ferry Building. I don’t ever want Heath Ceramics to be gone, or the Gardener. The Slanted Door had better stay. How do you manage the need to be ever evolving while keeping the core tenants?

Meany: We were very clear at the beginning that we needed foundational tenants. If you’re a marketplace, you’ve got to have a place to buy produce. It turns out produce is a pretty low-margin business. It’s not so easy to keep a produce store in business. But we were quite committed to having one. And you need to have a butcher shop. You need to have a fish market. We wanted those tenants to have rent structures that would make sure they were always there as a backbone. With the other tenants, we thought half of them would work out, and so there would be various tenants rotating through. But we have had, to date, much less turnover than we thought we would.