Photo-snapping tourists, local joggers and bay history buffs visit the Embarcadero every day to enjoy the strip’s attractions and unimpeded views. Access to the waterfront has become a core element of the city’s soul, but some fear that a new development project may sour that precedent.
The Golden State Warriors’ proposal to build a new basketball arena on San Francisco’s waterfront has garnered support from many locals. But some of those who oppose it fear that it could set a standard for commercializing the bayside, and they claim it may have environmental consequences.
City planners say the project along Piers 30-32 will adhere to environmental regulations, but that some trash pollution and sediment disturbance from construction in the bay is inevitable. That’s cause for concern to some environmental groups, who want authorities to do a preliminary environmental study before the project moves into a more advanced stage of planning.
“There needs to be an environmental study done,” said Mike Lynes, executive director of the Golden Gate Audubon Society.
Lynes is concerned about the impact of a 125-foot high arena on migrating shorebirds.
“The light source (on the Bay) can be a major disturbance in two ways,” Lynes said. “It can pull down migrating birds towards the light, causing them to crash, or it can change their feeding and breeding habits.”
Then there’s the question of shoreline development. In order to get around restrictions on building along the San Francisco Bay and hasten the speed of the project, arena proponents pushed a bill through the California legislature that designated the Warriors’ arena as a reasonable use of public trust land, qualifying it alongside other well-known bayfront properties held exclusively for recreational, maritime and other public uses, including Crissy Field, Pier 39 and Fort Baker.
The public trust designation of the Warrior’s arena project alarmed environmental groups because they believe it may water down future protection of public trust land. And groups were also concerned that the designation overrode the authority of the region’s bay conservator agency, the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), which normally decides whether projects qualify for public trust.
“I think building right on the waterfront sets a terrible precedent, and they’re clearly passing this bill because [a basketball arena] isn’t consistent with the public trust,” said Jason Flanders, the program director for the nonprofit, San Francisco Baykeeper.
But according to Jennifer Matz, who oversees the project for the city, public trust land doesn’t necessarily have to be green.
“Maritime uses are clearly public trust usages,” Matz said, citing one example. “But it doesn’t matter if it’s a clean or dirty maritime use.”
Matz and Steve Goldbeck, BCDC’s chief deputy director, vow the project will meet every standard set out in the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) but have been unable to describe any environmental hazards that could put a stopper on the stadium. And city officials say the arena will treat runoff, clear debris and prevent the dilapidated piers from degrading any further. Another option — removing the pier — would cost $45 million. Matz said something must be done.
“In 10 years the pier won’t be able to support significant weight,” Matz said. “We’d have to just throw up a fence. Some parts are so degraded right now that you can’t even bring trucks over them.”
Other attempts to develop the property as a cruise ship or America’s Cup port failed because of the steep repair costs.
The Warriors, which hope to open the area in 2017, have agreed to a 66-year lease of the piers and an adjacent lot. In return for developing them, they will receive $120 million in various tax credits as payment by the city. The city is required by law to repair public trust land themselves, though the deal will force the Warriors to pay for some of the repairs as well as the arena itself.
Strong financial incentives, backed by popular support, has conservationists worried that environmental concerns will take a backseat in the project. According to Goldbeck, an environmental review will occur after the Warriors submit the project plans.
“We’re still trying to decide what the project is let alone take it through the permit process,” said Goldbeck.
Conservationists say they are willing to change their stance based on the findings of the environmental review, but they aren’t all optimistic.
“In general, this would have major impacts,” said Flanders from Baykeeper. “A lot of areas in the bay are already toxic from mining and industrial operations. We just have to question whether the shoreline should be used for a large sporting venue.”
Jackson Mauze is a Bay Nature editorial intern.