Most of downtown Tiburon is built on land reclaimed from San Francisco Bay waters or marsh lands. The beautiful homes on the shores of the Belvedere Lagoon also sit on land fill. The reclaimed lands provide ideal locations for these attractive commercial and residential developments. For many years filling San Francisco Bay to make new lands was a popular pursuit. But by the middle half of the 20th century, the public began to realize that continuing this practice would destroy the Bay.
The story of filling the Bay on the Tiburon Peninsula offers an interesting example of the Bay Area wide reclamation process. In 1882 Peter Donahue brought his San Francisco and North Pacific Railroad to the vacant lands at Tiburon Point. He founded the village of Tiburon. Donahue wanted a terminal at Tiburon to compete with the North Pacific Coast Railroad’s terminal in Sausalito. Both terminals would be six miles across the Bay to San Francisco.
Donahue found deep water for a port at Tiburon but almost no flat land to build his terminal. His solution was to excavate the local hillsides and use the material to fill the Bay. The Marin Journal of February 28, 1884 describes it this way: “The high point or bluff, composed of rock and good macadam, is rapidly receding, and making acre after acre of level ground to be covered with iron tracks, platforms, buildings, sheds, depots, freight rooms, offices, round houses, etc., etc.” In its February 26th edition the Sausalito News supported Donahue’s project: “From the sleepiest and most primitive of settlements, Tiburon has suddenly been transformed into a lively, bustling, business like little place with promise of much ahead.” By the early 1900s the Tiburon rail yard occupied about 17 acres of reclaimed land. In addition, the railroad’s wharf and piers extended over two acres of Bay waters.
The railroad yard filled only a portion of the area that would eventually become downtown Tiburon. Today the town’s central area sits on about 60 acres of land reclaimed from San Francisco Bay. The Bay fill for both commercial and nearby residential areas has reduced the water surface area of the Belvedere Lagoon from about 168 to 66 acres.
At other Peninsula locations new developments also used land reclaimed from the Bay. The Cove Shopping Center and nearby waterfront apartments, for example, are built on reclaimed land. In the 1960s one of the last landfills permitted in San Francisco Bay altered California Point to make space for a 200 home residential development known as Paradise Cay.
During the first half of the 20th century the concept of developing reclaimed Bay lands remained popular. The Sausalito News on May 31, 1929 recommended, “.…it would be a timely gesture on the part of us in southern Marin to call attention of the proper authorities to the possibilities of Richardson bay as a great shipping and manufacturing terminal….it would be comparatively easy for the reclamation of the big unused waterway that lies between here [Sausalito] and the Tiburon peninsula….It is a matter that should be given earnest consideration. Just picture the potentialities of a big Marin Terminal!”
Perhaps the most authoritative and influential assessment of filling the Bay was described in a report titled Future Development of the San Francisco Bay Area 1960-2020, issued in 1959 by the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers. Often referred to as the 2020 Report, it caused alarm because it includes a projection that as many as 325 square miles of the original 548 square mile Bay remained as areas “susceptible of reclamation”. Consistent with the 1929 Sausalito News recommendation, the 2020 Report depicted all of Richardson Bay as “Potentially Fillable Bay”. A strip of the Bay waters along the north side of the Tiburon Peninsula was also shown as a potential site for Bay fill.
Based on the 2020 Report’s assumptions, Marin County’s population growth was predicted to reach 790,000 by 2020. Using the report’s projected Marin growth rates, the Tiburon Peninsula’s population was expected to be 48,000 in 2020, about triple the actual total today. The citizen response to the 2020 Report resulted in an overwhelming objection to the document’s vision of the Bay as little more than a broad river.
Public rejection also awaited the development known as Reeds Port along the south side of the Tiburon Peninsula. In 1949 a large residential development was proposed that would fill the most of the Bay along the Peninsula from Strawberry to Belvedere. The development to be called “Reeds Port” would cover 894 acres of the tidal zone and house a population of over 10,000.
The local response to this proposal is described in the 2017 Belvedere-Tiburon Landmarks Society pamphlet Walk Your History, “In 1956, Utah Construction….intended to create a development similar to the Reeds Port. Dozens of concerned local citizens….joined….the Marin Conservation League and…. the National Audubon to raise funds to buy the tidelands from Reedport properties. The final price of $200,000 was raised by concerned citizens with the help of the City of Belvedere, Marin County and the California Highway Department, who paid half of the total to purchase the shoreline in advance of making Tiburon Boulevard into a 4-lane highway. Today the Bay is managed by the Richardson Bay Audubon Center and is closed to all water and shore activity from October 1 through March to give the migrating birds peace and quiet.”
With the formation of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) in 1965, filling the Bay was brought under comprehensive public review. No significant Bay fill has been permitted since without thorough environmental impact analysis. If filling the Bay had been more carefully controlled throughout the 20th century, downtown Tiburon would not exist as we know it today. It is interesting to speculate if Peter Donahue would have even brought his railroad into Tiburon if he had not been permitted to reclaim several acres of land from the Bay.