Q&A with Marcy Coburn

Meet Marcy Coburn, Pier 70’s Creative Director: A Leader in Pursuit of Radical Belonging

1. First, let’s start with maybe a little-known-fact about you, Marcy. You have (at least) one tattoo. And that tattoo says “Belonging.” Tell us about it.

Yes, on my upper arm. You can see it when I do a Rosie the Riveter pose. Created by the artist Zeph Fish.

I’m from a farming community in the Central Valley of California and I grew up in a conventional family. Here I was, this girl, a foot taller than the other kids, outspoken, clearly not fitting into society’s boxes for the way I was supposed to look and act, clearly receiving a message that I didn’t belong. So that started my life’s journey, my work – what does it mean to belong? How do you find community, if you’re queer or trans  or black or brown?

I mean, as soon as I had my learners permit, I was driving my friends to San Francisco, exploring the neighborhoods, the gay scene, the arts scene. San Francisco was really where I learned about belonging – how I had craved it; and what it felt like when that deep ache for connection was satisfied.

I’ve really committed myself to bringing all different types of people together to nurture that sense of belonging. Belonging that is centered around the things that bring us joy; food, art, performance, music, culture, dance, to name a few. And I think that’s what really good development projects should do; they make you feel welcome and proud, which is why I’m thrilled to be working on this project.

2. What’s your background and how does that dovetail with your work on Pier 70?

I’ve always sought to synthesize the legacy and energy of a place in a way that draws people together for a deep, meaningful sense of connection.

Growing up in California’s Central Valley, the culture of farming and food systems has been practically baked into my DNA. And I’ve always seen the sharing of food as a place to begin fulfilling the need for belonging that so many of us feel. So my work has long been at the intersection of those two things – food and community.

Immediately prior to this role with Pier 70, I was CEO of CUESA, which operates the Farmers Market at the Ferry Building. There, I led an organization that not only brings people together through food and agriculture, but does it in a beautiful, historic place that has huge energy and history.

3. What sparked your interest in the Pier 70 project?

Just like with my work at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market – where you have this iconic, historic site on the bayfront in one of the world’s greatest cities. It’s the same with Pier 70, but add to that it’s a site that forged the great iron-works industry that helped build the American west. And helped build the ships that won World War II. It’s even the place where the Transbay tube for BART was constructed.

That industry, which really ended in the 50s, left these massive, landmark buildings and historic remnants and ephemera that evoke such story. They really spark the imagination. It’s why artists and makers have been drawn to these spaces and to the Dogpatch neighborhood for decades. To be immersed in and inspired by that soul.

And personally, I used to come to underground punk shows in this neighborhood, in Dogpatch in the 90s. Those trips to San Francisco were really a starting point for me where I felt like there was a place that I could feel connected, feel accepted. And, just like the artists and the cultural creatives who are drawn here, there’s this feeling at Pier 70 of such potential for a new way of being in community.

4. What is the vision for Pier 70?

It’s really a vision that was shaped by many dreams – over a decade of listening sessions with a super broad mix of community members and organizations.

On the face of it, Pier 70 is a mixed-use site on 28 acres of industrial land along the central waterfront in San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood. Brookfield Properties is developing Pier 70 in conjunction with the Port of San Francisco. The program includes 30% affordable housing, parks and open space, nonprofit arts space, offices, retail and apartments. The parks and open space will re-connect the neighborhood to the very edge of the waterfront.

The heart of the project is a plaza anchored by historic Building 12, a Maker Hall, which is being beautifully rehabilitated to house maker space, artisan retail and offices.

But it’s so much greater than the sum of its parts. What we’re trying to do at Pier 70 is create a place where the creative soul of San Francisco is alive and well and where everyone feels welcome. We’ll have free events and bay activities and creative activations, with inclusion and accessibility as our north star.

What we have here is like a laboratory. How does the legacy of arts and industry at Pier 70 continue to shape the community and how does the community creatively, righteously shape this place so that it manifests our best selves? And does it in such a way that engenders a uniquely San Francisco feeling of belonging, for everyone.

5. Those are big questions. Tell us about your position. Why is “Creative Director” a necessary role for the Pier 70 vision?

This role itself is proof that Brookfield and the Port are doing things differently. The Creative Director is keeper of the vision for Pier 70, ensuring that arts and culture not only play a role, but are an integrated, critical component of the project.

The Creative Director is also the facilitator between the operations/business side and the community. I’m here to continuously reach out to different groups and different people and stakeholders and engage them. Because Pier 70 isn’t just a collection of beautiful old buildings or a cool cluster of maker studios. If we do this right, it will be that place where so many types of people, cultures, ages feel welcome, feel proud, feel like they belong.

And the fact that they hired someone like me, who is not from the commercial real estate world, someone who has devoted her career to convening diverse groups of people together in historic places, this demonstrates to me that Brookfield and the Port are striving to do something unique and authentic at Pier 70.

6. How does the COVID crisis and the racial and social justice movements impact your work and Pier 70’s vision?

These crises are exposing so many inequities in our society. It really shines a light more than ever on the necessity for creating places that are inherently welcoming and safe and just. We’re at the beginning of this for Pier 70, so we have the opportunity to really get it right.

I’ve really committed myself to bringing all different types of people together to nurture that sense of belonging. Belonging centered around things that give us joy.
Marcy Coburn