Why Does San Francisco Even Bother to Keep Its Piers?

Scott Lucas | August 19, 2014 | Story Politics

You may not have noticed this, given that everyone in town is either coding an app that lets you cut the line at the dentist's office, driving Task Rabbit contractors to work in an Uber, or staging sit-ins in front of Danielle Steel's giant hedge, but though it once was, San Francisco isn't a port town now. We have gangs of longshoremen loading and unloading crates of spices from the Far East along our waterfront. All those cargo ships you see in the Bay are headed for the Port of Oakland.

So why do we still have piers?

Let's face it—there's only two things that these relics of a now-vanished civilization along our waterfront are good for. One is stirring up civic controversy as we debate whether we should allow big ticket items like the Lucas museum or the Warriors stadium on them. The other? Costing a boatload of money to keep them from crumbling into the Bay.

The Examiner is reporting today that Piers 30 to 32 are going to require an infusion of $87 million just to keep them structurally sound over the next ten years. Even a minor earthquake could knock them down. And what does the city get in return for that investment? An 13-acre parking lot that barely sees use now, and has no clear path to use in the future. Even the Examiner all but admits it: "It's not clear what purpose a rehabbed pier would serve."

It often seems like our collective vision for many of the piers—and the waterfront as a whole—is predicated on what isn't allowed to happen there. No hotels. No tall buildings. No museums—whether tacky like the Spy museum or kind of cool, like George Lucas's proposal. No basketball stadiums. At some point, maybe it's time to step back and ask the more important question: Why bother?

Collectively, the chances of the Art Agnos progressives and big-money developers ever coming to a lasting agreement over the use of these Piers—as well as the rest of the ones that need refurbishment—is negligible. So why can't we borrow a page from the nuclear arms reduction playbook and agree to mutual disarmament?

Just think of it—keep the piers we like, like the one that house the Exploratorium or Pier 39, which keeps the tourists happy—and forget about the ones that we don't use. The water would be brought that much closer to the city, we'd find something else to argue about, and we'd save a great deal of money.

What, exactly, would we have to lose? At this point, keeping the empty piers is like leaving your kid's bedroom intact long after they've moved out and gotten married. Just ask Detroit—sometimes the best thing you can do for a city is knock down part of it.

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