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Wednesday, Sep 9 1998
Waterfront Downs
It's been pretty obvious for the last 2 1/2 years that our mayor, Willie Lewis Brown Jr., has turned city government into a mere extension of his will. Toward what ends his will tends has also become fairly apparent, if not always provable in a court of law. Still, I was a little disgusted to view, upfront and uglylike, the odious Brown machine in action at a late-August meeting of the San Francisco Port Commission.

The commission was deciding whether to apply for $2 million in federal money to build a ferry landing for the benefit of the San Francisco Giants and their new China Basin ballpark. And all I can say is I wish the Giants could execute such sure play on the field as they did before the Port Commission, because the commission is going to give the team its ferry -- even though the plan the commissioners heard should have been sunk on first sight.

The port is leasing the Giants land for the new ballpark, which is already the recipient of vast sums of sub rosa government subsidies, at very reasonable terms. But the Giants, being the Giants, always seem to want more. Now, they also want a ferry to deliver fans to the ballpark. Because the Giants want, the Port responded, sending out a request for proposals -- that is, an invitation to submit development plans -- to all the usual suspects who might want to develop a ferry landing at the ballpark. And no one replied. Everyone took a pass.

Everyone, that is, except the San Francisco Giants.
Actually, that's not quite right. The Giants responded to the Port's request, however the response wasn't a proposal, but an absurd non-proposal, a suggestion that San Francisco take $500,000 of city Redevelopment Agency bond money and build a "temporary" ferry landing. The Giants also suggested in their "proposal" that the city run and maintain the facility.

This proposal should have seemed strange to the Port commissioners. When a request for proposals goes out to the private sector, after all, it is an invitation to private businesses to become active participants in a government project. The project may involve government money or government assets, but the private business making a "proposal" usually has to propose to do something.

This time, though, it was as if the Giants took the Port's invitation and sent it back with a note saying, "Ah, you guys do it; we just want to sit back and make money."

This somewhat self-interested non-response might have piqued the curiosity of some governmental appointees. Sentient Port commissioners could have called Jack Bair, the Giants' veep, and asked him whether the team was joking, or just too busy with the pennant race to focus on unimportant matters such as multimillion-dollar ferries.

Or the commissioners could have asked their staff why none of the area's ferry companies showed any interest at all in the project.

Or they could have asked the experts who study such things whether there was any real need for ferries to the very door of the ballpark.

Actually, come to think of it, almost any response would have been preferable to the glazed, stroke-victim glares with which Commissioners Mike Hardeman, Denise McCarthy, and Kimberly Bradon met this non-proposing proposal. But these are Willie Brown's commissioners, and, apparently, curiosity is not an attribute Mr. Brown esteems in his appointees.

I left the Port Commission hearing full of unanswered questions. The next day, I began to ask them.

A small part of me wanted to have my suspicions dissipated. That small part of me wanted to hear that the ferry was going to serve not just the baseball park, but a large area of the city; that studies showed many passengers besides baseball fans -- workers in the South of Market area, for instance -- would use the ferry; that, somehow, someway, it made sense to spend public funds on a ferry landing at the ballpark.

Unfortunately for that small part of me, Paul Osmundson, director of planning and development for the Port, is an honest man. Osmundson confirmed what studies have shown: There is no real demand for a ferry landing at the ballpark. No de-mand whatsoever. There might be a demand in a decade, Osmundson said. But that's a might.

The lack of demand for a ferry to China Basin Channel, Osmundson surmised, is one reason the merged ferry company of Red and White and Blue and Gold did not respond to the call by the Port for bidders. That lack of prospective passengers is also, probably, a reason the Port's request for proposals did not draw a submission from Willie Brown's pal, former law client, and current business partner, Ron Cowan, and his ferry service, Harbor Bay Maritime.

The reason no one who does ferries for a living answered the Port's request for ferry proposals is because building a ferry landing at the ballpark has no basis in business reality.

The ferry the Port and the city are trying to build will serve no one but the Giants -- and the Giants don't even really need the service. The ferry proposed for the ballpark will carry an estimated 1,200 people to and from each of the team's 81 home games, and will run only during the baseball season. But there are plenty of ferries already in service that could take fans to the Ferry Building at the foot of Market Street -- all of a mile from the Giants' new stadium. Without the government spending a new dime, fans could walk out of the Ferry Building and take the most beautiful Municipal Railway ride in the city -- on a brand-new line that glides quickly along the waterfront to the entrance of the stadium.

The ride takes about five minutes.
But for the Port commissioners -- appointees and loyal servants of our esteemed mayor -- five minutes is too long. For them, cutting five minutes of travel time is worth $2 million in tax money. For them, making sure that the wealthy owners of a professional baseball team are as certain as possible of making a profit is a civic duty far more important than determining whether government funds are being dumped in the bay by the bucketful.

About The Author

George Cothran


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