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The Next Big Thing: Should the People Control the Fate of the Waterfront? 

Wednesday, Feb 12 2014

Page 4 of 5

How much happier everything seemed on a serene May morning in 2012, when the city and Warriors held a joint press conference on Piers 30-32. No expense was spared. Delicious coffee was dispensed from shiny tureens (with real cream!) and a platoon of laborers was deployed to place shrubberies at strategically desirable locations. Warriors co-owner Peter Guber assured the gathered luminaries, "We will play here in 2017. Take that as a promise we're going to fulfill. We're all-in."

Earlier this month, it was revealed that a peer-reviewed analysis of the substructure costs for Piers 30-32 pegged the bill at $180 million — at least $60 million higher than the figure being bandied about over coffee and shrubberies two years ago. The cost floated in 2011, when the city and Port endeavored to gift Piers 30-32 to yachting billionaire Larry Ellison prior to the America's Cup, was $91.5 million.

This, again, is the amount of money that would have to be spent before money could start being spent on an arena. Of this, the city would be on the hook for $120 million to revitalize a derelict pier whose mere removal would require an estimated $45 million. An earlier proposal for this sum to be saddled with a 13 percent interest rate will be nixed, per a city player, because "we couldn't find any way to explain it that didn't make it incendiary."

Warriors brass this month revealed a 2017 tip-off was, in actuality, a promise that they would not fulfill. That's an unpleasant development for Mayor Ed Lee, who also opted to go all-in. Referring to a waterfront megadevelopment that existed only in the mind of a watercolorist as "my legacy project" was, to put it mildly, regrettable. Lashing oneself, Ahab-like, to a waterfront proposal will, more than likely, get you drowned; there is no shortage of failed San Francisco waterfront projects and disappointed mayors. Lee also ruptured even the veneer of city oversight and impartiality. (The Giants, SF Weekly is again told, are displeased.)

Somewhat ironically considering the organizations involved, major developers aren't often team players. This, too, bodes poorly for Lee. Barring a lawsuit against the city — which certified the measure — or other unforeseen craziness, even fervent arena backers within the mayor's camp predict the June height-limit initiative "is absolutely gonna pass." This could trigger a mad dash for the Warriors, Giants, and Forest City to win voter approval of their individual projects by rushing their own measures into the following election, while clambering over one another like crabs in a barrel.

Lee's beaming visage was emblazoned on the campaign mailers flogging the 8 Washington project, a proposed tower of multimillion-dollar condos he jarringly referred to as "neighborhood housing." The mayor's whiskers were singed when 67 percent of the electorate spurned his entreaties and, in the months since, he's been singing a different tune. Lee has railed against Ellis Act evictions, pushed for construction of thousands of affordable housing units, and urged a healthy spike in the minimum wage. The mayor's office insists this was his existing agenda. But not everyone buys that: "They're running scared," says SF State professor emeritus Rich DeLeon, the dean of Bay Area political scientists.

So, being forced to weigh in on not one, not two, but potentially three simultaneous megadevelopment ballot measures in a city where voters are, evidently, growing wary of the specter of overdevelopment hardly fits Lee's preferred narrative. He, too, has a pending return date with the electorate.

With a slim, three-page ballot measure and a $75,000 stake from donors Richard and Barbara Stewart, waterfront height-limit advocates have managed to make plenty of trouble. And the fun appears to just be starting: City sources now say it might be advisable to bifurcate the Warriors' project, holding off on the condos, hotel, and retail center planned across the Embarcadero on Seawall Lot 330.

Or, perhaps, it's time for the city to abandon plans to erect a stadium atop a crumbling pier — a scheme even onetime stalwarts now refer to as "precarious at best" — and seriously explore the possibility of shoehorning a less magnificent but far cheaper and more feasible arena onto Lot A behind AT&T Park.

Either of these scenarios would be a capitulation to development foes. Waterfront Alliance shot-caller Jon Golinger assures that having voters weigh in on every significant waterfront development will guarantee "better projects." This, again, resonates with those who feel the process has been corrupted. But it also depends upon your definition of "better."

Turning over control of development to the voters means that obscenely complex and involved deals will be distilled into a simple up-or-down vote based solely on one criteria — height — and subject to political sloganeering. Additional time and uncertainty would be baked into a process already featuring plenty of both. Politicians, neighborhood groups, kingmakers, and power-brokers hoping to extract every last drop of juice from developers would wield that much more leverage.

As would those hoping to stave off development altogether. Golinger has proposed the Port issue bonds to preserve waterfront open space — a novel idea, but one that would put the cash-strapped agency deeper into debt in order to not build anything and not generate revenue.

In the meantime, broad swaths of the waterfront continue to decay. Hard-won public access to the area ensures everyone an unimpeded view of this.

Art Agnos didn't think twice when he leaped from a friend's car and half-walked, half-dragged that drug addict out of the street. Once out of harm's way, the man threatened to take a swing at Agnos and demanded $100. (He got $5.)

The one-term mayor smiles. Perhaps it was a fitting denouement for a man whose proudest legacy got him voted out of office. No good deed goes unpunished.

Agnos insists he's not running for mayor in the strongest possible terms. Instead, he explains his anti-arena barnstorming tour by neatly dovetailing his personal narrative with his chosen city's: He's a first-generation American and second-generation shoeshine boy who supported his family from age 15 after his father died, and showed up in San Francisco in 1966 in a Greyhound bus. It was a city of possibilities then. Agnos made the most of them.

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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