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Crosscurrents logo 2021

Marincello - the city that never was

Look at the San Francisco skyline and you’ll see the City by the Bay changing before your eyes. All the current construction is causing concern in some parts of town, but really, it’s nothing new. “San Francisco has always been re-making itself,” says Anthea Hartig, Executive Director of the California Historical Society (CHS). “It was never quite good enough.”

She says it’s important to look back at how San Francisco and the Bay Area have been planned, because that gives us “a really wonderful lens through which to see what we’ve inherited – and how complicated it really is.” That’s the reason the CHS has joined four other locations participating in “Unbuilt San Francisco: The View from Futures Past,” which examines projects that never got off the drawing board.

The most striking – and perhaps shocking – item in the Society’s exhibition is a 10 X 10 foot topographic architectural model of Marincello. This ambitious planned community was approved by the Marin County Supervisors in the mid-1960s, and would have been built right smack in the heart of The Marin Headlands. Each of the open valleys now enjoyed by hikers and wildlife would have been filled with a 2,100-acre planned community of single-family residential homes, a couple dozen apartment towers, and, of course, a shopping center.

Anyone today who even joked about building anything substantial in the Headlands would face impossible odds. The idea of a whole new town would definitely be a non-starter. Yet, it had been approved, and was starting construction, when a grassroots movement decided to try to turn this around.

Today such actions are called “environmental activism,” but back then it was a newly developing concept. It led to the creation of a new organization: the Nature Conservancy.

“What I think is fascinating about Marincello,” Hartig says, “is the way that we kind of perceive the Marin Headlands now as natural. And while there are many natural features remaining, the Marin Headlands, the Presidio, Mare Island, Hunters Point, were a ring of fortresses around the Bay area, held by various versions of the US military from 1850 or so, onward.”

It’s this “view of futures past,” of how things might have been, that makes “Unbuilt San Francisco” worth a visit. 

To listen to this story, please click on the audio player above.