Editorial: A decent plan for the Embarcadero

See if you agree with this proposition: The 19 acres along piers 27-31, long since idled on the Embarcadero, should be revitalized in some manner that benefits The City. A pretty simple “yes,” wouldn’t you say?

We thought so. And yet,the vision gets complicated, as so many urban plans do, when you start asking about desirable uses and just what sort of funding will flow into it. The preferable means of settling such questions is through the free market, where highest use is best determined along with who should take the financial risks.

Last year the Mills Corp., which develops shopping malls throughout the nation, thought the market and local government would smile on its plan. The company presented a mix of offices, dining establishments and recreational facilities. Prospects looked favorable until naysayers, worried about traffic congestion and other real or imagined horrors, complained. The Board of Supervisors, listening, nixed the mix.

So Mills, early this year, sold development rights to SF Piers LLC. Last week the smaller firm unveiled its plan for the piers, adjacent to Fisherman’s Wharf. The $446 million project also includes office space, 440,000 square feet of it, as well as indoor and outdoor recreational space, 500,000 square feet of that. Nice digs to spend a workday. And instead of breaking sourdough, you can play volley ball.

Maybe that’s better, but we leave such judgments up to prospective tenants and players. Will The City approve? That depends on whether supervisors see public funding as a vital part of the financial structure. Will the Port of San Francisco, the public entity that operates the piers, go along?

Such plans, typically, make us uneasy. If private developers cannot attract enough investors to spare taxpayers any involvement — make no mistake, taxpayers invariably co-sign these bonds — then their projects should not be green-lighted. That is why, for example, we find tax-supported sports arenas, usually worked out so that poorer people line the pockets of rich team owners, so morally repugnant. Corporate socialism smells like some of the brackish water swirling around those pilings.

The piers do call for public-private cooperation. Unless the port sells them off in a fire sale, which might not be such a bad idea, then they will remain public property. If the public expects improvements, then it must meet responsibilities to maintain the piers’ structural integrity and safety.

No question the SF Piers plan will generate jobs and, ultimately, more revenue for The City. The alternative is to leave them idle, and San Francisco is no place for stagnation.

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