Ken Garcia: Port’s development deals tend to get incredible sinking feeling

So many big development deals have gotten tossed overboard at the Port of San Francisco in recent years, it’s no wonder the agency has had trouble staying afloat in the maritime business.

Last week saw the official sinking of two separate plans for the long-awaited cruise ship terminal that was envisioned as one of the keys in the transformation of the San Francisco waterfront. Part of a mixed-used $400 million project that was to include hundreds of thousands of square feet of office and retail space, the cruise ship terminal has been in the permitting, planning and design phase now for seven years — about as long as it took Odysseus to return home from his mythological adventures.

Why it would take so long for a deal to be blown out of the water is anybody’s guess, but the official line is that the joint venture involving Bovis Lend Lease and the Port of Singapore could not afford the risingcosts of retrofitting the terminal’s rotting piers. Imagine that — a delayed construction project falling victim to skyrocketing construction costs. Perhaps city officials ought to include news clips of the Bay Bridge and Laguna Honda Hospital sagas as part of any new official requests for proposals.

Three years ago the proposed terminal developer indicated that the cost of fixing the piers would be about $56 million. Today that estimate hovers around $82 million while the cost of the new terminal itself had risen $10 million over the same period. And that will explain why port and tourism officials were not exactly buoyed by the news.

Even a Hail Mary pass heaved up by one-time 49er franchise rescuer Eddie DeBartolo could not be completed because his development company’s offer made, according to port officials, far too many changes to the original plan. DeBartolo had proposed shrinking the amount of space in the terminal and increasing the amount of commercial real estate by almost 250,000 square feet — but that would have required about a half-dozen permit approvals from the likes of the California State Lands Commission and even the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. And as we all know, counting on the board to do the right thing is about as easy as turning the Queen Mary II around in a harbor.

John Doll, the articulate cruise terminal project manager who has been trying to steer the various proposals through the choppy development process, said the deals fell through largely because they were based on so many factors — especially that the pier reconstruction funds were supposed to be paid through the retail income from the project. Ultimately none of the schemes penciled out — DeBartolo’s new X’s and O’s fell considerably short of the port’s benchmark for a new cruise facility, which is why the agency is looking at another rebuilding year.

“It was not ‘the Catch,’” Doll told me. “It was more like the Roger Craig fumble inthe 1990 championship game against the New York Giants.”

Big development deals at the port tend to take on water quickly, which is why the agency has struggled to make it financially. Recently the Mills Corp. was supposed to build a huge retail and recreational project along piers 27-31 that fell through, to the surprise of no one, because the flawed proposal had no political capital. The plan’s only support came from former Mayor Willie Brown, a few of his hand-picked port commissioners and a dozen or so high-priced consultants ever-ready to feed at the development trough.

And it would be hard to forget the Malrite “history” museum fiasco, which would have made Pier 39 look like a tasteful addition to The City’s kitschy tourist facade. Malrite had proposed building a museum that would have included carnival-style rides to take people on tours of San Francisco without actually visiting it — like incorporating Day-Glo stops to the heydays of the Haight-Ashbury. It took a ballot measure and a personal crusade by one columnist to make sure that deal didn’t pass San Francisco’s own political Kool-Aid acid test.

If ever there was a time for the port to get its ship in order, it’s now. The cruise ship business is taking off like never before and The City reaps millions from its passengers. Doll told me that the agency is now considering the possibility of building a cruise terminal without the retail mix. It is also thinking of floating a general obligation bond to partially fund it — a tough sell even in free-spending San Francisco.

I’m all for the port charting a new course. But if it takes another seven years to reach its destination, it won’t be viewed as a pleasure cruise.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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