Seawall Preservation Comes at a Cost

A November ballot measure subtly targets renters as a source of funding to preserve the city’s eastern seawall.

A new ballot measure is officially on its way to voters in November, and it might be a hard sell. On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors gave its final approval for a measure that would provide $425 million for much-needed repairs to San Francisco’s eastern seawall.

It’s a timely effort, as the century-old barrier is crumbling and is badly in need of repairs. Sea levels are rising, and the whole piece of infrastructure — which stretches three miles from Fisherman’s Wharf to the mouth of Mission Creek, near AT&T Park — provides valuable protection from the water for businesses and residences along the Embarcadero. It also preserves the city’s ability to draw in billions of dollars through tourism and the Port of San Francisco.

If it isn’t repaired, the legislation states, the seawall “will likely suffer significant damage in a major earthquake, causing widespread harm to the Embarcadero; historic buildings and piers; critical transportation, utility, and emergency response infrastructure; and the residents, works, and visitors who depend on them.”

Further, an earthquake could cause the seawall to move five feet into the Bay, accelerating flooding, the effects of which we can already see on rainy winter days when waves break over the wall near the Ferry Building.

Written as such, it sounds like the beginning of an action movie starring Kiefer Sutherland, but the threat of collapse is real, as much of circa-1850 San Francisco’s shoreline was many blocks inland from where it is today, too. What may deter voters from supporting the repairs, however, is how the legislation proposes the money be obtained. As written, it would increase property taxes by $13.23 per $100,000 of assessed value, per year, for 24 years, and property owners would be able to pass on 50 percent of those costs to renters.

Presumably, that’s intended to make it more appealing, but it might end up alienating both groups. Owners are targeted for increased taxes in nearly every election, and tenants rights groups will no doubt suggest the money should come from sources other than the city’s renters.

Local tenants’ rights organizations have yet to voice their support or opposition to this plan, although they’ve worked to block this exact scenario in the past. June 2018’s Proposition G, for example, levied a $298 tax on each parcel of property to help raise funds for teachers, but thanks to tenants’ rights groups, the measure explicitly stated that the fee could not be passed down to renters.

The Seawall Earthquake Safety Bond ballot measure will require a two-thirds majority to pass, and an initial poll conducted by the Port of San Francisco in January showed that 73 percent of city residents supported the idea.

But even if the ballot measure does pass, it’s just a drop in the bucket for the amount of money needed to fix the seawall. The initial funds would pay for the most urgent improvements through 2026, but experts say the entire seawall eventually needs to be replaced — a project that is estimated to cost $5 billion.

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