The Port Commission has approved a proposal by the America’s Cup Organizing Committee (ACOC) to sell bricks, benches, and other assets at Pier 27 to offset budget shortfalls, but community activists fear that corporate naming rights are undermining plans for a public recreation space.
A presentation at the Tuesday meeting by Kyri McClellan, the former city staffer who now serves as CEO of the ACOC, and Mike Martin of the Office of Economic and Workforce Development outlined the sale of up to 1,000 bricks to be set in pathways and 72 benches to dot the Northeast Wharf Plaza, which will bear the names of donors. Benches will be priced at $25,000, which McClellan cited as the going rate at other high-profile locations throughout the city.
McClellan emphasized that “none of what we’re proposing today as a pilot program includes what may previously have been alluded to as naming rights for this particular park, the piers, or the buildings.”
Milo Hanke and Alex Walker of San Francisco Beautiful, a local advocacy organization, didn’t have a problem with the smaller scale elements of the ACOC proposal. “The tiles and the bricks that are being offered here for $150, $300, for instance,” Hanke told the crowd, “that’s a gratifying opportunity for ordinary citizens who have already invested in our port to volunteer to express additional support for this proud port.”
But Hanke and Walker expressed concern about bigger ticket items that McClellan addressed with less specificity. “We want to make sure that this is a thing that’s going to be place-making and not place-taking,” commented Walker.
In addition to bricks and benches, the wharf’s lawn and adjacent walkway, an open plaza area, and a point at the pier’s end are earmarked for recognition of donors. So too are an event space and an exterior concourse on the second floor of the James R. Herman Passenger Cruise Terminal, slated to open at Pier 27 next spring.
“Corporate naming rights,” explained Hanke, “come with an intangible cost and I think that, given San Franciscans’ historic aversion to excess commercialization of our public realm, corporate naming rights are well worth taking a bypass on.”
Diagrams presented by ACOC did not include detailed renderings of larger donor fulfillments or clarification as to whether recognition would be restricted to individual and foundational donors and off limits to more commercial interests. “There is concern,” said Hanke, “of a creeping naming rights program if large areas are named for corporations.”
Pulling in $500,000 to $2.5 million a piece, however, bigger structures may be the revenue drivers ACOC is desperately seeking. As part of its host agreement with San Francisco, the organization is obligated to help offset the city’s expenses incurred in event preparations and operations.
Luckily, the race’s outsized budget is expected to be less than the $32 million originally projected, due to the paltry number of teams competing (four at last count) and the resulting decrease in spectatorship. Still, the ACOC needs to come up with as much as $20 million – a debt burden that’s got Mayor Ed Lee personally stumping in the fundraising effort. The fundraising flop belies early promises that the city would make money hosting the event.
San Francisco voters approved Proposition B last November, authorizing the city to apply public funds towards repairs and redevelopment of recreational spaces. The fact that the Northeast Wharf Plaza was a named site in that bond measure isn’t the only reason community activists are demanding to know what assets on its piers are being auctioned off and who’s buying them.
According to Jon Golinger, a spokesman for the Northeast Waterfront Advisory Group, the San Francisco Waterfront Special Area Plan limited development on the Pier 27 plaza until a 2000 amendment lifted port restrictions in exchange for guarantees of public recreation areas.
Since then, “we’ve been paying close attention to this park. It’s particularly needed and a long time coming,” explained Golinger, who said there’s been no citizen review of the ACOC’s donor recognition program proposal.
Neighborhood organizations hope ACOC’s tag sale of infrastructure doesn’t torpedo use plans for land long ago promised as a public recreation area. Golinger would like to see features like a kids’ play area, a dog run, and exercise equipment for seniors included in the final design – whether or not they are lucrative to race organizers now.
“After the Cup is done in October, it should look, feel, and be used like a true public park,” Golinger said of the plaza. “This corner of town is the most densely packed part of San Francisco with the fewest recreation areas per capita…. [the plaza] should be part of the neighborhood as opposed to a corporate event venue.”
The promise of infrastructure improvements was one reason the city of San Francisco agreed to host the America’s Cup race in the first place. Residents are now left to hope that ACOC won’t forgo investments of lasting civic value for single-use vanity projects intended to float its budget deficit.
Concluding the discussion of the ACOC’s proposal on Tuesday, Port Commissioner Leslie Katz offered assurances that, “we’ll definitely oversee and be mindful of the aesthetics of anything going forward… This is not a selling off of the port, but really an opportunity to thank and acknowledge those that have allowed us to move forward.”
This opportunity, of course, assumes that donors actually surface. Mayoral spokesperson Christine Falvey said, “We will learn from [this] effort about how we can raise private dollars to improve our waterfront and engage city residents in the effort.”
If ACOC’s efforts to court private dollars from city residents aren’t fruitful, however, taxpayers-turned-debt-collectors may have no option but to sign former District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin’s online petition  and to demand that America’s Cup billionaire defending champion Larry Ellison pick up the tab for his boat race all by himself.