Boondoggle by the Bay

Why the tacky political giveaway called Pier 39 shouldn't be used as a model for the coming redevelopment of San Francisco's waterfront

But public documents do not indicate who other partners in the Pier 39 venture are. And the spokesperson for Pier 39 is not helpful on that score.

"I can't release that information," says Pier 39's Vargas. "It's a privately held company. That's private information. When you get into partnerships, that violates the partners' confidentiality."

High above the tourists, Pier 39's president and CEO, Fred C. "Fritz" Arko, proudly presides over the world's third-most-visited tourist attraction in a corner office with large windows that provide expansive views of the bay.

"We're a family-oriented entertainment center," says Arko, a slim, tidily casual man.

"The city and the port really envisioned this the right way in terms of a master plan, an entertainment center that has wide-open spaces, view corridors, and access to the waterfront," says Arko, who came to San Francisco with the Bass-led consortium in 1981. "I was very impressed."

He should be impressed. Thanks to the city and port's "vision," Pier 39 got 65 years on the waterfront for a song, and made sure it did not have to share the bulk of its profits with the city of San Francisco.

The port's Paul Osmundson says the port is much more sophisticated about its lease agreements now. Faced with a similar situation, he says, the port would be wiser with a prospective developer.

But a recent decision by the Board of Supervisors makes the possibility of another bad deal even more likely. The supervisors have authorized changes that greatly simplify the approvals process for waterfront developers.

Under the old rules, all nonmaritime projects along the waterfront were automatically subject to public hearings before the Planning Commission. Now, businesses that want to locate on the waterfront will not, in most cases, need Planning Commission permission. The port bureaucracy will review those waterfront proposals.

"Before, you had tremendous delays and a lot of uncertainty for developers," says Osmundson. "This facilitates things for a developer."

If the city's past experience with Pier 39 and the Basses is an indicator, how facile things are for a prospective developer will depend on who that developer is -- and who he knows.

"At the staff level, we would make every effort to draft a lease that was more fair to both parties. In the event that a project like Pier 39 was successful, we would expect to share in the upside in a more significant way," says Osmundson.

"But I can't say that [the Pier 39 situation] would never happen again.

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