ActivismArts and CultureNewsPoliticsSF Bay Area

Why San Francisco’s Biggest Fountain is Gushing Green

Updated: Feb 22, 2023 09:40
The Bay's best newsletter for underground events & news

Embarcadero Plaza (formerly Justin Herman Plaza) in San Francisco, CA.  All photos by @alexmaksf unless otherwise stated.

San Francisco’s Vaillancourt Fountain in Embarcadero Plaza is pumping again, but the on-again-off-again fountain has a particularly florescent hue these days.   30,000 gallons of glowing, green, gushing, liquid surging throughout a massive 200-foot long, 140-foot wide, and 36-foot high concrete, brutalist, behemoth.

Although, it’s not the first time the Vaillancourt is spouting a strange color, back in 2017 the fountain caused quite a stir when the San Francisco Recreation and Parks attempted to clean the fountain by putting a non-toxic, algae killer called “Blue Lagoon,” into the mix.

Which caused the fountain to look less like anti-freeze and more like a blue-raspberry-flavored Gatorade for a while:

We asked the San Francisco Recreation and Parks why the Vaillancourt was currently green and they confirmed that it was just ‘naturally occurring algae”.  Algae builds up in the fountain’s filtration system to glow-in-the-dark levels, when the water remains stagnant for too long.

The green patina kept making me think of The Ooze color from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Movies, which may be because the first time I visited the fountain, and climbed around it was as a child in the 1990s, right around when my grade school friends and I were crazy for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Movies.

Michaelangelo: “Bodacious!”


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Alex Mak (@alexmaksf)

Leonardo: “Radical!”

But the Vaillancourt Fountain has a much longer history, it was first installed in 1971 and created by French Canadian artist Armand Vaillancourt, a Quebecois separatist who famously spray-painted “Quebec Libre”  (“Free Quebec”) on the fountain before its grand opening.

The fountain was definitely indicative of its era, brutalism was all the rage in the 60s and 70s, and the idea that art should be a ‘happening’ and be interacted with by its audience was an idea made popular in the late 50’s, and was still a hip concept.  So the Vaillancourt Fountain has a walking path through its guts and even climbable platforms above, so the public can stand on it, and gaze down through it.

Its series of concrete tubes and passageways also made a lot more sense when it was originally constructed because its backdrop was massive freeway overpasses, which were damaged in the great 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and then completely removed.

By Dng2000 at English Wikipedia – Selfmade by Dng2000 at English Wikipedia, Public Domain,

So at its conception, the structure was a water circulatory system juxtaposed against the city’s own concrete (traffic) circulatory system.  But of course, not everyone was a fan of the fountain when it came out.  The Chronicle’s Temko wrote that the public art looked like it was “deposited by a giant concrete dog with square intestines.”  In other words, it looked more like the product of a digestive system…to some critics.

The fountain is now over 50 years old, and showing many signs of disrepair, for example, some of the formerly active ‘spouts’ are dry and even have plants growing in them.  The fountain has often been simply shut off because of mechanical issues or to save water due to drought concerns.

In 2004 Supervisor Aaron Peskin actually introduced a measure to get the fountain removed completely.  Peskin, said the fountain looked out of place now that the neighboring Embarcadero Freeway was gone; the city doesn’t want to pay the annual $250,000 in electricity costs to pump 30,000 gallons of water through the square tubes; and it has become an “attractive nuisance,” providing a sheltered public space where the homeless sleep at night.

We asked the SF Rec and Parks department how much it cost to run the fountain in 2023 but they didn’t get back to us.  If we adjust for inflation, the electric bill for running the fountain would be somewhere around $383,925 per year in today’s dollars.

Something tells me that in San Francisco’s dollars, the current cost will be much closer to $1 Million when you factor in maintenance too.

To me, the fountain is strange, nostalgic, and historical.  Remember when it made international news when U2 held an outdoor concert in November of 1987 in then-Justin Herman Plaza…and Bono spray painted “Rock and Roll, Stop the Traffic” on the Vaillancourt Fountain? LOL.

The San Francisco Police Department started an investigation over ‘vandalism charges”, while politicians like then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein grandstanded over the misdemeanor.  The real winners were legendary promotor Bill Graham and U2 who rode the free publicity over the ‘controversy’ for months, and it helped sell out their world tour.

Personally, I love the thing when it’s running, regardless of how freaky the color of the water happens to be.  But the fountain is never sadder than when it’s bone dry.

It’s a relic of the past, its backdrop has changed, its own mechanics have withered, and it’s a reminder of all the problems incumbent upon a city’s long-standing, public art.

What do you think we should do with Vaillancourt?

Like this article? Make sure to sign up for our mailing list so you never miss a goddamn thing!
Previous post

The 2023 SF Wine Passport is Here!

Next post

New 2121 Art Space is a Thoughtful Collaboration

Alex Mak - Managing Editor

Alex Mak - Managing Editor

I'm the managing editor here at Broke-Ass Stuart. I enjoy covering Bay Area News as well as writing about Arts, Culture & Nightlife.

If you're a writer, artist, or performer who would like to get your work out there, or if you've got great things to promote, we've got 120k social followers and really fun ways to reach them. We make noise for our partners, and for our community.
alex at
IG: @alexmaksf


  1. BigOinOhio
    February 16, 2023 at 12:36 pm — Reply

    Oh boy, I don’t know what is worse, green slime algae or blue Gatorade chlorine. Probably the latter so nobody gets infected with some mutant virus.? In any case this ugly monstrosity has obviously outlived its time as a sculpture so why not let plants grow in it?! At least let skaters have fun doing their tricks on it, and the homeless people can camp out on it and use the cubby holes for shelter.

  2. James
    February 21, 2023 at 1:09 am — Reply

    In 2017, SF Recreations and Parks Commission voted to remove the name of former city planner Justin Herman from the plaza. Since then, it has been called Embarcadero Plaza.

  3. Luciano Mezzetta
    February 23, 2023 at 5:47 pm — Reply

    It was born as an eyesore. It so remains.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *