Of greed, ineptitude, and disregard for child safety
I recently got an education in how bad development decisions are made in San Francisco. Specifically, I went to the Treasure Island Development Authority board meeting in San Francisco’s City Hall on On October 11, 2017. The main item on the agenda was the proposed Clipper Cove marina for megayachts costing as much as $8 million dollars, which would put San Francisco school kids’ lives at risk. Here’s a video recording; the marina discussion starts about 14 minutes in.
Here is a recap of what I learned. It’s a complex issue, so please bear with me as I document both sides of the argument, along with my conclusion.
- Spent about twenty minutes rehashing agreements made in the 1990s and various marina plans from the past 20 years. I’m assuming they did this to underscore that they’ve been waiting decades to build, to emphasize their willingness to compromise, and to increase the likelihood that anyone opposed to the marina would have to leave the meeting to return to work.
- Did not, in all this time, compare the current marina’s footprint to that of the proposed marina plan. This would have shown that the current marina is dramatically larger — over four times larger — than the marina currently in place.
- Did not mention how much the use of Clipper Cove has changed in two decades to become more of a community watersports and education center with over 5000 students participating in the San Francisco Set, Sail & Learn program in Clipper Cove.
- Did not mention that TIDA is the landlord of both Treasure Island Sailing Center (TISC) and the proposed marina. This meant that TISC can’t push too hard against the marina, for fear of antagonizing their landlord, losing their lease, and getting pushed out of the cove entirely.
- Misrepresented that there was an agreement between TISC and TIE — there isn’t one. And that this meeting was merely a rubber stamp — not a public hearing. TIE used the word “friends” as in, “I’d like to congratulate our friends at TISC for coming to agreement with us on this development.”
Arguments in favor of the megayacht marina plan
From the developers:
- Long wait: Plans to develop Clipper Cove have already been in established for 20 years.
- Scaled back: TIE has scaled back their plan, from taking over nearly all the cove (here’s the 2015 plan), to taking over “only” 32% of Clipper Cove.
- Existing agreement: TISC has agreed to the marina plan.
- Channel dredging: Treasure Island Enterprises will dredge the channel leading into the marina.
- Constant use: People from Treasure Island Yacht Club use Clipper Cove “every day”.
- They want building jobs, and this project would provide those.
From Treasure Island Yacht Club:
- The marina is falling apart and needs to be rebuilt.
- The marina is not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA); a new harbor would be compliant.
From a TIDA board member:
- There were no redevelopment funds to rebuild the private marina. So what is needed is a private/public partnership to put up funds.
Counterpoints to these arguments
Here’s a counterpoint to some of the above arguments in favor of the megayacht marina:
- Bad ideas don’t get better: Regarding the developers’ 20 year wait: bad ideas aren’t like wine; they don’t improve with age.
- Still too large: Going from taking over an entire public space to “just” 32% of a public space is still ridiculous.
- Agreement made under duress: TISC’s hands are tied. They cannot push back too hard against the marina because that could put their own lease at risk.
- Cove becomes unusably shallow: Developers will not dredge the rest of Clipper Cove, despite the fact that the current marina plan calls for a wave attenuator that may dramatically silt in the cove, similar to the San Francisco Marina, near the Wave Organ, continually fills in with sand. This can happen to the point where the cove becomes a smelly mud flat that kids cannot sail on. Not exactly a nice way to treat your “friends”, as TIE calls TISC. More important, this poses serious — as in potentially fatal — risks to SF kids. More below.
- Infrequent use: Nothing against Treasure Island Yacht Club, but they don’t use Clipper Cove every day. After probably 30 lunches and dinners at the former Treasure Island Bar and Grill, next door to TIYC, I’ve never once seen the yacht club open.
- Construction is booming: I want San Francisco’s contractors to have jobs. But we are in one of the city’s biggest building booms ever. And we just had, tragically, thousands of buildings destroyed in the North Bay fires. They should have plenty of work for the foreseeable future.
- Balanced stakeholder needs: Public/private partnerships need to be a balance of both public and private needs: how to build a profitable marina that sustains itself financially, without destroying a public resource? This feels like a land grab of a public resource.
I don’t have any counterpoints to the point that the existing marina needs to be rebuilt and made ADA-compliant. These are good points in my opinion.
Arguments against the megayacht marina plan
Massive grab: We wouldn’t think of converting one-third of Golden Gate Park to luxury condos. We wouldn’t do this because developers have been asking for 20 years. Nor would we do this to create even more construction jobs. Yet that is what’s happening here: a third of public resource — the only one of its kind in San Francisco — converted to a luxury marina.
Increased risks for kids: The marina would block out the safest water space for the thousands of San Francisco school kids participating in the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) Set, Sail and Learn program. I don’t think the developers, or anyone advocating for this massive marina, appreciate those risks. Sailing on San Francisco Bay is not a cocktail cruise; it’s some of the toughest sailing locations in the country. People come to sail our bay for the same reason people ski black diamond slopes, or ice climb mountains. It’s a tremendous challenge. But you have to respect the bay and her risks. A mile from Clipper Cove, one of the world’s best sailors was killed a few years ago while training for the Americas Cup. Other world-class sailors have been killed on our bay. Clipper Cove — especially the west side — is safe. But push kids out of the cove and into the bay, and all bets are off.
Here is specifically how risk is increased for kids by the current marina plan:
- The marina gets built right in the spot where the cove has lighter winds, and flat water, which is currently used for beginning sailing classes. This would force kids into the stronger winds and bigger waves at the east end of the Cove.
- The wave attenuator that’s part of the marina plan might silt the Cove, just as they have the San Francisco Marina, to the point where the Cove might be too shallow to sail. (Remember, TIE won’t dredge the Cove, and TISC won’t have funds to do so.) This would push the kids outside Clipper Cove, into the main portion of San Francisco Bay, where they would be exposed to high winds, large waves, and strong currents.
- When kids lack control of their boats, there are a couple of likely scenarios they face. One is capsizing their boat, putting them into 55 degree water and exposing them to a risk of hypothermia.
- A second issue is when a sailboat’s boom — a stiff aluminum pole hanging from the bottom of one of the sails — swings uncontrollably and hits a kid in the head, causing them to get a concussion, or even get knocked unconscious. This is a serious issue, since the boom can swing as fast as a baseball bat, and is much longer. Combine this with a capsize, and you have a very serious risk to a child.
- Taking massive yachts through a small cove filled with kids sailing small dinghies is like letting semi trucks drive through a playground. These massive yachts, because they are so high off the water, cannot see anything within about 50 feet of them. And they have massive propellers. So you could very easily have a situation where a mega yacht doesn’t see a child in a dinghy, and runs them down. And, very tragically, there have been situations where motorboats have run over and killed young sailors as they have been cut up by the propeller; one such incident happened last summer. While there are many risks of this marina, this is the one I shudder to think about.
- The closest hospitals to Clipper Cove are off-island and can take a long time to reach due to Bay Bridge traffic.
Illegal lack of beach access: Access to the popular Clipper Cove Beach on the west end of Clipper Cove, used in Set, Sail and Learn programming, would be blocked by the Marina. This may cause legal issues with the California Coastal Commission.
Evictions for existing residents: Current marina residents that live aboard their smaller boats — often 25 to 30 feet, and worth a few tens of thousands of dollars — would be evicted because they cannot afford to pay for a much more expensive 40 foot slip. So you have the situation of destroying middle-class housing in favor of megayacht berthing.
Benefits privileged group: This is a marina for massive yachts. The minimum slip size is 40 feet; the average: 53 feet; the maximum: 80 feet. Yachts those sizes cost high as $1,000,000, $2,000,000, and $7,000,000, respectively. This is far larger than the average of 31 feet at the current Clipper Cove Marina, and 36 feet at San Francisco’s South Beach marina. Call me crazy, but it doesn’t seem fair to privatize a public resource for the purpose of satisfying a privileged few at the expense of SF kids.
Infrequent use: These mega yachts will be very infrequently used. Studies show that pleasure yachts are used 14 times a year, about once a month. This stands in stark contrast with TISC’s nearly daily programming, much of which is related to youth sailing. So the current marina plan optimizes for a low-frequency use at the expense of a high-frequency use.
Damage to local business: The owner of a local Treasure Island grocery store said that he wanted business for his store. While he didn’t come down on one side or the other, he would get much more business from busloads of thousands of SF kids, and their families, rather than a small number of infrequent mega yacht owners.
Hurt ecosystem — and tourism revenues: The marina would destroy eel grass, which is a foundational species to the bay’s ecosystem. Eel grass supports smaller fish, which support larger fish, which support marina mammals, which supports tourism (just ask Pier 39), which drives sales tax revenue, which contributes nearly a billion dollars to our city budget and supports over 70,000 jobs. There’s a reason people visit San Francisco and not Lake Eerie.
Commercially unfeasible: One of the last argument was the most telling: during the board meeting, we NEVER heard from any future tenants saying they want these mega yacht marina slips. The market for mega yacht marinas is primarily in warm cruising grounds, such as the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, with lots of interesting ports. You can see this for yourself by checking yacht caretaker jobs and lists of yachts for sale.
In contrast, San Francisco is the middle of thousand miles of windy, foggy coast from Point Conception north of Santa Barbara all the way to Seattle. You don’t see megayachts pulling into Eureka the way they go to St. Barth’s or Monaco. For them, San Francisco is a gateway to a whole lot of nothing. And this matters because a public/private partnership needs to be financially self-sustaining. There is a significant risk that this mega yacht marina will end up as a commercial failure that needs a taxpayer-funded bailout.
I’m fine with the marina being rebuilt to its current footprint of 7% of Clipper Cove, as are a number of people who spoke against the current plan. Keep the needs of current tenants and liveaboards in mind when designing slip spaces, so they aren’t evicted. Keep the slips smaller than the current plan, 25 to 40 feet, to meet the needs of the current San Francisco boating market.
The head of TIDA asked a critical question: Can kids safely use Clipper Cove given the current plan? TISC couldn’t provide an emphatic answer, for fear of losing their lease. But those with freedom to speak, and experience sailing the bay, clear stated: No, the marina will put kids at risk.
If you agree that the Clipper Cove marina should keep kids safe, please sign our petition.
Once we get past the question of if the marina should be built and how large it should be, we need to address the following flaw in its design. Slips run east/west, aligned with the prevailing westerly winds that blow in from the Pacific. This means that any boats docking from the windward side will be coming into their slip very fast, perhaps uncontrollably so. This presents a number of risks:
- Damage to the bow of the yacht as they crash into the dock.
- Injury to a person walking down the dock, in case the bowsprit of the boat, or its anchor, hits them on the head.
- Liability for damages related to the above.
- Damage to dock cleats, as the crew attempts to stop the boat with a quick loop of a dock line around the cleat, similar to how a plane uses its tail hook to stop on an aircraft carrier. This puts a lot of force on the cleats, and may eventually pull the cleats out of the dock, leading to the need to replace the docks.
- Lack of attractiveness of the Clipper Cove Marina to yacht owners and their captains.
A much better idea is to have the slips run north/south. This prevents yachts from “coming in hot” and crashing into dock. The San Francisco Marina at Marina Green is setup this way.
More broadly, this is another way in which Treasure Island Enterprises demonstrates that they don’t really understand the strong wind conditions of San Francisco Bay. This lack of understanding may explain why they are proposing a massive marina that puts San Francisco kids at risk.