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Rotting on the Dock of the Bay 

The easy choice between a destitute Port Authority and acres of rotting piers, or a beautified waterfront with some hotel rooms

Wednesday, Aug 30 2006
The Port of San Francisco is preparing for a city land fire sale.

Port officials are attempting to lay the groundwork for the sale of a half-dozen lots of post-industrial warehouse land in the Potrero and Bayview neighborhoods in southeast San Francisco, as well as a few prime asphalt parking lots along the Embarcadero. Their aim: the revitalization of now closed-off and blighted downtown shoreline and repairing a strand of public piers that are rotting into the sea.

"It's a good revenue generator for the port, but also a good use of the property," said the Port's Brad Benson, who has been working with officials in San Francisco and Sacramento in an attempt to get permission to sell the land.

Simple. Right?


The Port is supposed to develop and operate our water's edge for the public's benefit, and in the process make money so that it can finance itself as an independent agency.

Yet the Port is shackled by a repair bill of more than $1 billion, an enigmatic state commission dictating what can be built near the shore, and a confused San Francisco public, which is quick to put legal and political restraints on development.

In that context, the Port's seemingly routine attempt at selling some land to pay for improving the waterfront can be seen as a desperate Hail Mary pass. It's a stab at bailing out sinking finances, and an end run designed to help keep acres of waterfront piers from crumbling into the bay. But it will take more than a few land sales to save our downtown shoreline.

A once-vibrant future envisioned for the dreary promenade between the Ferry Building and the Giants ballpark has become shipwrecked during the past few months. Proposed developments such as a women's museum at Pier 26, a cruise ship terminal at Piers 30-32, a new Exploratorium science museum at Piers 16 and 17, and a retail, office, and recreation project slated for Piers 27-31, are all uncertain until the Port figures out how to dredge up hundreds of millions of dollars for rebuilding those century-old piers.

The Port must now attempt to revive these deals by figuring out a way to pay for hundreds of millions of dollars in needed pier repairs, while convincing state and San Francisco officials to permit a mix of development that would pay for creating a waterfront that's accessible to the public.

Allowing hotels to be included as part of some of these deals might create sufficient economic incentive to resuscitate some of these projects. Sadly, a misguided 1990 San Francisco ballot measure banned hotel development from the shore. Repealing that measure would go a long way toward providing incentives to create an alluring public shoreline.

If San Franciscans don't wake up to our waterfront's dire straits soon, we're likely to wake up with our Port bankrupt, our shore-side infrastructure irreparably decayed, and no prospect of having a downtown shoreline that citizens can truly enjoy.

In my mind, an ideal stroll from my office across the street from the Giants ballpark to the Ferry Building next to the Financial District and on toward Fisherman's Wharf would be something like this: San Francisco replicates public-use-oriented projects such as the beautifully restored Ferry Building — once a dilapidated heap, but now an alluring collection of shops, offices, and open space. Such development might transform what is now a closed-off-to-the-public seashore of shabby warehouses and marginal businesses into what bay-side San Francisco ought to look like: a public promenade of parks, museums, recreational facilities, shops, apartments, hotels, and offices, with a wide band of shoreline open to the public the entire way. Shops, hotels, offices, apartments, and other urban-landscape-fortifying buildings would generate money to pay for the promenade.

And the walk between the Ferry Building and the ballpark would be as alluring as other areas of San Francisco, rather than the boring trek through industrial blight it now is.

In so doing, the financially troubled Port could right itself, and focus more on improving our shore as a public asset, and less on merely staying afloat, so to speak.

The path to such a pleasant stroll is littered with obstacles, many stemming from the unique way California has chosen over the years to govern its ocean, bay, and delta shorelines.

Under what's known as state "tidelands" law, California's shore is considered a public asset, not to be forfeited for use that benefits just a single person, a single company, or even a single city. A century ago, when the law surrounding this doctrine was evolving, maritime commerce was essential to San Francisco and other cities' economic health. So maritime and water-oriented uses were included in this public use doctrine. Further complicating matters was the fact that much of San Francisco's shoreline was filled in over the years, creating swaths of new land, some of which remained under the purview of the "public trust," as the people's right to the waters edge is known. Muddying matters more, the concept of "public use" has ebbed and flowed to the point where it's created some highly esoteric distinctions, governed by an agency called the California State Lands Commission.

The Commission allows hotels and parking lots along the shore, because the public can check in and out of them. But it takes a dim view of time-share condominiums because, well, they've been deemed somehow to be more private. Local grocery stores could also be considered verboten, because they serve the needs of a particular neighborhood instead of the people of California — unless rent from a food store happened to finance the restoration of an old shipping-oriented structure such as the Ferry Building.

For years the ferry terminal at Market and Embarcardero sat as a run-down hulk used mostly as low-rent office space. After four years of restoration, the building reopened with a first-floor marketplace of specialty shops, with office space upstairs, and an enjoyable promenade of benches, tables, and strolling space along the bay. In three years it's become a major destination for locals and visitors, and a model for what other dilapidated S.F. port facilities might become.

Instead of heralding a renaissance for the rest of the downtown shoreline, the Ferry Building proved an anomaly.

During the past three years, San Francisco downtown waterfront property has proved a developer's nightmare, a bureaucrat's career killer, and for pedestrians, simply a place to avoid.

The Port's litany of attempts to develop the waterfront reads like the efforts of the New York Nationals, hapless rivals to the Harlem Globetrotters.

Earlier this year the Mills Corporation abandoned a plan to build a $218 million retail and entertainment complex, selling its development rights to a partnership led by Shorenstein Company LLC. The company discovered what Benson says port officials already feared. Piers 27-31, built between 1915 and 1918, required massive repair, more than doubling the cost of the project.

Shorenstein got Assemblyman Mark Leno to briefly sponsor a bill that might have compelled the State Lands Commission to allow hundreds of thousands of more units of office space to be added to the project in order to pay for the repairs. The mega-office development idea was necessary, because city law doesn't allow for the possibility of hotels. The bill got nowhere, however, and will not be considered this year.

The Port had hoped income from the Piers 27-31 project could be used to pay back an $89 million bond that would fund repairs on other piers. That plan is also on hold.

A proposed cruise ship terminal for Piers 30-32 is likewise aground after the Australian firm that had won the development rights said it wanted out of the deal. According to a Sacramento Bee article, the firm, Bovis Lend Lease, suggested its rights be sold to a company owned by disgraced San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo.

That'll be a winner. Or, more likely, it won't.

The Port has campaigned to have many of its piers and buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In ordinary circumstances such a listing can be an anathema for a developer, because it limits modifications that can be made to a building. In the world of tidelands law, however, such a designation can be used as an enticement to convince state officials to permit private development whose proceeds might go toward historic maritime preservation. Tax incentives associated with historical preservation projects might make such projects more viable still.

The next step, in Port officials' minds, is to convince State Lands Commission officials that these historic areas should be given areawide blessing for redevelopment projects along the lines of the Ferry Building, instead of the current building-by-building approval slog that typically adds millions of dollars to development projects.

State Senator Carole Migden briefly carried a bill earlier this year that might have compelled the Lands Commission to take such a step. Like Leno's Shorenstein bill, that proposal, too, was soon tabled.

So the Port's left with trying to sell off assorted plots of public land left over from when the city's current shoreline was under water. That, too, might be problematic.

The first batch of unused lots the Port hopes to sell is known by the fanciful term "paper streets." These are streets that were drawn on early maps that were created by filling in the bay, but that were never actually used as streets. These various street fragments remained public land, though some were covered with buildings such as warehouses and the old PG&E Hunters Point Power Plant.

The Port has a good chance at obtaining state approval to sell these plots, Benson said.

But the Port's real prize possession, the strand of ugly parking lots along the Embarcadero's inland side, could end up frozen in time.

The Port of San Francisco would like to sell these lots to condominium developers, perhaps generating tens of millions of dollars that could theoretically go toward fixing up piers. The State Lands Commission, however, has historically seen parking lots as more beneficial to the public than housing, and may not approve such a sale.

And without such an approval, the Port, and the city, is back where it started, with a dreary, dilapidated waterfront lined with piers slumping toward the water.

That is, unless an extra bit of vigorish could be added into the development, preservation, and shoreline beautification mix.

Some of the projects that are now floundering under a cloud of pier repairs, doubtful state approval, and dubious financing might become viable if it became possible to build hotels along the waterfront.

The kibitzers who urged passage of the 1990 anti-hotel measure were right to worry about the possibility of shore-hugging high-rises that blocked the public's view of, or access to, the bay. But avoiding such a scenario is a question of architecture and planning, and not of whether a redevelopment project includes hotel rooms, offices, or some other use.

If the choice is between an ugly waterfront fronted by rotting piers and a vibrant shoreline that includes a few hotels, the decision isn't complicated at all.



About The Author

Matt Smith


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