Time out by the Bay

Pub date February 12, 2013

OPINION Pretend that you and your best friends are entrusted — temporarily — with responsibility to run a big city. The energy of its people, the diversity of its residential neighborhoods, and its natural beauty have made this a successful city. The centerpiece of its natural beauty is its front yard, a body of sparking water called “The Bay.” You are entrusted with keeping the Bay accessible and visible to the people — all of whom own it.

One day developers come along and say that they want to build an entertainment complex on public property, right on this Bay. It will be a big, 14-story structure. It will bring in some 2 million patrons for more than 200 entertainment events each year. And, the developers go on, it will be in the middle of a residential community, mess up traffic and block physical and visual access to the Bay. Furthermore they tell you, we will need you to violate all the controls you have painfully placed on building heights and uses on the waterfront. And, by the way, they will need a subsidy of $120 million in public money.

Lastly they tell you, they will play 41 professional basketball games in the building. This will double or triple the value of their franchise — but unfortunately requires that they significantly increase the ticket price for their fans.

As a good manager you might ask what the landlord, the Port — which holds the land as a public trust — will get in return for its $120 million subsidy and for the use of public property. You are astonished to learn that, for the next many decades, the Port receives not a penny. Knowing the environmental damages, the impact on transportation in your city and being concerned about maintaining livable neighborhoods, you might then say: “Hold on — this is a bad deal. Is there not a better, less costly, less destructive, less divisive location in our city?”

You might say that — but SF’s city management has not. There has been no effort whatsoever to find a more appropriate location, one less destructive to San Francisco’s environmental values, that would require less than a $120 million subsidy.

And time has virtually run out to ask the basic question of whether the proposed site on Pier 30/32 is an appropriate site for this entertainment complex. The city is rushing headlong into making this deal. The Board of Supervisors does have final authority, but when it gets there, so much time and effort will have been spent that the likelihood of it being stopped is virtually zero.

You, the pretend manager, would surely call a time out. You would put together city officials and representatives of the city’s neighborhoods with the developer and require that they, together, come up with a site that all could gladly support. That might be what you’d do -– but it is not what is happening in the real world of City Hall.

It’s time for people like you, and others like you, to demand that the real city officials call a temporary halt to their juggernaut and provide a process that would first answer the basic question of whether Pier 30/32 is an appropriate site for this entertainment complex or whether alternative sites would not better serve the city and its Bay.

Rudy Nothenberg has held senior positions in the administrations of six San Francisco mayors.