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SF Waterfront redevelopment

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Businesses grind Mills over project

James Temple

The opening shots have been fired in what one participant described as "the war" over a $200 million project on San Francisco's waterfront.

Citizens to Save the Waterfront, a group that includes heavyweight property owners and businesses along Fisherman's Wharf, has begun circulating materials critical of Mills Corp.'s pending "waterfront Mega Mall at Piers 27-31," in an attempt to line up opposition to the project.

The group's efforts for now involve spreading the word and engaging the developer directly on the project's perceived shortcomings. But Citizens to Save the Waterfront is prepared to pump up the pressure.

"We fully intend to appeal to the sensibilities of ... the Board of Supervisors, the mayor, the folks at the Port and Planning Commission, the state and then if necessary, the voters of San Francisco," said one member of the group, a Fisherman's Wharf property owner.

Meanwhile, Mills Corp. has already fired back, sending a memo of its own to city officials that accuses the group of spreading misinformation and poses the rhetorical, "Why is Pier 39 trying to keep San Franciscans away from their waterfront?"

Pier 39 is a member of the group, but spokeswoman Alicia Vargas denied that it's leading the effort. She said the group had yet to pick a leader. Also involved are other Fisherman's Wharf retailers, including the Cannery's Chris Martin, the Wax Museum's Rodney Fong, as well as land-use attorney Sue Hestor. In addition, the group includes neighborhood and environmental organizations, Hestor said.

The proposed Piers 27-31 project includes more than 140,000 square feet of retail and restaurants, 220,000 square feet of office, 200,000 square feet of indoor recreation and marine sports facilities, including a 110,000-square-foot YMCA, and 88,000 square feet of outdoor recreation. Mills won the Port Commission's initial approval in early 2001, after beating out Chelsea Piers' competing plan for a sports complex at the 11th hour, a decision that many say smacked of political string-pulling by Mayor Willie Brown.

Martin and Vargas both argue that the Chelsea Piers concept was more in keeping with the Waterfront Land Use Plan adopted by the Port of San Francisco in 1997, which prioritizes uses that attract San Franciscans to the waterfront.

But they voice other concerns as well.

"As with any major development, particularly along the Embarcadero, which has limited access, we have concerns about how its growth will be accommodated, particularly in terms of traffic and parking," Martin said.

The group's flier says the project falls 1,597 parking spaces short of San Francisco Planning Department requirements, that no provision has been made for "parking or the safe loading and unloading of children" from YMCA buses, that the project will add thousands of additional vehicles to the "currently very congested" streets between Embarcadero and downtown, and that the public transportation infrastructure is not adequate to serve the project.

One member also expressed concerns about adding more retail to the already battered San Francisco market, where shop vacancies are on the rise, while tourist counts and hotel occupancy are down.

But is this just sour grapes from Fisherman's Wharf retailers unhappy about new competition that would literally be just around the corner?

Vargas insists no, noting that Pier 39 supported the Ferry Building, PacBell Park and Chelsea Piers proposals.

"What we don't want is a project that clogs streets and causes a traffic nightmare and misleads the public into believing it's recreational, when it's office and retail," Vargas said.

Asked what form the effort against the project would take, attorney Hestor responded: "Why would we tell you at this point? We have some surprises up our sleeves."

Mills touts benefits

Mills disputes all of the group's claims.

"At the end of the day, this project includes over 800,000 square feet of recreation, open space and public access," said project spokesman David D'Onofrio. In addition to the YMCA, that includes an outdoor skateboard park and a sailing school.

In terms of traffic, D'Onofrio emphasizes that the Port itself limited parking spaces in the original request for proposals, that the company is working with city officials to increase Muni's nearby F and E lines and that it will soon announce a "historic" transit-friendly agreement.

Mills' memo reveals that to be a deal with City CarShare to open San Francisco's largest "pod," or car drop-off, on the project site.

D'Onofrio also highlights the project's economic development impact, saying it would generate 1,600 union jobs during construction and 1,800 permanent jobs upon completion.

Citizens to Save the Waterfront's flier also suggests that Mills, a national mall developer, may try to convert the project's 220,000-square-foot office portion into retail after the approvals are in place, given the weakness in the office market.

D'Onofrio said that the project, which has already been approved by the State Lands Commission and is in the middle of an environmental impact report and design review, is too far along the planning process to legally make such a substantial change. In addition, he said Mills wouldn't convert the space even if it could.

"This is coming a few years down the road and the city (office market) will recover by then," D'Onofrio said, pointing to a recent improvement in the office vacancy rate. "It's the most curious part of their argument."

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