In an egregious demonstration of the backwards priorities of a San Francisco Port Commission dominated by real estate developers, bankers, and business interests, less than two weeks before Christmas the Port served a 30 day eviction notice on the non-profit Pier 24 Photography Museum — the only free art museum on the waterfront.
For its entire 10-year history at Pier 24, the museum has been free and open to the public. As a photography lover, I have visited Pier 24 Photography several times over the years, both on my own and with friends. I have never experienced a more powerful place to see photography than in the quiet peace inside the renovated pier shed, in a setting that balances old with new. Since Pier 24 Photography limits the number of visitors to 30 at a time to encourage peaceful contemplation of the work, the only sounds to be heard are seagulls periodically squawking in the background.
“There is really nothing else like Pier 24 in the United States,” said Jeff Rosenheim, curator in charge of the department of photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. “The exhibitions, the program, the belief in the medium and the opportunities it has provided to communicate the larger story of the arts in America is undeniable. What they have done is no less than a miracle since it is entirely funded by an individual with a great heart.”
In the Port’s eviction notice to the non-profit art museum on December 13th, Port Director of Real Estate Michael Martin wrote that the Port had decided to evict them because of an impasse in lease extension negotiations. The non-profit art museum was apparently willing to pay more, but the Port demanded “market-rate rent” equivalent to what private technology company offices or venture capital financial firms could pay. “At this point, Port staff does not see a way to bridge the gap between the two sides,” said Martin. In its press release about the Pier 24 museum eviction, the Port asserted: “All Port tenants pay fair market rent.”
That’s false. In fact, the Port has offered reduced rent and sweetheart deals to many politically-connected developers over the years. In fact, before he came to the Port, Mr. Martin was best known for being the City’s lead financial negotiator for the 2013 America’s Cup races that ultimately became a fiscal fiasco for both the Port and the City. As part of the America’s Cup financial deal, Mr. Martin and the Port attempted to give $111 million worth of rent-free leases, land, and development rights for numerous piers to billionaire Larry Ellison before the whole deal fell apart.
The Port’s eviction of a waterfront art museum is just the latest sign, after years of failed developments schemes, that the five Port Commissioners — all mayoral appointees — continue to prioritize putting private development and luxury office suites inside San Francisco’s public piers over promoting maritime, arts, cultural, and recreational uses that would be open and accessible to the broader public. In a scathing 2014 report by the Civil Grand Jury, entitled “The Port of San Francisco: Caught Between Public Trust and Private Dollars,” the Grand Jury recommended a set of reforms to overhaul the Port Commission, such as balancing appointments between the Mayor and Supervisors to ensure a more diverse set of experiences and views. Currently, 4 of the 5 Port Commissioners are real estate developers or financial managers. One of the Port Commissioners was appointed over 20 years ago by former Mayor Willie Brown. The other Port Commissioners were all appointed by either former Mayor Ed Lee or the unelected Mayor Mark Farrell.
Whether or not the Port follows through with evicting art from the waterfront in favor of luxury offices for tech companies, 2020 is an ideal time for those of us who value diversity and public uses on San Francisco’s unique waterfront to renew our fight for it. We should ask our new reform-oriented majority on the Board of Supervisors to place a Port Reform Charter Amendment before San Francisco voters on the November 2020 ballot to effectuate the reforms called for by the Civil Grand Jury along with a new Waterfront Arts & Recreation Policy to prioritize arts, cultural, recreation, and maritime uses in our piers over private luxury office suites. Just as our No Wall on the Waterfront campaigns won overwhelmingly, I believe this measure would pass handily.
Instead of the Port evicting non-profit arts museums from our waterfront, it’s time we evict a Port Commission dominated by real estate, development, and financial interests. San Francisco’s waterfront does not belong to them – it belongs to all of us.
Jon Golinger is a longtime San Francisco waterfront advocate.