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New Warriors arena in San Francisco not a slam dunk

San Francisco’s waterfront is booming. It’s become a major destination for tourists and locals, celebrated two World Series wins, and is currently playing host to an international sailing race. There’s a new cruise ship terminal, and a re-invented Exploratorium. And now the waterfront is preparing itself for another huge makeover.

In May of last year, the Golden State Warriors basketball team announced that they wanted to leave their Oakland complex and move across the Bay.  

It’s been 41 years since the Warriors have played here in San Francisco and in my humble opinion it’s time to welcome them home,” Mayor Ed Lee said last spring at a press conference.

But in order to move, they’d need somewhere to play. So on a sunny day last spring, Mayor Lee, city officials, and representatives from the Warriors gathered at Piers 30-32 on the Embarcadero. With the Bay behind them, they unveiled a proposal for a twelve-story glass arena, situated out on the water under the Bay Bridge.

The arena isn’t going to be cheap. The latest estimates suggest it will cost the Warriors up to a billion dollars, and the city at least a hundred and twenty million in private construction costs. But Mayor Lee says it’s an investment: a construction project that would create thousands of jobs, and an arena whose proximity to public transit would draw fans --- and their wallets --- from around the region.

More importantly for the city, it would allow a private company to fix up the crumbling Pier, something local leaders have been trying to accomplish for more than twenty years, and that the city can’t afford to do itself. To hear Mayor Lee tell it, everyone is on board.

“We’ve got commissioners from our port, staff from our port, recreation and park department planning department. We have our board of supervisors from all of the different districts...”

But zoom out from the press conference, and you’ll find project critics. Former mayor Art Agnos served from 1988 to 1992. After the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, he led the effort to tear down the Embarcadero Freeway rather than rebuild it. The new arena, he said, would undo that good work.

“Throughout the previous 30 years that I’d lived in San Francisco, people would say, look at the double decker freeway that used to spoil the entire waterfront...people would say, who the hell did that?” he said. “And I predict should this facility be built at that particular site, people will look at it three or four years from now and say, who the hell did that?”

The arena will sit right on the piers, occupying an area about three times the size of Union Square. Proponents point out that the development includes a significant amount of open, public space. Plus it’s close to transit... In short, it’s green. But Agnos said it’s not green enough. “We don’t have the traffic, we don’t have the traffic plan to accommodate almost six million people in any part of the city, especially that one,” he said.

Across the street from the development site, right underneath the Bay Bridge, Katy Liddell lives in an eighth floor apartment. She also chairs the Citizens’ Advisory Committee (CAC), for the arena development. In her apartment are thick folders full of people’s questions about the project, ranging from air quality to pedestrian safety. Liddell’s got a personal stake, too.

“I’m sitting in here at my place looking around and I know I have to dust every day,” she said. “I have black dust that comes in and I know that that’s a result of the Bay Bridge and the cars and the traffic around me.”

The city’s acknowledged these issues. Jennifer Matz, the Mayor’s Director of Waterfront Development, said a project of this scale will require an extensive environmental look.

Even though the architectural plans aren’t finalized, the Warriors took a risk and paid millions to have this environmental review start earlier than it normally would. This raised eyebrows among people who oppose the project. People like former mayor Art Agnos are suspicious that the review, called an EIR, has been fast-tracked.

But Matz says this EIR will actually take longer than usual --up to a year and a half. There’s a lot to study: everything from how construction will affect marine life to whether the arena’s glass facade is a hazard to birds. And, of course, the traffic.

Peter Albert works with Urban Planning Initiatives for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, or MTA. He’s drafted an entire waterfront assessment, looking at how projects from Hunter’s Point Shipyard to Crissy Field will affect how people get around.

“It doesn’t do anybody any good if solutions for any particular project don't really jive well with solutions with the project next door,” Albert said.

Albert added that the Warriors are already brainstorming smart transportation options that could also be seen as future investments for the city -- things like working with existing garages to stay open late for games, or selling transit passes along with game tickets.

But ultimately, overlapping games isn’t even the biggest issue.

Last October, while the Giants were busy winning the World Series, Oakland’s Oracle Arena put on jazz and comedy shows, Warriors preseason games, and a Justin Bieber concert. The new arena will hold 19,000 people, and it’s supposed to put on 150 events a year. Which means the Giants fans, and the Beliebers, could be partying on the same night, in the same neighborhood. Katy Liddell says that will have obvious consequences.

“People who come to games or events right now leave their litter, they use the sidewalks as bathrooms, and it’s just generally very dirty here in the neighborhood after an event,” she said.

City waterfront director Jennifer Matz said that’s the kind of thing the city is working hard to remember. “We have no intention of choking the neighbors in order to benefit patrons of an arena or a ballpark,” she said.

Furthermore, part of this project’s appeal for the city is this experimentation, and risk.

“Many cities at this stage in their development in Western countries and certainly in the United States, have something of a finished quality to them,” said Matz. “I think San Francisco has an opportunity to not be a finished city, but to still be a city that is continuing to evolve and define itself. And one of the places that we are most perfectly set up to have that conversation and to do that is along our waterfront.”

Many people have pushed the city in the past. Even former mayor Art Agnos proposed a cruise ship terminal called the Scandinavian Center, back in 1990. But the money fell through. Just as it did in 2000, 2008, and last fall when Oracle abandoned a proposal for a permanent America’s Cup development on the Pier. The Warriors seem willing to spend. Maybe one billion dollars. But for now, a San Francisco arena isn’t a slam dunk.