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Friday Frustration: Pier 29 Hung Out to Dry

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Some victory laps are expected, and some are not. After Wednesday's epic 19-hour (well, it seemed that long, at least) meeting of the Budget and Finance Committee, San Francisco's agreement with the America's Cup organizers is finally going to the full Board of Supervisors next week for approval. Many people are relieved, but the manner of this victory lap is particularly odd.

The happy faces in committee were not for the fact that we are finally going to start building facilities for the races and fixing a large swath of our waterfront. No, the happy faces were on the people who want to ensure that part of our waterfront does not get fixed.

I lost you there, didn't I? I am referring to the 11th-hour effort by multiple supervisors to pull Pier 29 out of the deal. What I can't figure out is why it was so important to do so. For a quick review, most of the Cup facilities are going to be down at the Bay Bridge end of the waterfront, where the America's Cup village will be built and compounds established for the teams at Piers 30 though 32. This part was easy for people to understand. The race organizers pay for the upgrade of the facilities that they will be using directly for the support and running of the races.

However, the organizers claimed that they were still coming up short on revenue from the event, to the tune of a little over 12 million dollars. So, to plug that alleged gap, they asked for development rights for Pier 29 also. And this is where people started getting upset, because that pier has nothing to do with the races; it's a real estate development deal, pure and simple, to make the numbers work.

The Cup was suddenly accused of being "a real estate deal with a boat race attached," and in the case of Pier 29, that's exactly what it is. My problem is I don't understand why this is a bad thing. Pier 29 is sadly just one in a long list of piers in the city that are falling into the Bay, or are in danger of doing so. And it is a particular problem child that the city has been trying to solve for over a decade.

In 1999, during the reign of Willie the First, Pier 29 was rezoned to allow for commercial development. Originally the plan was for a massive redevelopment to occur there along with Piers 27 and 31. The operators of Chelsea Piers and the Mills Corporation battled to win the rights, which finally went to Mills in a protracted and ultimately acrimonious process.

And that led to the current development, right? Well, not quite. The second people started finding out what Mills had in mind in terms of the components of the project, the locals went nuts. Offices on the waterfront? Egads, never! And yes, those sharp of eye will notice that many of the renovated piers today do indeed include... offices. To make a bloody story short, the development never happened, Mills fled town under the cover of "it didn't pencil out," and we were back to an empty and abandoned Pier 29.

Years later The Shorenstein Properties tried to make a go of it, and you can probably guess where that went. They also made the critical mistake of mentioning offices, and predictably retreated under the subsequent hail of local gunfire from organizations from Save The Bay to the Telegraph Hill Dwellers. Which left us once again with an empty pier getting worse by the year. And that brings us to the victory laps on Wednesday, which apparently were to celebrate the fact that we will continue to see Pier 29 fall apart. Huzzah!

Let's be honest here: we do not have a very good track record when it comes to our piers, and our ability to repair them. If any pier should have been quickly brought back to fighting trim, it was Pier ½. This is the postage stamp-sized pier just to the north of the Ferry Building. When the Ferry Building reopened, that pier and its 75 parking places made a bundle for the City. In fact, the gross revenue per square foot for that pier may even be tops in the city. Then in 2008, a car almost went all the way through the rotting planks, and the pier was quickly declared unsafe. And since then what has happened? Drat, you guessed it again... nothing.

The same fate is in the cards for Pier 29. The city is not going to fix it. We don't have the money, we can barely cover our costs as it is, and that's with a parade of bond measures constantly clogging our electoral system. The brutal reality is that someone is going to wind up redeveloping that spot, and it ain't gonna be us. If it is not the Cup organizers and their billionaire, it's going to be a real estate developer and their billionaire instead.

Which bring us back to the hang-wringing over the current deal. As one supervisor said this week, ""I have to say, I'm still not totally satisfied." I don't think some of our supervisors will be happy with any version of the current deal, but the desire for a better deal does not mean that one exists. And holding out for a solution does not mean that one will appear. The city rezoned Pier 29 for redevelopment twelve years ago, and since then every developer has been run off by people who vainly believe that something better will come along; all the while, the state of the pier gets worse and the price tag to fix it grows larger. For today though, the lovers of a dilapidated Pier 29 have their victory. I just hope their victory lap doesn't require them to drive on the pier.

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