Huffpost San Francisco

San Francisco America's Cup: Great For The City, Or One Big Mess?

Posted: Updated:

When San Francisco was chosen as the host city for the 2013 America's Cup, many locals were thrilled at the prospect of holding a major sporting event within our borders. What an amazing opportunity for our little land to be showcased front and center on the international stage! And think of the tourism revenue!

But twelve months into the endeavor, many have begun to think of the magical opportunity as one big boondoggle. Myriad environmental advocacy organizations have expressed concern about the impact of the event on our natural resources, it's uncertain whether the city will be able to raise the funding in time, and only a handful of teams have even signed up to participate. To make matters worse, last week, Mayor Ed Lee announced that waterfront redevelopment plans will be dramatically scaled back, prompting a cacophony of reaction from both supporters and opponents.

Because of all the uncertainty surrounding the upcoming sailing extravaganza, we can think of no better topic of conversation to launch our HuffPost SF "Room for Debate" series with. Will the America's Cup be the tourism boon San Francisco needs? Or will it be a financial and environmental nightmare?

To spark the discussion, we've called on two local experts to weigh in. Richard Worth, chairman of the America's Cup Event Authority, supports the race all the way to the finish line. Mark Welther, executive director of the Golden Gate Audubon Society, believes the city still has a long way to go before all the hurdles are cleared.

What do you think? Join our debate below to add your voice to the conversation!


Pre-debate poll:

Tell us your opinion before the debate starts to set the starting line

The Americas Cup will be good for San Francisco.

Agree - Thanks for voting! Please proceed to read the debate below

Please vote to proceed to the debate


Who makes the better argument?

Richard Worth Chairman and CEO, Americas Cup Event Authority

With less than 500 days to the start of the 34th America's Cup during the summer of 2013, we continue on our journey towards creating what we hope will be the most exciting America's Cup in the history of the sport. And that's a long history -- 161 years and counting.

In every sense of the word, the America's Cup is reinventing itself -- and San Franciscans will have a front-row seat.

The America's Cup is a thrilling spectacle with a rich tradition. But fans have never had the opportunity to see just how exciting this racing really is, having always been kept at arm's-length. That's all about to change. Our spectators are the focus of all of our planning, as we bring the action directly to them, whether they watch it online, on national TV, or at the water's edge.

We believe this new format offers greater excitement, with tight, tactical racing close to land. Never before has the America's Cup been seen so close to the shoreline. Even five years ago, fans had to head out to sea to see the racing.

Never before have our athletes had the opportunity to compete directly in front of their fans, close enough to hear the cheers and gasps. The landscape of the Bay will change all that, with its natural amphitheater enabling us to have a "stadium" on the water, bookended by some of the most iconic sights in the world, the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz.

The next generation America's Cup boats -- the AC72 wing -- sailed catamarans -- are three times faster than previous AC boats and can sail four times faster than the very wind itself, topping out at 50 mph as they race just off Crissy Field, running up and down the Cityfront, and finishing just off Pier 27/29.

The best crews in the world will need the strength of a linebacker, speed of a sprinter and agility of a boxer to push the limits of the boats and themselves to gain the edge they need -- without falling over it. The result? A fast, athletic, scintillating, high-risk sport that will be a true visual spectacle, every race day.

To further connect spectators to the athletes in motion, breakthrough graphics, athlete's view cameras and onboard microphones will place fans at the very heart of the action. They'll see and hear the quick decisions being made, the athleticism of the crew and the raw power of the boats, live from shore, through TV or on our multi-screen YouTube channel.


In addition to the on-the-water racing, the 34th America's Cup will feature an exciting onshore program for spectators of all ages. Housed on Piers 27/29 on the Embarcadero, the America's Cup Village will be the hub of all activity, including concerts, official merchandise, spectator screens with commentary, and spectacular views of the finish line.

And more importantly, we're designing the events based on a set of values that we share with our host city. That begins with listening to the needs of our neighbors. Throughout our planning, we have embraced a very public process to ensure that we understand the needs of residents and local businesses, and have inputted that comment directly into our plans. We believe wholeheartedly the result will be a stronger, more robust event that is respectful of our neighbors, mitigates our impacts and delivers a wealth of benefit for the City of San Francisco.

The 34th America's Cup will be a sustainable event to demonstrate the importance of resource sustainability and environmental stewardship, and make the San Francisco America's Cup a model sporting event. Focused on being "more than a sport," we will also be heavily focused on ocean conservation. Our focus is working jointly with global and local partners, including the Aquarium of the Bay, Marine Mammal Center, Gulf of the Farallones NMS, Monterey Bay Aquarium, Save The Bay, and Sailors for the Sea to ensure that our oceans can continue to sustain our earth through collaborative ocean conservation and education outreach.

By 2013, we hope the anticipation of the San Francisco America's Cup will have reached new heights. To grow the excitement internationally, we will be bringing the America's Cup experience to port cities throughout the world over the next year through the America's Cup World Series. Sailed in the smaller AC45 wing-sailed catamaran, these events not only provide an opportunity for teams to compete against each other in advance of the pinnacle events in 2013, but also serve as a global calling card for San Francisco. San Franciscans will be the opportunity to see their own America's Cup World Series event this August, giving a small taste of the grander events to come in 2013.

The only major global sporting event of 2013, we know that the eyes of the world will be on San Francisco. It will be a summer that will not soon be forgotten, and we can't wait for the events to begin.

Mark Welther Executive Director, Golden Gate Audubon Society

Last week's collapse of the real estate deal between America's Cup organizers and San Francisco city officials left critics of the race cheering and backers shaking their heads.

But demise of the controversial deal didn't change the reasons that we're worried by the America's Cup -- which have to do with those residents of our beautiful Bay Area who don't have the wherewithal to negotiate development deals or even lobby City Hall.

Yes, I'm talking about wildlife. And in particular, birds.

Despite a 2,200-page-long environmental impact report, San Francisco city officials haven't taken a hard, honest look at how the race could harm the local environment, including populations of birds such as Brandt's cormorants, pigeon guillemots or the threatened snowy plover.

A world-renowned yacht race might seem at first glance like a benign environmental event. The America's Cup isn't a race among oil tankers, after all. And the race itself will last only about 40 days in 2013.

But we need to look at the America's Cup -- and other projects affecting our Bay Area environment -- in context. Eighty to ninety percent of the wetlands that existed around San Francisco Bay in 1850 are now gone. Forty percent of the bay's open water has also vanished -- taken over by landfill, salt ponds, bridges and other development.

Many Bay Area birds are already living under stress due to urban encroachments on their habitat. Pelagic cormorants, which nested on Alcatraz a decade ago, have completely stopped breeding there in the past few years. Pigeon guillemots -- a black and white seabird with astonishing red feet -- have only one breeding colony in the entire bay, on Alcatraz, and it totals only about 30 nests.

The America's Cup will place even more stress on local bird populations by:

  • Bringing heavy boat and air traffic close to bird colonies on Alcatraz, where breeding season for cormorants, gulls and pigeon guillemots runs from February through August. Many colonies are sensitive to even minor disruptions during breeding: In one 2008 incident documented by scientists, a single kayak within 100 feet of the island flushed approximately 600 birds from their nests or roosting spots.
  • Disturbing birds that are "rafting" on open water. Birds like cormorants, grebes, and scaup often float together in large groups for protection or foraging. The heaviest rafting season on the bay is late autumn and winter, after most of the America's Cup events will be over. But those birds that rely on the bay in the summer and early fall will certainly be disrupted by the addition not just of the racing yachts but of as many as 1,800 spectator boats coming and going across the bay to view the race.
  • Drawing large crowds to Crissy Field, a key site for threatened snowy plovers that have already lost almost all their suitable habitat in San Francisco.
  • These threats to birds come alongside other ecological concerns, such as impacts on air and water quality, disturbance of marine life, and introduction of invasive species that may be carried in by spectator boats.

While none of these challenges is insurmountable, the America's Cup organizers and city officials have appeared more interested in fast-tracking the environmental review process and proclaiming victory than in minimizing the race's impact on local wildlife.

For instance, neither race organizers nor city officials have committed to pay for resource monitors to ensure that visitors stay a safe distance away from bird colonies. Without specific commitments for funding and for personnel, promises of protective signs or fencing are just token gestures.

Nor have organizers and officials taken responsibility for potential damage to "secondary" viewing areas, natural areas along the shoreline that are not official race-viewing sites but will still draw crowds.

And they haven't offered any meaningful plan to offset the trash, food, waste and toxics that will inevitably be dumped into the bay by spectators. Nor have they committed funding to fix ecological damage caused by the race or spectators.

The good news is that there's still time for the City of San Francisco and America's Cup organizers to address these issues. They need to work with the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Coast Guard, and environmental groups such as ours to ensure adequate mitigation measures that are fully funded as part of the event's budget -- not as additional burdens on already overextended agencies.

San Francisco likes to tout itself as a "green city," but it consistently fails to prioritize wildlife and habitats in development or city planning.

It's ironic: The natural beauty of San Francisco Bay is part of what drew the America's Cup here. Yet organizers seem unwilling to provide meaningful accommodations for the wildlife and ecosystems that make the Bay such an amazing place -- even while spending tens of millions of dollars on development, viewing facilities, and lavish parties.

We can and should do better.



Did one of the arguments change your mind?

The Americas Cup will be good for San Francisco.


Agree - Thanks for voting again! Here are the results:



moreless AgreeDisagreeUndecided

Richard WorthMark WeltherNeither argumenthas changed the most minds