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When it's not just about the chocolate

Photo Credit: Das Bobby 2000

San Franciscans sneer at Ghirardelli Square. And we certainly don't go there much. No interesting retail, or food, and it's too close to Fisherman's Wharf. Someone might mistake us for tourists. Besides, it looks so 60's. Now Fairmont Hotels is teaming with new owners to turn the top floor into a spa and luxury time shares- more correctly known as fractional ownership opportunities. Should be swank, no? Architects rumored to be Hornburger + Wurstell.

After the jump: Why Ghirardelli Square matters, whether you go there or not.

If it looks like the 60's, that's because it is: Ghirardelli Square was one of this country's pioneer efforts at the concept of adaptive reuse. The Ghirardelli Company was sold in 1962, and the factory and warehouse moved to the suburbs. A similar Civil War-era warehouse in the next block had been demolished for the Fontana Towers. Fearing a wall of high rises would replace the classic 19th century brick buildings and the signature 15-foot high sign, William Matson Roth, a shipping heir and businessman, bought the entire block. Project design by Wurster, Bernardi & Emmons with extensive terraces and landscaping by Lawrence Halprin. Roth was no stranger to big projects; his family built the Royal Hawaiian and he grew up at Filoli. Saving Ghirardelli Square wasn't his smartest business decision, just his most civic.

Ghirardelli Square's urban importance is lost on today's San Franciscans, who see it as a tourist mall instead of a radical idea with consequences far beyond the bay. Our automobile culture has changed the view. People no longer arrive here by sea and the immense, lit Ghirardelli sign is seen from below or behind, instead of by passing ships, as originally intended. Worse, Ghirardelli products are now seen as down-market- everyone's just mad for Scharffen Berger.