Prop D: Consensus on Pier 70?

By Bernice Yeung, Public Press

Although development is a perennially hot-button topic in San Francisco due to concerns about gentrification, Proposition D, which would facilitate Pier 70 revitalization, is a seemingly controversy-free measure that has garnered wide support from neighborhood groups, environmentalists, city officials and developers.

Pier 70 is a 65-acre site along the Central Waterfront, just south of Mission Bay. According to the Port of San Francisco’s proposed master plan — which will be finalized by early 2009 and then released to the public for comment before going to the Board of Supervisors for approval — the redeveloped port would feature retail sites, restaurants, public parks, cultural venues, parking and continued maritime industry (Pier 70 is the oldest continuously operating shipyard on the West Coast for boat building and repair).

In fact, many anti-gentrification activists are supporting D because they see it as a way to not only save the historic buildings, but also to insist on more green space and less dense retail-type development.

No Opposition?

The master plan was drafted with the input of the Central Waterfront Advisory Group, which is comprised of citizens who live nearby, representatives from community groups and local experts on topics such as planning and the environment.

Although Proposition D is not related to approval or disapproval of the current Pier 70 master plan, it would make amendments to the city charter to pave the way for development there.

If it passes, Proposition D is expected to generate up to $70 million, or 5 percent of the estimated $1.9 billion public-private project currently described in the proposed master plan.

“I haven’t heard of any opposition,” said Jennifer Clary of urban environmentalist group San Francisco Tomorrow, which has endorsed the measure. “And we are one of the organizations that tend to question the port’s developments.”

“We would prefer to see Pier 70 go to maritime uses and public access,” continued Clary, who also sits on the Central Waterfront Advisory Group. “Proposition D would allow the port to capture more public funds generated by the development, which would lessen the need for too dense a development. This is an opportunity to reduce that.”

On the Committee To Restore Our Waterfront’s online fact sheet, proponents of Pier 70 development adopt an urgent tone by saying that Proposition D is crucial to the revitalization of Pier 70 and the 30 historic buildings there that date back to the mid-1800s.

“Approving Proposition D is critical to ensuring some certainty to the entitlement process,” the fact sheet says, “and providing the level of publicly oriented improvements to the site (like parks) that the public expects. The nationally significant historic resources on the site are in such a massive state of disrepair that if the City and Port do not act quickly to attract a development partner, it is likely that these structures will be lost.”

Some of the historic buildings are still being leased by artists and businesses, while others have been “red tagged,” or deemed by the city as too unstable for use because they are seismically unsafe, require asbestos remediation or contain lead and other potential toxins.

Chris Carlsson, a community historian in San Francisco and an advocate of radical urban sustainability, said that preservationists and community activists who are typically opposed to redevelopment due to gentrification concerns see Proposition D as “a way to get money to preserve those buildings. There’s nothing else out there.”

Carlsson said that such an attitude makes sense — but he claimed that the process has not effectively included public comment, particularly around rehabilitating traditional maritime industries or local fisheries.

A Complex Scenario

Pier 70 is considered by some urban planners to present a complicated redevelopment scenario as it involves a number of expensive and complex legal, environmental and planning issues.

The area is a “brownfield” that will likely require environmental remediation due to contaminants in the soil and groundwater left behind from 100 years of heavy industrial work by the U.S. Navy and its contractors there.

The Port of San Francisco has begun initial investigations into the environmental conditions of the Northeastern Shoreline, which have shown that the contaminants found on the site are not a health hazard.

The agency has secured federal funds to complete a more thorough inquiry of the entire site.

Development would also involve the costly and careful restoration of historic buildings.

If preservation is done, however, the pier would likely qualify as a National Register Historic District, given the number of buildings that would qualify for a designation through the National Register of Historic Places.

Additionally, Pier 70 is public-trust land, which means there are regulations on the kind of development that can happen there (for example, no housing is permitted on public-trust land).

Easing Bureaucratic Hindrances

There are a number of bureaucratic hindrances related to the city’s financial relationship with the port, which Proposition D aims to ease.

Since its creation in 1969, the Port of San Francisco cannot receive any city funds and it must generate its own revenue for all of its operations. In addition, the Board of Supervisors must approve each individual port lease that lasts longer than 10 years and that generates revenue of $1 million or more per year.

Proposition D would amend the city charter in two ways. First, if and when the Pier 70 master plan is approved by the Board of Supervisors, all related and subsequent leases consistent with the Board-approved master plan would not require additional approval.

Secondly, the initiative would create an “option financing tool,” which would allow the city to estimate the tax revenues that would be generated by businesses and hotels developed at Pier 70 over the next 20 years.

The Board of Supervisors could then authorize spending 75 percent of that projected sum on historic preservation and infrastructure for the area, including the development of public parks.

The largest donors to the Committee To Restore Our Waterfront are the San Francisco Waterfront Partners II, Nibbi Brothers and TMG Partners, all private development entities.

There is no official opposition to Proposition D.

A former staff writer for SF Weekly who has also worked as an editor at California Lawyer magazine, Bernice Yeung has written for a variety of publications, including the Village Voice, The International Herald Tribune, The New York Times, Dwell, Wired and Glamour.

The San Francisco 2008 Election Truthiness Report is co-produced by and The Public Press, and funded through small donations using the Spot.Us “crowdfunding” Web site.

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