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S.F. Yacht Race Inspires Changes on Dry Land

In two years the world's biggest event on water will take place in San Francisco. But, like many other mega-sporting events, the 34th America's Cup is expected to have no small impact on land. 

With an expected draw of hundreds of thousands of spectators, San Francisco is already contemplating plans to capitalize on the crowds and prestige of the America's Cup. While it's no Olympics or World Cup in terms of scope, the event does present the city with an opportunity to bring about long-term changes. San Francisco was named as the host of the event on December 31, and its plans – both short- and long-term – are already unfolding.

The America's Cup is traditionally hosted by a yacht club associated with the past winner and is therefore chosen largely by fiat, in contrast with the fierce competition for the Olympic Games. Bay Area luminary Larry Ellison – CEO of Oracle Corp. – won the Cup in 2010 and spearheaded the efforts to bring the race to his home waters. 

The race itself will take place in a wobbly ring within the Bay, meandering along the Embarcadero and Bay Bridge, past Treasure Island and Angel Island, over to the Marin Headlands, and then a quick in-and-out beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. Its organizers expect viewers to watch from all around the Bay, but the focus of attention will be around the city's piers, which will host the main viewing areas as well as a number of temporary facilities for the event. 

The city's bayfront between the Golden Gate and Bay bridges is already a busy tourist area, and the months-long racing events are expected to bring upwards of 200,000 visitors a day to the area. Most of the event-related work will be temporary, and much of it is centered around Piers 27 and 29. This will be the main viewing area, and also the site of the America's Cup village. The racing teams will be based at Piers 30 and 32, and will be the site of much activity during the main racing events held between July and September 2013, as well as during preliminary racing events held in summer 2012. 

Part of the hosting deal between the city and the America's Cup Event Authority includes significant infrastructure investments from the organizers that would refresh a number of aging piers. In exchange for a reported $80 million infrastructure investment, organizers get development rights and a 66-year lease on the Pier 30-32 and Pier 26-28 complexes. Overall, eight piers will see renovations or improvements ahead of the events, and a number of channels will be dredged. A report from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors' budget analyst in November projected a direct cost of hosting the Cup at about $42 million, not including lost revenue for the development rights and free leases handed over.

The events and related work are expected to create a $1.4 billion economic impact for the city and region, according to America's Cup Event Authority spokesperson Stephanie Martin.

The city of San Francisco recently announced a notice of preparation for the project's environmental impact report. A draft EIR is expected to be complete by this summer. Due to the tight deadlines of the event, the environmental review process has been expedited, according to Joy Navarrete, a senior environmental planner in the San Francisco Planning Department. She says the city was able to cut time by skipping the bidding process for an EIR consultant. Instead of the typical 12 to 18 months, this review is expected to take about 11 months. 

"But that's assuming the project description doesn't change," said Navarrete.

As the event looms, city officials are trying to plan for the expected boost to traffic in the areas around the main event attractions. With tourist attractions like the Fisherman's Wharf and Pier 39, the area already has a high volume of foot and car traffic. A recent study of Jefferson Street between Pier 39 and Fisherman's Wharf found weekend pedestrian traffic of more than 70,000 people a day. During the event, even more pedestrian traffic is expected. In fact, it's being encouraged, according to Michael Martin, the America's Cup project director for the city.

"What we recognize very acutely is that this can't be a car event," said Martin. "We don't have enough parking, the places where people are going to want to watch this are in a lot of residential neighborhoods, so we're really looking hard at how do we make a transit, a pedestrian, a bicycle kind of program that really encourages people to not use their cars."

Though much of the event's preparations are temporary, one element will coincidentally become a very important part of the city for the long term. A previously planned new cruise ship terminal will be built at the Pier 27-29 complex, which will also serve as the America's Cup village. Partial construction on the terminal will begin before the event, creating a spectator and concessions area. Major construction on the terminal will commence after the racing event is over.

Over the long-term, the America's Cup does have the potential for creating major change in the city. Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, sees the event as an opportunity to kickstart investments in the area that can benefit the city beyond the event. Much of that opportunity lies in transit projects and public space improvements along the waterfront. One of SPUR's recommendations is the extension of the city's historic F-Line streetcar further past Fisherman's Wharf to Fort Mason.

"The long term improvements don't happen automatically," said Metcalf. "We can make some key investments in public spaces and public transit that will be here for the long run. They will help us handle the volume of visitors for the America's Cup, and they will be things that we use and rely on long after the America's Cup."

The Golden Gate National Recreation Area's Fort Mason Center and the National Maritime Historic Park recently released a draft environmental impact statement for the proposed extension of the F-Line. The study for this $29 million project is expected to complete by January, and streetcars could be rolling in time for the America's Cup. The source of funding, however, remains an unanswered question.

But Martin in the city's office argues that the event's impact won't only be on the built environment, but also on the logistics of the city.

"It's also ways that we're moving people around the city or these information technology tools that could be demonstrated on an event basis, but then we suddenly see the value of them not only to this event but for other events and daily operation of the city," said Martin.

Other long-term goals of the city are also being fast-tracked because of the America's Cup. For example, the event is likely to give extra weight to the Fisherman's Wharf Public Realm Plan. Originally envisioned in 2006, the plan seeks a redesign of the streetscape and circulation of a heavily toured area that hadn't been updated in more than 50 years.  The draft plan was approved last summer. Project Manager Neil Hrushowy of the city planning department says that the America's Cup has put the Fisherman's Wharf area even more in the spotlight.

"There's a lot of political attention and the realization that there's going to be a whole lot of people from every part of the globe looking at San Francisco and Fisherman's Wharf," said Hrushowy. "So we really want to look good for that."

While the plan and its focus on urban design might have otherwise been a harder sell during tough economic times, the America's Cup has given it a significant boost.

"It's something that's easy for a politician to pick up and say ‘let's do it'. There's not a whole lot of work that has to be done before we can move towards final design and then implementation," Hrushowy said. "The timing's worked really well for us."

This will be the first time San Francisco has hosted the America's Cup, and it may not be the last. Traditionally, the winner of the race gets to pick the venue for the next event. And this being the first time the event will have a large on-shore viewing audience, many expect it to be well-received by the racing teams. And though the America's Cup could potentially become a recurring part of San Francisco's waterfront, local officials are wary about thinking too far ahead into the future.

"It's just an event," said Navarrete of the city planning department. "For now, we're looking at it as a one-time event."

(CP&DR contributor Nate Berg covered the urban impacts of the 2010 World Cup.)

Contacts:

Stephanie Martin, Spokesperson, America's Cup Event Authority, 949.395.4532

Joy Navarrete, Senior Environmental Planner, San Francisco Planning Department, 415.575.9040

Michael Martin, America's Cup Project Director, City of San Francisco, 415.554.6937

Gabriel Metcalf, Executive Director, San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, 415.644.4285

Neil Hrushowy, Fisherman's Wharf Public Realm Plan Project Manager, San Francisco Planning Department, 415.558.6471

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