A 1925 ferry returns to S.F. with a big rooftop garden — and it’s open to the public


The Embarcadero Boardwalk is a defining feature of modern-day San Francisco, a 25-foot-wide walkway with sky-high towers to the west and open water punctuated by magnetic lures to the east.

She shares another quality with the city as a whole: Unexpected discoveries await her, especially with regard to public spaces that don’t cost a penny. Some are easy to miss, but together they offer a perspective of the intersection of city and bay that the boardwalk can’t match.

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This thought occurred to me last week while visiting a new and truly unique location that sits 35 feet above the water — the roof of a former commuter ferry, which in its heyday could hold 1,000 people and 78 cars on trips across the bay. Now it’s back along the Embarcadero, moored at Pier 9, where anyone can hop aboard during the weekdays for a priceless view for absolutely no price at all.

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This ship, the Klamath, was first launched in 1925 and has not carried ferry passengers since 1959, when the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge opened and ferries no longer operated in the bay, until 1976, when the Marin to San Francisco lines were put into operation. Advertising firm Landor and Associates remodeled it into Bayside offices in 1964; In 1992 it sailed to Stockton and became the headquarters of Duraflame, but the synthetic wood maker put the boat up for sale in 2020.

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Now it’s home to the Bay Area Council, a corporate and lobbyist think tank that has invested more than $15 million to revamp Klamath in more ways than one.

Enjoy views of the city from the top deck of the 1925 Klamath Ferry, located in front of the Embarcadero in San Francisco.  Since it is on the Embarcadero, the ferry full of private offices must have public space.

Enjoy views of the city from the top deck of the 1925 Klamath Ferry, located in front of the Embarcadero in San Francisco. Since it is on the Embarcadero, the ferry full of private offices must have public space.

Brontë Wittpenn/The Chronicle

Part of that money was for details like the beautiful oak staircase that rises three levels from the entrance to the upper deck. Much of the expense, however, went to creating the public spaces and full accessibility required by the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, which oversees the shoreline of the bay’s nine counties.

In this case, a roof terrace was wrapped around the wheelhouses on either side of the ship, with enough space and depth to accommodate extensive planting beds that are now home to hundreds of native drought-tolerant plants. There are bathrooms, benches and the Klamath’s new elevator. You can’t just walk in, though: there’s a registration desk as soon as you step in from the plank extending from Pier 9’s south edge, and public access is restricted to weekday hours and the first Saturday of the month.

Requirements like these are costly and undoubtedly a headache for developers. But here’s the thing: The waterfront is public property of all Californians — as is ours. State legislation that created the commission in 1965 requires “maximum feasible public access” when making changes along the bay.

The changes along the Embarcadero—a terrain that in 1965 consisted of a double-decker freeway and a fading industrial port—show how broadly that goal can be interpreted. And the section north of the Ferry Building, which includes Pier 9, is a textbook example. So if you’re visiting Klamath on a weekday, which I highly recommend, don’t just stroll down the (undeniably pleasant) promenade. Walk through the open arch bulkhead building just behind Pier 1, turn left and see where it takes you.

The first encounter is not promising: a glass wall that seems to block the way. But the wall contains a door with a square blue sign that reads “PUBLIC SHORE.” True story: The commission wants a passageway through the lounge of La Mar, an expensive Peruvian restaurant, to be open to the public from 8am to 10pm daily

One of our weirder public places, but this city is like a giant test lag.

Exploratorium exhibit engineer Erin Cole walks through an outdoor artwork by Fujiko Nakaya that pumps water at high pressure through more than 800 jets to create fog on a pedestrian bridge on San Francisco's Embarcadero.

Exploratorium exhibit engineer Erin Cole walks through an outdoor artwork by Fujiko Nakaya that pumps water at high pressure through more than 800 jets to create fog on a pedestrian bridge on San Francisco’s Embarcadero.

Brontë Wittpenn/The Chronicle

The walkway continues like an alleyway to the back of Pier 5, where the lowest waterfront walkway along the Embarcadero is located. It then rejoins the boardwalk where you can see the circular white Klamath moored to the south edge of Pier 9. You’ll also see a restaurant right in front of you in a strange architectural remnant from a bygone era. But on the stucco side is another one of those sea-blue shoreline signs – advising you to continue along the water, between the restaurant’s glass-enclosed seating and the bay. There are even benches; it’s a corner of the bay all to yourself.

Detour complete, just a few more steps to the (must be open) gate that leads along the pier to the Klamath gangway. The square footage of the common areas isn’t huge – this isn’t Presidio Tunnel Tops – but being atop them is liberating, a new perspective on the juxtaposition of built and natural landscapes in the Bay.





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