Rotting on the Dock of the Bay

The easy choice between a destitute Port Authority and acres of rotting piers, or a beautified waterfront with some hotel rooms

The Port of San Francisco is preparing for a city land fire sale.

Port officials are attempting to lay the groundwork for the sale of a half-dozen lots of post-industrial warehouse land in the Potrero and Bayview neighborhoods in southeast San Francisco, as well as a few prime asphalt parking lots along the Embarcadero. Their aim: the revitalization of now closed-off and blighted downtown shoreline and repairing a strand of public piers that are rotting into the sea.

"It's a good revenue generator for the port, but also a good use of the property," said the Port's Brad Benson, who has been working with officials in San Francisco and Sacramento in an attempt to get permission to sell the land.

Simple. Right?


The Port is supposed to develop and operate our water's edge for the public's benefit, and in the process make money so that it can finance itself as an independent agency.

Yet the Port is shackled by a repair bill of more than $1 billion, an enigmatic state commission dictating what can be built near the shore, and a confused San Francisco public, which is quick to put legal and political restraints on development.

In that context, the Port's seemingly routine attempt at selling some land to pay for improving the waterfront can be seen as a desperate Hail Mary pass. It's a stab at bailing out sinking finances, and an end run designed to help keep acres of waterfront piers from crumbling into the bay. But it will take more than a few land sales to save our downtown shoreline.

A once-vibrant future envisioned for the dreary promenade between the Ferry Building and the Giants ballpark has become shipwrecked during the past few months. Proposed developments such as a women's museum at Pier 26, a cruise ship terminal at Piers 30-32, a new Exploratorium science museum at Piers 16 and 17, and a retail, office, and recreation project slated for Piers 27-31, are all uncertain until the Port figures out how to dredge up hundreds of millions of dollars for rebuilding those century-old piers.

The Port must now attempt to revive these deals by figuring out a way to pay for hundreds of millions of dollars in needed pier repairs, while convincing state and San Francisco officials to permit a mix of development that would pay for creating a waterfront that's accessible to the public.

Allowing hotels to be included as part of some of these deals might create sufficient economic incentive to resuscitate some of these projects. Sadly, a misguided 1990 San Francisco ballot measure banned hotel development from the shore. Repealing that measure would go a long way toward providing incentives to create an alluring public shoreline.

If San Franciscans don't wake up to our waterfront's dire straits soon, we're likely to wake up with our Port bankrupt, our shore-side infrastructure irreparably decayed, and no prospect of having a downtown shoreline that citizens can truly enjoy.

In my mind, an ideal stroll from my office across the street from the Giants ballpark to the Ferry Building next to the Financial District and on toward Fisherman's Wharf would be something like this: San Francisco replicates public-use-oriented projects such as the beautifully restored Ferry Building — once a dilapidated heap, but now an alluring collection of shops, offices, and open space. Such development might transform what is now a closed-off-to-the-public seashore of shabby warehouses and marginal businesses into what bay-side San Francisco ought to look like: a public promenade of parks, museums, recreational facilities, shops, apartments, hotels, and offices, with a wide band of shoreline open to the public the entire way. Shops, hotels, offices, apartments, and other urban-landscape-fortifying buildings would generate money to pay for the promenade.

And the walk between the Ferry Building and the ballpark would be as alluring as other areas of San Francisco, rather than the boring trek through industrial blight it now is.

In so doing, the financially troubled Port could right itself, and focus more on improving our shore as a public asset, and less on merely staying afloat, so to speak.

The path to such a pleasant stroll is littered with obstacles, many stemming from the unique way California has chosen over the years to govern its ocean, bay, and delta shorelines.

Under what's known as state "tidelands" law, California's shore is considered a public asset, not to be forfeited for use that benefits just a single person, a single company, or even a single city. A century ago, when the law surrounding this doctrine was evolving, maritime commerce was essential to San Francisco and other cities' economic health. So maritime and water-oriented uses were included in this public use doctrine. Further complicating matters was the fact that much of San Francisco's shoreline was filled in over the years, creating swaths of new land, some of which remained under the purview of the "public trust," as the people's right to the waters edge is known. Muddying matters more, the concept of "public use" has ebbed and flowed to the point where it's created some highly esoteric distinctions, governed by an agency called the California State Lands Commission.

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