Two views of the waterfront - Page 2

Controversial developments proposed for Port of San Francisco property trigger public debate about who should control the city's valuable edge

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"We're clearly in a period of significant controversy," the Port's Special Project Manager Brad Benson told us. The Warriors Arena, Benson said, had been an opportunity for the Port to rehabilitate and generate revenue from Piers 30-32, which originated as two finger piers constructed in 1912, joined by a concrete slab in the 1950s.

Despite being in control of some of the most valuable real estate along the West Coast, the Port of San Francisco remains in a perpetual financial pinch, due to its need to fix up crumbling piers and aging infrastructure. The Port is governed by a Waterfront Land Use Plan, outlining possible uses for each parcel, and it also conducted a survey to identify properties that could be developed to help generate revenue.

"The Port has a big capital need," Benson said, noting that many of the "piers and buildings were beyond their useful life when they were transferred to the city" from the state in 1968. Facing nearly $2 billion in capital needs, the Port's modus operandi is to seek out private developers to partner with on development projects for parcels under its ownership, in order to secure funding that would go toward backlogged improvements.

That didn't happen with the Warriors, however — the sports team approached the city out of the blue, and the project quickly won the fervent backing of Mayor Lee, who has appointment power over the five-member commission that governs the Port. At one point, Lee even claimed that this flashy sports arena would be his "legacy project."

To longtime grassroots activists who are deeply involved in how land-use decisions are made on valuable waterfront parcels, it looked to be yet another example of what Prop. B supporter Jennifer Clary called "kneejerk development" — out of sync with carefully thought out shoreline planning efforts.

"The Port gets jerked around by every mayor," said Clary, president of San Francisco Tomorrow, part of the coalition backing Prop. B. "Every mayor comes up with some stupid project." She ticked off a list of failed waterfront developments (such as Mills Mall, proposed for Piers 27-31; and a 50-story U.S. Steel Building that would have towered over the Ferry Building), only to have them voted down or halted by grassroots neighborhood activists who viewed them as inappropriate designs fueled by greed and greased by political connections.

Behind the objection to Prop. B, Clary added, "is that the mayor will have to think a little more" before backing projects of this nature.

Whether opponents of the Warriors Arena plan looked at it and saw a traffic nightmare, an inappropriate use of public land, or a bad financial deal for a city needing to contend with ever-growing pressures on its critical infrastructure, members of the coalition that's backing Prop. B feared the public would have little sway when it came to the final decision-making. A bid to restore that balance, by arming voters with veto power under the law, was the impetus behind Prop. B.

City Hall has ignored the will of regular folks who collectively own Port land along the shoreline, said Agnos, campaign consultant Jon Golinger, and Prop. B proponent and Sierra Club volunteer Becky Evans — listening only to the Mayor's Office and deep-pocketed developers who stand to make millions by building on extremely valuable land that's held in the public trust under California law.

"The people are putting the developers in touch with the values of this city, and what we want in this city," Agnos said, thumping his index finger on the table to emphasize the point. "Prop. B puts people in the room who have not been there, and now [developers] have to pay attention."