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 Commission allows hotels and parking lots along the shore, because the public can check in and out of them. But it takes a dim view of time-share condominiums because, well, they've been deemed somehow to be more private. Local grocery stores could also be considered verboten, because they serve the needs of a particular neighborhood instead of the people of California — unless rent from a food store happened to finance the restoration of an old shipping-oriented structure such as the Ferry Building.

For years the ferry terminal at Market and Embarcardero sat as a run-down hulk used mostly as low-rent office space. After four years of restoration, the building reopened with a first-floor marketplace of specialty shops, with office space upstairs, and an enjoyable promenade of benches, tables, and strolling space along the bay. In three years it's become a major destination for locals and visitors, and a model for what other dilapidated S.F. port facilities might become.

Instead of heralding a renaissance for the rest of the downtown shoreline, the Ferry Building proved an anomaly.

During the past three years, San Francisco downtown waterfront property has proved a developer's nightmare, a bureaucrat's career killer, and for pedestrians, simply a place to avoid.

The Port's litany of attempts to develop the waterfront reads like the efforts of the New York Nationals, hapless rivals to the Harlem Globetrotters.

Earlier this year the Mills Corporation abandoned a plan to build a $218 million retail and entertainment complex, selling its development rights to a partnership led by Shorenstein Company LLC. The company discovered what Benson says port officials already feared. Piers 27-31, built between 1915 and 1918, required massive repair, more than doubling the cost of the project.

Shorenstein got Assemblyman Mark Leno to briefly sponsor a bill that might have compelled the State Lands Commission to allow hundreds of thousands of more units of office space to be added to the project in order to pay for the repairs. The mega-office development idea was necessary, because city law doesn't allow for the possibility of hotels. The bill got nowhere, however, and will not be considered this year.

The Port had hoped income from the Piers 27-31 project could be used to pay back an $89 million bond that would fund repairs on other piers. That plan is also on hold.

A proposed cruise ship terminal for Piers 30-32 is likewise aground after the Australian firm that had won the development rights said it wanted out of the deal. According to a Sacramento Bee article, the firm, Bovis Lend Lease, suggested its rights be sold to a company owned by disgraced San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo.

That'll be a winner. Or, more likely, it won't.

The Port has campaigned to have many of its piers and buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In ordinary circumstances such a listing can be an anathema for a developer, because it limits modifications that can be made to a building. In the world of tidelands law, however, such a designation can be used as an enticement to convince state officials to permit private development whose proceeds might go toward historic maritime preservation. Tax incentives associated with historical preservation projects might make such projects more viable still.

The next step, in Port officials' minds, is to convince State Lands Commission officials that these historic areas should be given areawide blessing for redevelopment projects along the lines of the Ferry Building, instead of the current building-by-building approval slog that typically adds millions of dollars to development projects.

State Senator Carole Migden briefly carried a bill earlier this year that might have compelled the Lands Commission to take such a step. Like Leno's Shorenstein bill, that proposal, too, was soon tabled.

So the Port's left with trying to sell off assorted plots of public land left over from when the city's current shoreline was under water. That, too, might be problematic.

The first batch of unused lots the Port hopes to sell is known by the fanciful term "paper streets." These are streets that were drawn on early maps that were created by filling in the bay, but that were never actually used as streets. These various street fragments remained public land, though some were covered with buildings such as warehouses and the old PG&E Hunters Point Power Plant.

The Port has a good chance at obtaining state approval to sell these plots, Benson said.

But the Port's real prize possession, the strand of ugly parking lots along the Embarcadero's inland side, could end up frozen in time.

The Port of San Francisco would like to sell these lots to condominium developers, perhaps generating tens of millions of dollars that could theoretically go toward fixing up piers. The State Lands Commission, however, has historically seen parking lots as more beneficial to the public than housing, and may not approve such a sale.

And without such an approval, the Port, and the city, is back where it started, with a dreary, dilapidated waterfront lined with piers slumping toward the water.

That is, unless an extra bit of vigorish could be added into the development, preservation, and shoreline beautification mix.

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