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How Chris Daly saved San Francisco from a bad America's Cup deal 

Wednesday, Feb 2 2011

Port official Jonathan Stern talks as fast as he walks, and pocket-size Mayor Ed Lee struggled to keep up both verbally and physically. During a media show-and-tell late last month, Stern played the role of supercharged Realtor, explaining to the new mayor how a series of functional — at best — Port facilities will soon be transformed into the glistening center of the 34th America's Cup by 2013. Two phrases passed Stern's lips with regularity: "Our current vision" and "tear this down."

Lee was enthused. It'd be impossible not to be; a crisper and more beautiful morning to showcase San Francisco's northern waterfront could not be conceived. When it came to hosting the Cup, "not only did San Francisco make the right decision," said Lee, with the bay as his glistening backdrop, "the world made the right decision."

Former District 6 Supervisor Chris Daly was not among the scrum of elected officials and politicos assembled at Pier 27 to politely applaud Lee's words. It'd be unthinkable for the caustic former supervisor to be there. And yet, without him, no one else would be there, either.

It's hard to find anybody in this city with a neutral position on Daly. He is loved or he is hated: Were he to praise the use of water, a good portion of San Franciscans would reconsider bathing. His reputation as a black belt of boorishness was cemented in the waning days of his tenure last month, when he and other progressives were ambushed by the moderate political machinations that led to Lee's anointment as mayor. This inspired one last epic tirade from Daly — and it was volcanic by even his lofty standards. The termed-out supervisor lumbered across the board chamber to curse out his colleagues, capping the escapade by snarling, "It's on like Donkey Kong" at president David Chiu, a Lee ally. For a man who left public office on Jan. 8 after 10 years in the public eye, it was an unfortunate final act; one-upping T.S. Eliot, Daly went out with a bang and a whimper.

Yet Daly's true goodbye gift to this city — apart from inspiring a Donkey Kong revival — was countering former Mayor Gavin Newsom's Ahab-like drive to land the America's Cup and ram through a high-priced deal before decamping to his new job in Sacramento.

In doing so, Daly undermined an inferior pact centered on Pier 50, adjacent to AT&T Park on the central waterfront. Upfront city losses alone on that deal were subsequently pegged at some $58 million, with nearly that much again probably gone over the coming decades via land giveaways. The arrangement now in place, headquartered at Pier 27, lessens the land handed to Oracle CEO and yachting billionaire Larry Ellison from 35 to roughly 20 acres. Shrinking the Cup's footprint — largely by taking Pier 50 off the table — will save the city a considerable sum. Under the northern waterfront plan, San Francisco is expected to lose around $12 million in the near term — but that money could be made back, and then some, down the road.

Daly is best known for his tub-thumping bellicosity — and there was plenty of that, as he used the bully pulpit of his office to belittle the initial America's Cup deal to anyone who'd listen (and many who wouldn't). While his style often leaves much to be desired, the substance of Daly's arguments couldn't be ignored.

"I will give real credit to Chris Daly for raising the cost issues of the central waterfront option," says Chiu, the subject of Daly's ire. Chiu, who contends Daly "blew up that deal," continues: "The conversation Supervisor Daly started absolutely helped save the city money." Sans Daly, Supervisor John Avalos says, "I expect we would have had a really bad deal go through."

And yet Daly made the pertinent financial questions he raised about Pier 50 easier to brush aside — by being Chris Daly. "Threats, tantrums, angry outbursts against the mayor and his fellow supervisors — sadly, it's just another normal day with Chris Daly at the Board of Supervisors," mayoral spokesman Tony Winnicker opined after the supervisor questioned the initial deal. The misgivings Daly expressed publicly, however, were those a number of his colleagues harbored privately — or would come to, once the numbers were vetted. Crucially, it was Daly who tasked the Board of Supervisors' budget analyst to reveal those sums.

While numerous City Hall officials have told SF Weekly that Port of San Francisco staffers were appalled by the push to give away huge swaths of the central waterfront to Ellison, Port officials were publicly onboard with the initial plan. San Francisco, it turned out, needed someone who didn't give a damn about his political future. Someone unaffected by the pageantry of hosting a world-renowned sailing spectacle. Someone immune to the giddy contagion of America's Cup fever. Someone to serve as a civic party pooper who'd hammer the bottom line. In short, San Francisco needed an asshole — and one with clout.

Daly was qualified for that.

When you mention how remarkably well the America's Cup ordeal has ostensibly turned out, city officials involuntarily reach for a section of wood to knock. Rather than the initial cost-heavy arrangement centered on Mission Bay — a bleak neighborhood pockmarked by iterations of the structure on the Stolichnaya bottle — the city is sitting pretty along the northern waterfront.

While the Pier 50 deal would have eviscerated Port finances and siphoned scores of millions of dollars out of the city's general fund, the current deal pencils out alarmingly well for all parties involved — at least, the version everyone signed in mid-December. The city's upfront losses are estimated by the budget analyst and controller to be between $11.9 million and $13.3 million, respectively. The budget analyst predicts the city will barely make back that money over the next seven decades, while the controller foresees a profit of nearly $24 million. The price tag for the Event Authority, the organization Ellison formed to oversee the race, is greatly reduced as well. Its outlay might be as little as $55 million in infrastructure costs, down from some $150 million required for the prior plan (this money will be reimbursed by the city as time goes by — but that was included in the number-crunchers' analyses).

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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