No mall on the waterfront

It’s like deja vu all over again on San Francisco’s waterfront.

A decade ago, it took a coalition of neighborhood associations, environmental groups and waterfront businesses banding together and fighting hard for three years to prevent national shopping mall developer Mills Corporation from building a giant mega-mall inside historic Piers 27, 29 and 31 on the northeast Embarcadero. Instead of just another shopping mall and office complex occupying these public piers, instead we now have a world-class cruise ship terminal at Pier 27 that brings tens of thousands of visitors here every year, a two-acre public park open to everyone to enjoy and public access areas with incredible views all along the water’s edge.

But now, the mall-on-the-waterfront proposal is back in a different form at Pier 29, next door to the cruise ship terminal. Atlanta-based commercial real estate developer Jamestown, LP owns and operates shopping complexes and office parks in nine states across the country and has recently expanded its San Francisco portfolio by buying Ghirardelli Square and the “Waterfront Plaza” office complexes directly across the street from the cruise ship terminal. In late April, the Port Commission voted to fast-track Jamestown’s plan to turn the historic Pier 29 bulkhead building into a mini-mall full of retail kiosks and an upscale wine bar and brewery.

While the Port has responded to the immediate opposition to this plan expressed by community groups by arguing this is merely a plan to turn a small portion of the pier into a mini-mall, Jamestown’s own development proposal shows its “future prospective phasing” plan is to extend the commercial shopping areas throughout the entire length of Pier 29.

The core problem with this waterfront mini-mall development is that it directly conflicts with the voter mandated Waterfront Land Use Plan that calls for this pier to be reserved for publicly accessible recreation uses, which are badly needed along San Francisco’s waterfront. When San Francisco voters passed Proposition H in November 1990, they mandated the creation of a Waterfront Land Use Plan to put in place a thoughtful, comprehensive plan for what kind of development should take place in each pier and seawall lot along the waterfront. The Waterfront Land Use Plan specifically dedicated Pier 29 and the adjacent piers to be the site of a unique and inviting waterfront mixed-use recreation project that “could provide a venue for all San Franciscans and Bay Area residents to actively participate individually or as groups, in diverse amateur recreation sports, physical fitness and related activities while enjoying the scenic waterfront setting.”

Other waterfront cities have made waterfront recreation for its residents and visitors a priority for years, and it’s time that San Francisco does, too.

For more than 20 years, “Chelsea Piers” located on three long-neglected piers on Manhattan’s Hudson River has offered more than 20 sports and recreation facilities to locals and tourists alike, including indoor soccer, batting cages, gymnastics and fitness, bowling, rock climbing and basketball. We almost had a similar project at Pier 29 back in 2000, but unfortunately the political juice of the Mills Corporation persuaded then-Mayor Willie Brown’s Port Commission appointees to select the shopping mall plan the community had to fight instead of the recreation project the community overwhelmingly approved.

In addition to the mini-mall plan, Jamestown has also proposed building a large red metal arrow sculpture on top of historic Pier 29 to draw the attention of passersby to the site and divert cruise ship passengers or visitors on their way from the Ferry Building toward Fisherman’s Wharf to instead come stop and shop inside Jamestown’s mini-mall. While this is a perfectly understandable retail marketing strategy for a mall developer, it’s no way to run our unique and historic waterfront. If the Port Commission refuses to rethink the Jamestown mini-mall plan for Pier 29, it will be up to the community, environmental groups and waterfront businesses to once again band together to urge the Board of Supervisors to reject a poorly thought-out waterfront development scheme that puts profits first. After all, we only have one waterfront. Let’s be sure we get it right.

Jon Golinger is an environmental attorney who lives in North Beach.

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