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SF Port in talks with new operator for historic Pier 70 shipyard

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Large utility cranes are seen above the Pier 70 shipyard. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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Once bursting with blue-collar workers, the largest dry dock on the West Coast has sat empty along San Francisco’s waterfront for half a year.

San Francisco’s Pier 70 shipyard dates back to the late 1800s and is where workers welded and ultimately repaired ships as massive as 54,000 tons. It shuttered in May, prompting the loss of more than 230 union jobs. Its buildings now sit dilapidated and vacant along the Bay.

But the shipyard may not stay empty for long.

The Port of San Francisco has identified a potential new shipyard operator, Vigor Industrial LLC, whose interest in the site marks a key turning point for the shipyard, according to Port staff.

Vigor Industrial is a self-described “ship repair powerhouse” that employs more than 2,500 workers throughout Alaska, Oregon and Washington.

Puglia Engineering abandoned the Pier 70 site following litigation between it and the shipyard’s former operator, BAE Systems. At the time, city officials decried its closure as a major loss of not only jobs, but San Francisco’s maritime history.

The shipyard had been in operation in various forms since the Gold Rush; steelworkers there repaired World War II battleships and built BART’s Transbay Tube in 1971.

Pier 70 is undergoing another major change as well.

On Wednesday, Mayor Ed Lee signed legislation that will approve a major Pier 70 mixed-use development, headed by Forest City; in a decade, the area is expected to see as many as 3,000 new homes, 30 percent of which are mandated to be affordable.

At the Ferry Building on Wednesday, Lee sat at a wooden table, pen in hand, and signed the legislation for a bevy of TV cameras. Behind him, a massive cargo ship could be seen through the window, slowly wading south through the Bay.

“[Forest City] saw beauty where others saw decay,” Lee said.

However, that “decay” — the shipyard — across from the housing project may soon be revitalized, Port Executive Director Elaine Forbes told the San Francisco Examiner. But there are kinks to be worked out before a deal may move forward.

Vigor may want a smaller footprint at the historic shipyard, according to Forbes, which could mean the loss of buildings. That doesn’t necessarily mean fewer jobs will exist there, though, Forbes said.

The Port and the various unions that represent shipyard workers have a list of the workers who lost their jobs, according to Forbes, and inviting them back to the newly reopened shipyard is part of any potential agreement.

“If there’s an opportunity
to get the yard up and working again, they will be brought back,” Forbes said.

A dilapidated pier is seen near San Francisco’s Pier 70 shipyard in May. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

A $4.9 million settlement with BAE Systems, which ceased operation at the dry dock when it was still in a dilapidated condition, will allow the Port to perform sorely needed dredging and other long-term repair, including a $3 million electrical overhaul.

Dredging is key for Vigor, said its spokesperson, Jill Mackie.

“As it relates to ultimately negotiating a lease, the outcome will depend significantly on the commitment of the Port to upgrade facilities and more information on market opportunities,” Mackie said in a statement to the Examiner.

As far as bringing back the union jobs that once existed there, Mackie said it was “premature” to speculate because contracts with customers “are what drive jobs.”

“We do strongly believe in local jobs,” Mackie wrote, “and if we were to reach an agreement, certainly that would be a priority.”

In a previous interview, Adam Beck, Vigor Industrial’s executive vice president of ship repair, said the Pier 70 shipyard was an attractive site.

“I can tell you when the San Francisco yard is operational, we’ve competed with them for all that work,” Beck said. Modern-day repairwork mostly includes federal government ships, trade vessels bound for Alaska and fishing fleets, Beck said.

Though “there are certainly some challenges in regard to the capital investments that yard needs to move forward and be viable,” Beck said, and potential investment therefore would require “due diligence” into the extent of the disrepair.

Puglia Engineering, the most recent tenant of the shipyard, alleged in its lawsuit against BAE Systems that BAE Systems left the shipyard in worse repair than they disclosed — a major conflict between the operators.

Jon Golinger, a member of the Port’s Waterfront Plan Working Group, said maintaining shipyard operations is not just a question of blue-collar values, but a viable investment to guard against the Bay’s 66-inch rise, estimated by officials to occur by 2100.

The Bay’s future height may endanger new luxury housing developments, Golinger said, but shipyard operations can be better adapted to meet environmental challenges.

“It’s a wiser investment, even in the prudent sense, to maintain what we’ve got,” he said.

Though Forbes acknowledged that maintaining the shipyard’s worker presence helps keep San Francisco’s maritime history alive — from the 1934 dock worker strike famously headed by Harry Bridges, to the working waterfront seen in movies like “The Maltese Falcon,” — she said it’s about more than just an idea.

“It’s really romantic. It’s our history, but it also means jobs,” Forbes said.

Port staff tentatively plan to bring a recommendation to move forward with Vigor Industrial as the Pier 70 shipyard operator on Dec. 12. If approved, negotiations for the site would formally begin.

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