For a quarter century, the decaying piers at the foot of Bryant Street in San Francisco have been the Bermuda Triangle of waterfront development. Lots of ambitious projects have sailed in only to vanish amid rocky political conditions.
On Tuesday, San Francisco’s Port Commission is set to select a builder to redevelop the piers as well as the 2.3-acre surface parking lot across the street. While it’s still unclear whether the latest proposal will run into the same fate as past efforts to build on Piers 30-32, some residents are already gearing up for another waterfront brawl.
The commission will vote on whether to enter into an exclusive negotiating agreement with Strada Investment Group, which beat out two other developers in responding to the port’s request for proposals. And they will likely get an earful from neighbors who think the project is too big, and from at least one developer who was on the losing end of the competition.
Strada’s project would include 850 housing units on the land side of the Embarcadero, 25% of them affordable. It would include investing $369 million in waterfront infrastructure, as well as provide approximately $325 million in lease payments over many years. The existing piers would be demolished and replaced by two new finger piers, which together would be 45% smaller, allowing several acres of current fill to revert to open bay water.
Two-story, 40-foot high sheds would sit atop the two new piers. Between them, the developers plan a floating swimming pool and recreation area that would allow people to swim and kayak between and around the piers. The sheds would include 376,000 gross square feet of office space, and about 3 acres of the pier’s 7.2 acres would be publicly accessible open space.
Previous development proposals on the 13-acre site died amid fierce fights.
The Golden State Warriors’ plans for a new arena on the piers fell apart because of neighborhood opposition, forcing the team to build a mile south in Mission Bay. Talks with “Star Wars” director George Lucas to put his cultural museum there went nowhere. In 2000, the port picked a developer to build a cruise ship terminal, hotel and housing on part of the site, but the plans sank because of steep cost increases after years of bureaucratic delays.
The piers have sat vacant since the structures on them were destroyed in a fire in 1984, but the city opened a 200-bed homeless shelter on the surface parking lot last year, which caused a neighborhood uproar and lawsuit.
Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who has fought big waterfront developments for two decades, said he had yet to be briefed by port staff on the latest proposal but that he found several aspects of the Strada scheme “compelling.” He said he approved of Strada’s plan to shrink the size of the piers.
“My initial take is the proposal is in the ballpark, but the devil will be in the details,” Peskin said.
But John Cornwell, president of the Portside condominium building homeowners association just west of the seawall lot, said residents there would oppose the project. He said the plan to far exceed the current height restrictions on the seawall lot — current zoning allows 80 feet and the proposal is for 150 — was a nonstarter.
“I was surprised that the port would go for a proposal that blows the lid on all the height restrictions on the lot — 850 units is insane on that parcel,” he said.
He said the neighborhood needs more parks and that Strada’s proposed 3 acres of open space is insufficient.
“It’s an office park with a water feature,” he said. “The pool thing is cute, but who the hell is going to swim in 55-degree bay water?”
But Alice Rogers, president of the neighborhood association representing South Beach, Rincon Hill and Mission Bay, said that the port seemed to listen to the neighbors throughout the process. She said support for housing on the seawall lot is strong.
“It has been a very inclusive process,” she said. “Many in the community are not happy about the current situation — the parking lots and the Navigation Center — and are eager to get development going.”
She said that Strada, which was the Warriors’ development partner on its Chase Arena project, “is very good about seeking local input.”
“I think they learned quite a bit during the Warriors fight,” Rogers said. “The pool and water-oriented use is the kind of things we were interested in promoting.”
While developers Strada and its partner Trammell Crow beat out two other developers as the port’s preferred option, at least one of the losing groups is not going away quietly. Vornado, the New York real estate investment trust, which owns the Bank of America building in San Francisco, said it was shortchanged during the selection process.
San Francisco developer W. George Tischer, who is working with Vornado on the bid, blasted the decision, saying that scoring underestimated his group’s financial capacity and experience developing waterfront projects in New York and elsewhere. He said that the port should take a closer look at how the points were awarded and whether the scoring was accurate.
“It’s critical that the commission understands what’s at stake here,” Tischer said. “I think the superior project got ‘home-towned’ to the detriment of the city, residents and visitors alike.”
The scoring panel awarded 109 points to Strada, 89 to Tishman Speyer and 75 to Vornado.
Vornado’s project called for far more office space that Strada’s — 850,000 square feet vs. 376,000 square feet. It also included more open space — 12.5 acres, compared to 3 acres. Vornado called for 360 housing units, less than half the number Strada would build.
Carl Shannon, who runs Tishman Speyer’s San Francisco office, declined to comment.
The Port Commission vote on Tuesday would allow port staff and Strada to start negotiating a development deal, which could take a year or more. Ultimately, the project would need approvals from the State Lands Commission, the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, as well as the Board of Supervisors.
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