FROM windows high above, San Francisco's just-completed Center for the Arts at Yerba Buena Gardens looks like a high-tech ocean liner: sleek shoebox shape, girded-steel edges, observation decks, and rooftop exhaust pipes.
Though some startled residents feel as if this new flagship of city culture has docked nearly unnoticed in the thick bay fog, the building complex and adjacent esplanade have taken no less than three decades to arrive - and the process has been no easy cruise.
``What you see now is a vision that has been reincarnating over and over since the early 1960s,'' says Helene Fried, a Center for the Arts board member. ``It is a testimony to the best that public and private partnerships can accomplish even during the worst of recessions.''
Unveiled in October and completed Dec. 15 the $88 million museum, theater, and 4.5-acre park are the fruitage of no fewer than five mayors, and as many reconstituted redevelopment agencies, presiding over plans that began with the bulldozing of scores of acres of rundown neighborhoods in the 1950s.
What might have been a mall, convention space, sports stadium, or office towers is now being hailed by local papers as San Francisco art's ``Miracle on Mission St.,'' ``the best San Francisco happening since 1937's Golden Gate Bridge,'' and the heart of a major new West Coast cultural center.
``It's the nexus of the city,'' says Helen Sause, project director for the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency (SFRA).
Dedicated to multicultural and experimental art, the museum will focus on northern California artists and draw heavily on the city's minority and gay communities. The SFRA has funded construction of the buildings and will maintain them through land leases in the surrounding district. The center is built on city-owned property but operates independently under federal nonprofit guidelines.
``The opportunity for all areas of the city to come together and learn through art is what this is all about,'' Ms. Sause says. ``No one culture or community feels [the museum] is solely theirs.''
Smack dab in the heart of downtown, the new sanctuary of glass-and-steel buildings, rolling green space, trees, and reflecting pools will form the core of what is to follow: In 1995, both a Museum of Modern Art and a children's cultural center with gardens and ice rink will open across the street; a Mexican Museum, at six times its present size, will move into a neighboring building. A Jewish Museum and a Cartoon History Museum are on the drawing boards, as well as plans by the California Historical Society to move into adjacent space.
Meanwhile, San Franciscans are flocking to this once-seedy area, now an oasislike complex replete with two companion buildings at its west end. One, a 755-seat theater for the performing arts, was designed by New York architect Stewart Polshek, also known for presiding over the renovation of Carnegie Hall, as well as the Ed Sullivan Theater for talk-show host David Letterman. The two-level Yerba Buena proscenium theater has a small stage (43-feet deep by 93-feet wide).
The other is a three-story gallery designed by Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki, who won this year's Pritzker Prize, considered architecture's Nobel. Three 25-foot-high gallery spaces will feature revolving theme-oriented shows and individual exhibitions, but no permanent collection.
The center's new director of the visual arts, Renny Pritikin, spent 13 years building alternative artists' space known as New Langton Arts. He earned an international reputation for presenting cutting-edge work by artists working in noncommercial forms.
``Our commitment is to support cultural production from all constituent members of the San Francisco community,'' Mr. Pritikin says. That means a broad mix of nonelitist interdisciplinary programs. ``We are trying to be ... a major institution physically and financially but with the spirit of grass roots.''
Pritikin says he sees his current mandate as two-sided. One, by putting local and California artists alongside national and international artists of greater renown, ``we will make the tacit argument that ours are just as good.''
The other side: ``Over a year or two, we will have a roster of artists that reflects the diversity of the Bay Area with equal representation among Latinos, Asians, African-Americans, and whites,'' he says.
``For the first time, local nonprofit arts groups will have available to them the same state-of-the-art production facilities usually reserved for major opera, symphony, and musical theater,'' says David Perry, communications director.
Artistic director for the performing arts, Baraka Sele, had been a vice president at the Houston International Festival since 1990 and spent seven years presenting local, national, and international artists there.
Her vision for Yerba Buena is to embrace contemporary and traditional dance, music, and theater that address a broad range of human issues with cross-generational and cross-cultural programs.
So far, performance programs have not been as well received as museum works.
``Architecturally, this building isn't kind to performers that aren't as stylish and well-turned out as it is,'' the Daily Californian reviewer wrote, commenting on October performances by a Mexican-American dance club from San Jose, a Japanese dancer, and the Oakland Ballet.
But another area paper, the Bay Area Reporter, proclaimed the inaugural arts exhibition ``In Out of the Cold'' - an eclectic gathering of visual statements on the cold war - a success: ``Much of this art is very very good.... We are met with art which testifies to the New World Order's furor of identities. Chinese, Burmese, Filipino, Chicano, African-Americans, Korean, Native American - you name the subculture, it's covered.''
Currently showing is ``Ante America,'' presenting indigenous artists from Central and South America. Unlike several major Hispanic and Latino exhibitions that have toured the US in recent years, ``Ante America'' has been curated by a Bogota-based artist.
In January, fulfilling promises of interdisciplinary programs, the center is presenting ``Great Black Music Festival'' onstage - with a string of nationally known jazz artists (World Saxophone Quartet, Foday Musa Suso, Street Sounds, John Handy) - while older African-Americans from the East Bay display and make quilts for gallerygoers next door.
Entitled, ``Models in the Mind: African Prototypes in American Patchwork,'' the quilt program will display works made using traditional methods.