Indicator city - Page 4

If cutting edge San Francisco can't meet the challenge of climate change and related environmental issues, are we all doomed?


"We told the mayor before it was even announced that it is not a legal use of the pier," Lewis said, arguing it violated state law preserving the waterfront for maritime and public uses. "There's no reason that an arena has to be out on the water on a crumbling pier."

But Brad Benson and Diana Oshima, who work on waterfront planning issue for the Port of San Francisco, say that most of San Francisco's shoreline was hardened almost a century ago, and that most of the planning for how to use it has already been done.

"You have a few seawall lots and a few piers that could be development sites, but not many. Do we need a whole plan for that?" Benson said, while Oshima praises the proactive transportation planning work now underway: "There has never been this level of land use and transportation planning at such an early stage."

The Bay Conservation and Development Commission was founded almost 50 years ago to regulate development in and around the Bay, when the concern was mostly about the bay shrinking as San Francisco and other cities dumped fill along the shoreline to build San Francisco International Airport, much of the Financial District, and other expansive real estate plans.

Now, the mission of the agency has flipped.

"Instead of the bay getting smaller, the bay is getting larger with this thing called sea level rise," BCDC Executive Director Larry Goldspan said as we took in the commanding view of the water from his office at 50 California Street.

A few years ago, as the climate change predictions kept worsening, the mission of BCDC began to focus on that new reality. "How do we create a resilient shoreline and protect assets?" was how Goldspan put it, noting that few simply accept the inundation that BCDC's sea level rise maps predict. "Nobody is talking about retreating from SFO, or Oakland Airport, or BART."

That means Bay Area cities will have to accept softening parts of the shoreline — allowing for more tidal marshes and open space that can accept flooding in order to harden, or protect, other critical areas. The rising water has to go somewhere.

"Is there a way to use natural infrastructure to soften the effect of sea level rises?" Goldspan asked. "I don't know that there are, but you have to use every tool in the smartest way to deal with this challenge."

And San Francisco seems to be holding firm on increased development — in an area that isn't adequately protected. "The seawall is part of the historic district that the Port established, but now we're learning the seawall is too short," Goldspan said.

BCDC requires San Francisco to remove a pier or other old landfill every time it reinforces or rebuilds a pier, on a one-to-one basis. So Oshima said the district is now studying what it can remove to make up for the work that was done to shore up Piers 23-27, which will become a new cruise ship terminal once the America's Cup finishes using it a staging ground this summer.

Yet essentially giving up valuable waterfront real estate isn't easy for any city, and cities have both autonomy and a motivation to thrive under existing economic realities. "California has a history of local control. Cities are strong," Goldspan said, noting that sustainability may require sacrifice. "It will be a policy discussion at the city level. It's a new discussion, and we're just in the early stages."



Global capitalism either grows or dies. Some modern economists argue otherwise — that a sustainable future with a mature, stable economy is possible. But that takes a huge leap of faith — and it may be the only way to avoid catastrophic climate change.

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