Saunders: Google’s barge glides by where others hit SF snags
December 6, 2013
The developers who wanted to build 8 Washington in San Francisco spent seven years lobbying City Hall — winning approval from the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors — only to watch opponents kill the project by putting a successful measure on the November ballot.
Suckers. Google simply started building a four-story barge made of stacked shipping containers flanked by giant white sails on a Treasure Island pier. No hoops.
That's San Francisco for you. If you want to build condos, you have to beg for up to a decade. If you want to replace an unsafe bridge, two decades. But if you're a tech biggie and you want to build a riverboat for geeks, surf's up.
Ever coy — a euphemism for secretive — Google won't even disclose what the pop-up building is for. A statement sent to reporters teased: "A floating data center? A wild party boat? A barge housing the last remaining dinosaur? Sadly, none of the above. Although it's still early days and things may change, we're exploring using the barge as an interactive space where people can learn about new technology."
Does this mean the Googleheads are not even sure what they're building and they see Treasure Island as their own private Legoland? Did they decide one day, "Just for the fun of it, let's build something that looks like the Sydney Opera House after it was subjected to a trash compactor"?
Word is that Google wants to make a floating showroom that it can dock around the country.
When I sent Google a request for permission to come on board, an anonymous Google official responded with a refusal and template language about "interactive space." As with all things Google, Google HQ talks up interacting but does not deign to interact with others.
Interacting with Google is like being the suspect in a TV police interrogation. You do all the interacting while The All-Seeing Search Engine hears all from the sly side of the mirror.
In a city that requires buildings to be "bird-safe," how does Google get to stack up, hoist sail and drop anchor without so much as a public hearing?
San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission Executive Director Larry Goldzband told me BCDC has "an investigation to determine the permit for that pier that enabled the permit holder to actually do such marine construction." He has met with Google reps and still isn't sure.
Goldzband also said that construction is on hold.
On the one hand, BCDC doesn't usually approve projects that fill "the bay when you have an alternative upland location." Read: terra firma. His commission's job is to protect a state resource, the San Francisco Bay.
On the other hand, there's a D for Development after the C for Conservation. San Francisco styles itself as a leader of innovation. If some bureaucrats tell Google to pack up its Erector set and find someplace else to play, the corporation could take its gazillion marbles elsewhere.
Goldzband says one factor might be whether Google plans to moor Casper the Barge "for an extended period of time." If so, "it is considered fill."
What is an extended period of time? Quoth Goldzband, "Extended period of time is not defined in legislation."
And: "I don't think they're daring us. I think they're trying to do something and they've come to realize that there are rules on how you use bay resources that are different than the rules" on land.
Let's talk about envy for a moment. About a month ago, my husband and I went out to dinner before the opera. Our waitress was diligent at one thing — avoiding eye contact, with us and another peeved middle-aged couple. A half-hour after we were seated, what we took to be a young tech couple sat down and quickly surmised how challenged the service was. The couple didn't bother trying to flag the waitress; the guy just walked up to a manager and told him what he wanted. The techies were served promptly.
All I could think was: Why didn't we do that? I know why we stayed. We wanted to eat before "The Barber of Seville." But why did we settle for letting ourselves fume and fret — and pay for the privilege?
San Francisco sets up so many hurdles. Downtown has a shrinking supply of parking lots and a growing surfeit of Google buses and Town Cars. But don't try to buy a takeout lunch without paying for a bag, because bags are bad for the environment.
Everyone would be better off if Scold City treated the people who live, work and shop here more like Google and treated Google less like Twitter.
Somewhere, Larry Ellison's architects must be watching and salivating. They probably have one intern researching Cleopatra's royal barge and another computing how many square feet they can walk onto the water.
— Email Debra J. Saunders at firstname.lastname@example.org. To find out more about Debra J. Saunders and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at http://www.creators.com.