To build or not to build hotels on San Francisco's waterfront?
That long-simmering issue, one of many facing the city's voters on Election Day, has provoked a storm of controversy for the beleaguered Port of San Francisco.
The self-supporting agency, desperate for new sources of cash to fund freight shipping and fishing operations, has endorsed two projects with small hotels proposed for rundown piers south of Fisherman's Wharf. The San Francisco Port Commission, in fact, has vowed to allow no more than two hotels.
But slow-growth activists fear that the port could change its mind and open the floodgates to a wave of tourist hotels that would destroy the flavor of the picturesque waterfront and put it off-limits to residents.
They have sponsored an initiative on Tuesday's ballot that would prohibit all hotel development within 100 feet of the shoreline and require that the port complete a comprehensive land-use plan before further non-maritime development could proceed.
"We don't think the hotel construction would stop there," said Jack Morrison, a former supervisor and slow-growth proponent who helped kill Mayor Art Agnos' plan for a downtown ballpark. "The threat is there would be a string of hotels north and south of the Ferry Building (the landmark port headquarters building at the foot of Market Street)."
At issue are two projects already approved by the port. One is a $70-million sailboat harbor, 170-room hotel, museum and conference facility for Piers 24 and 26, near the base of the Bay Bridge, planned by Koll Co., a developer based in Newport Beach. The other is a $120-million cruise terminal, hotel and exhibition hall on Piers 30 and 32 that has Scandinavian backing and is aimed at beefing up San Francisco's flagging cruise ship business.
The developers contend that they have been sensitive about keeping their projects in scale. At 40 feet high, a limit set by the port, both hotels would be shorter than existing buildings or bulkheads on the piers. Moreover, one member of the Scandinavian team said, the project's architectural firm is Utzon Associates of Denmark, designers of the Sydney Opera House. Hotels, both developers say, are key to making the projects feasible.
"We would have to have another use that pays for construction of the cruise terminal," said Erik Norgaard, president of Scandinavia Center Inc., the group behind the cruise terminal.
Port officials say the two projects would provide 1,300 jobs and revenue to help pay for improvements to the port's container-shipping facilities. One official added that the developments would save the port the cost of tearing out rotting piers at the sites.
"To preempt them would be utter foolishness," said James Herman, president of the Port Commission and president of the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union.
Both projects have the support of Mayor Art Agnos, who promised as a candidate to revitalize the port.
"He's very much opposed to the ban," said Scott Shafer, the mayor's press secretary. "Although the intentions may have been noble, the (Proposition H backers) have written an initiative that will paralyze the port."
Port Executive Director Michael Huerta contends that the demand for a new land-use plan could stymie other projects, such as an aquarium planned for Pier 39, and freeze the flow of cash as the port is embarking on a $100-million overhaul aimed at making it more competitive with Oakland and other West Coast ports. The port is already restricted by three land-use plans that prohibit housing and office buildings on the waterfront.
Morrison countered that a land-use plan could be completed in three to six months "if they really set their minds to it." He added that one way the port could increase revenues would be to renegotiate leases with existing restaurants and shops.
As it is, many San Franciscans contend that they have been burned by past developments along the northern waterfront near Fisherman's Wharf. Touted originally as projects that would lure city residents, Pier 39, Ghirardelli Square and the Cannery cater primarily to tourists.
Earlier efforts to put hotels on the waterfront have met with stiff resistance.
A furor erupted in 1987 when Mayor Dianne Feinstein and port authorities pushed for a hotel at Pier 45 as a way to pay for fish-handling facilities. The port voted down the hotel idea.
Despite limited funding, Morrison's group appears to be making headway. For weeks, volunteers have distributed leaflets door to door and handed out brochures at bus stops.
A poll conducted for the San Francisco Chronicle in late October showed Proposition H leading among voters, 49% to 35%.
Should it pass, Huerta, for one, is thinking ahead.
"If you're developing waterfronts," he said, "you have to be very patient. . . . The port has to look very seriously at writing that (two-hotel) limitation into law."
Times researcher Norma Kaufman contributed to this story.