Port of S.F. plan may survive regulatory riptides

There is something breathtakingly irrational about continuing to ignore a treasure that lies right at your feet year after year. But that is almost exactly what the The City has done by repeatedly failing to adapt San Francisco’s unique and irreplaceable waterfront to contemporary public needs.

To be fair to the Port of San Francisco and its commission, making any improvement to the rotting and underutilized piers lining the Bay is easier said than done. Even the slightest change must traverse a near-impassable bramble thicket of state, local and federal approvals, plus the usual tug-of-war between competing San Francisco pro- and anti-development pressure groups.

And, in fact, the commission continues trying. For years, it has unsuccessfully attempted to navigate dueling developer proposals for an ambitious 19-acre, office-retail-recreation project at Piers 27-31 across from Telegraph Hill. To date, every package has fallen by the wayside. A developer also gave up in 2006 and walked away from a 13-acre mixed-use project for Piers 30-32 on The Embarcadero at Bryant Street.

The newest proposal being floated before the Port Commission actually seems as if it might trigger less resistance than its predecessors, and thus have a better chance of surviving the regulatory riptides. Shorenstein Properties and its partner Farallon Capital Management, which have tried proposals before, are now seeking to put a $100 million cruise ship terminal at the prime location of Piers 27-31.

Income for the deal would be generated by non-cruise offices and retail on the Port’s 13-acre South Beach parking lot site at Piers 30-32. Early reactions from authorizing agencies and from the Telegraph Hill neighborhood group have been encouraging, and draft plans are to be submitted to the commissioners by Aug. 31.

The Port continues to be hamstrung by impossibly contradictory mandates. State law requires publicly owned port property to be used for maritime-related “commerce, navigation and fisheries” — purposes that mostly sailed away from San Francisco long ago, except for cruise shipping’s $60 million in annual consumer spending, plus jobs and taxes.

At the same time, the Port is ordered to be fiscally self-sufficient despite needing an estimated $1.9 billion for infrastructure repairs and replacement. This forces the commission into a strategy of seeking non-maritime uses for its real estate in order to finance needed maritime facilities — which requires legislative exemptions each time.

Realistically, The Embarcadero piers must be allowed to support San Francisco’s No. 1 industry — which is tourism, not non-existent major cargo freighters or fishing fleets, which have migrated elsewhere in the Bay Area. The Examiner hopes thislatest waterfront development will prove to have greater staying power than all the past attempts.

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