Ballot Battles and Campus Claims: The History of the Balboa Reservoir 1983-1991

One of a series of articles on the history of the Balboa Reservoir.

As San Francisco city government currently works through the planning process for a housing project on the last remaining seventeen acres of the original Balboa Reservoir land, a review of the dramatic fate of the first housing plan for that land is in order.

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1985. Architect’s drawing of home for “Balboa Heights” on South Balboa Reservoir.

In the 1980s, rather than watch the Mayor’s Office of Housing sell off part of the Balboa Reservoir land that was for ten years the site of City College’s West Campus, a campus-based coalition of faculty, staff, and students, joined by some local residents, fought back against housing plans through the ballot over several elections, from 1985 to 1991.

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1991. Front of flyer for No on Prop L campaign. CCSF Archives.

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‘Raise Your Gladsome Voices’ at SF History Days

On Sunday 4 March, at noon in the ‘Theater’ at the Old Mint, Glen Park Neighborhoods History Project will present a lecture on local suffragist Johanna Pinther and the first suffrage march in the United States in 1908. This includes the short play ‘Raise Your Gladsome Voices,’ about the involvement of Glen Park women in this history-making event. This is a reprise of the GPNHP presentation in December 2017 at the Sunnyside Conservatory.

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“Do I look like Christabel Pankhurst?”

WAVES, West Campus, and Waterless Basins: the History of the Balboa Reservoir 1945-1983

One of a series of articles on the history of the Balboa Reservoir.

From the end of WWII until the mid-1980s, there were several ill-fated attempts to fund the building of the Balboa Reservoir; it was dug and paved but not finished in the late 1950s. Its real life during these years was as an asset to City College, first as West Campus, then as parking for students, faculty, and staff.

But it also functioned as a place for a host of casual uses by local residents, some legal and some not: teen drivers, go-cart races, runners and walkers, Riordan football team training, underage drinking, motorcycle berm-jumping, police safety training, and more. No city agency seriously considered housing during these years; after WWII there were still plenty of empty lots in the city on which to build.

Making Wartime WAVES

In June 1944 the SPFUC discussed the matter of leasing the reservoir land to the US Government, in line with the US President’s edict that any unused public land be put to wartime use.[1] The Navy was given a lease which was to end six months after the “national emergency.” A large compound comprising many buildings was quickly built for the United States Naval Reserve Women’s Reserve, known under the acronym WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). The facility opened in July 1945. It included housing for over a thousand enlisted and officer women, two-story buildings, and an auditorium, with all the needed water, sewer, electricity, and gas infrastructure.[2]

It was an impressive effort.

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1947c. Aerial looking over the Navy’s Women’s Reserve facility on the Balboa Reservoir land. SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY.

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Greyhounds, Aeroplanes, and Wheelbarrows: the History of the Balboa Reservoir 1894-1944

One of a series of articles on the history of the Balboa Reservoir.

The large plot of land that was known as the Balboa Reservoir has had a remarkable history, despite never having been filled with water and once being declared “void of positive features” by the City.[1] Through most of the twentieth century it was owned by SF Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC), yet none of the uses the land has been put to have had any impact for good or ill on the city’s water supply. Now the last third of it still left in the hands of SFPUC is being developed as a housing project.

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The original dimensions of the Balboa Reservoir site, as purchased by the City in 1930. The lot now includes Riordan High School on the north, CCSF’s Multi-Use Building on the east, and housing and commercial buildings along Ocean Ave. View larger.

Spring Valley’s real estate wager

The reservoir site started as part of Adolph Sutro’s Rancho San Miguel holdings, most of which were acquired by him in 1881.[2] Sutro sold the 42-acre lot on the far southeast corner of his eucalyptus-covered kingdom to the Spring Valley Water Company in 1894.[3] The company’s stated purpose was to build a reservoir there. They didn’t.

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SF Call 14 Feb 1894, p9. Read whole article here.

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Farms in Sunnyside?

Here is a portion of the 1938 aerial photos of San Francisco that shows the extensive farming in the area of Balboa Park below Havelock Street. This land had been used for the purpose of growing food from the 1890s until I-280 freeway was built in the 1960s. Some part of it was cultivated by inmates from the Ingleside Jail, but there was also a nursery business which leased land here.

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1938 aerial photo of extensive vegetable gardens below Havelock Street in Balboa Park. Land here used for that purpose from 1890s through to construction of I-280 freeway in 1960s. CLICK FOR LARGER  Photo from DavidRumsey.com, altered with labels.

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First annual Sunnyside Holiday Quiz!

For Sunnyside locals. Answers are now posted here.


1. What was the original name of Monterey Boulevard?

2. When did Sunnyside Elementary School get its colorful tile mural?

3. Was Big Joe’s ever owned by a man named Joe?

4. What did the Interstate 280 Freeway replace when it was built in the 1960s?

a. A creek
b. A railroad
c. Several blocks of homes
d. Open space

5. What was the former name of Friends Bar?

a. Cheers Bar
b. Hells Angels Clubhouse
c. Joker Club Tavern
d. Andy’s Place      Read more