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San Francisco's New Cool Family Spots

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. -- Forget Fisherman's Wharf. Leave the tourists behind, grab the kids and head directly to the roof of the Moscone Convention Center.

That's right. The roof in this formerly decaying neighborhood south of Market Street is now the coolest place in town for families. The Rooftop at Yerba Buena Gardens, built atop the Moscone Center (at the corner of Fourth and Howard streets) is home to Zeum, the unique 34,000-square-foot arts center designed specifically for the 8-to-18 crowd. Here kids can create their own art, using state-of-the-art technology, staying all day for just $5. (Parents pay $7.)

This has to be the best family bargain in San Francisco. ``We hope we serve as a model for other cities,'' said Zeum director David Dial. More than 10 years in the making, the not-for-profit Zeum was founded as the centerpiece of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency's pledge to develop an entire city block for families. The city has pumped $56 million here, its biggest commitment ever to children and their parents.

Just outside, there's an indoor ice skating rink, bowling alley, the historic restored Charles Looff 1906 carousel that came from San Francisco's former Playland-at-the-Beach. That's not even counting the garden and playground, complete with maze, water-play area and robotic sculpture that moves to greet young visitors and their parents. Wow!

``This is a great addition to San Francisco for families,'' agreed an enthusiastic Mark Levin, who lives nearby and was visiting with his daughter for the first time.

So is Metreon, directly across the street (at Fourth and Mission streets) and another urban first. It's Sony's gargantuan 350,000-square-foot entertainment complex complete with enough cutting-edge attractions, movies, shops and restaurants to keep everyone in the family busy and, more important, happy for hours.

All of this development is making this Yerba Buena neighborhood San Francisco's new center for the fusion of technology and art. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is nearby. So is the Cartoon Art Museum and the Ansel Adams Center for Photography. Jewish and Mexican American museums are now being planned, along with hotel, retail and residential development.

Just opened in June, Metreon already is drawing 20,000 people a day, surpassing expectations, said general manager Kari Novatney. ``We want to be a safe haven in the city, a place families want to come back to again and again,'' she said.

Kids literally can step inside the pages of Maurice Sendak's ``Where the Wild Things Are,'' racing through the magical forest, down the tree slide, straddling giant blocks, making the 17-foot-tall Wild Thing roll his eyes or open his mouth. (For $7 for adults and $5 for children and seniors, families may return to the huge playspace all day long.)

Everyone will like meeting author David Macaulay at his workshop (via video ``teleconference'') where he explains ``The Way Way Things Work'' -- with the help of his Woolly Mammoths and Villagers. (Adults, $7; kids, $5.)

Older kids will beg for more time to play 3-D games at the Airtight Garage, based on the world of Jean Giraud, better known to his fans as Moebius. (It costs $1 for every 100 points.)

There's also the chance to try out the newest PlayStation games, hear the latest CD or take in one of 15 movies -- including San Francisco's first IMAX screen.

No one will go hungry, either. There are eight restaurants to choose from, including one inspired by Sendak's ``In the Night Kitchen,'' where kids can decorate their own cupcakes and order ``Mouse Nibbles'' (apples and cheese), while mom and dad take their pick of decidedly more adult fare, such as Chinese chicken salad or a barbecue sandwich. Watch for free hands-on arts workshops that are held here.

Metreon is the place to see how brilliantly cutting-edge technology can entertain us. But Zeum is where we can watch how brilliantly our children can use that technology to create their own vision.

Zeum is for kids who have outgrown children's discovery centers and may be turned off by traditional art museums. ``They can come here and express themselves,'' Zeum's director Dial explains. ``This is like going to a museum and creating your own works of art.''

In the Learning Lab, for example, budding Web designers were working at 22 computers, designing their own pages and crazy characters, while in the artist studio, the children and their parents were bent over clay sculptures or sketching figures on a digital easel. The best part: They used video technology to animate their creations.

A group of youngsters in the Production Lab, meanwhile, were busily producing a movie about a group of time travelers. The kids were actors and cameramen, mixing sound effects and creating graphics. After less than an hour's effort, even the kids were impressed with their finished product. Parents, me included, were stunned at what they'd been able to accomplish with the help of young Zeum masters who guided them through the project.

Teens aren't left out of this artistic equation, either. There's a huge exhibition gallery that showcases their collaborations with established artists as well as a media gallery to view their filmworks ``in the round.'' The theater offers films and live performances, from dance to storytelling, especially for young people.

``This is much better than the usual tourist stuff,'' said Bronwen Felesina, who was visiting with two children. My 8-year-old Melanie certainly agreed. After an afternoon at Zeum and an evening at Metreon, I was beat. But we hadn't even made it back to the car before she was asking when we could come back.

(Public transportation and parking are nearby. Call Zeum at 415-777-2800 or www.zeum.org. Call Metreon at 415-369-6000 or www.metreon.com.

(c) 1999, Eileen Ogintz. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate


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