The Golden State Warriors' decision this week to abandon plans to build a new arena on piers along the San Francisco waterfront is not just a local development issue, but rather the latest example of a 40-year trend around San Francisco Bay.
No matter how rich or how politically connected, people who have proposed projects that environmentalists say are "filling the bay" or "walling off the bay" have nearly always seen those plans end in defeat.
From a proposal to build new runways at San Francisco International Airport 15 years ago to more recent plans to build 12,000 homes on former salt ponds in Redwood City to efforts to fill wetlands in Richmond or Vallejo, environmentalists have had a staggeringly efficient record of stalling, shrinking and usually killing bay front projects.
"There are some things that are pretty close to sacrosanct, and the bay, especially for Northern Californians, is one of those things," said Larry Gerston, a political-science professor at San Jose State.
Since the Gold Rush of 1849, San Francisco Bay shrank by a third, as people diked, dredged and filled its waters to create airport runways, housing subdivisions and other development. But that largely stopped by the 1970s -- and now federal and state agencies have been steadily restoring wetlands and shoreline, turning thousands of acres from San Jose to Napa back to natural conditions and expanding the bay's footprint.
"People in the Bay Area, no matter how long they have been here, whether they are a newcomer or a native, understand how precious the bay is to those of use who live here," said former San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos, who helped lead opposition to the Warriors' plan to build a new arena at Piers 30-32.
The change in public attitudes has been dramatic.
In 1961, there were only 6 miles of trails along the bay shoreline open to the public. The rest was in shipyards, industrial sites, military bases, commercial salt ponds, hayfields, highways and garbage dumps. Today, there are more than 330 miles of public trails.
"The bay is cleaner, people can get to the bay and there's huge resistance to going backward and filling in or walling it off," said David Lewis, executive director of Save the Bay, an environmental group in Oakland. "People see the progress. They are experiencing and enjoying it."
That has made it much easier for environmental groups to rally opposition. In fact, not a single major development has been approved anywhere along the San Francisco Bay waterfront over the objections of major environmental groups since the 1970s.
Gone are the days, like those in 1962, when developer Jack Foster poured 1.5 million dump trucks full of dirt and gravel into the bay along San Mateo County's shoreline to create Foster City without much public outcry or opposition.
Major developments have been blocked at Cullinan Ranch near Vallejo, Arrowhead Marsh in Oakland, the Palo Alto baylands and dozens of other places.
Many Bay Area residents are too young to remember some of the biggest battles, such as the one spawned by the plan by David Rockefeller and Crocker Land Co. in the late 1960s and early 1970s to cut the top off San Bruno Mountain along Highway 101 and use the dirt to build an island the size of Manhattan along 27 miles of San Mateo County shoreline.
"There are still people proposing projects, but most of the big ones have come to a screaming stop," said Marc Holmes, a program officer with the Bay Institute, an environmental group.
There are three reasons that major bay front development has stalled, longtime observers say. First, tough federal and state laws like the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act, which came into being in the early 1970s, require developers to obtain costly, detailed permits before building on wetlands or harming wildlife. If they cut corners, opponents can file lawsuits.
Second, state rules now block filling of the bay, with permits required from the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, which was approved by Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1969.
Finally, development opponents have won at the ballot box. In 2001, after then-San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and other powerful leaders endorsed plans to build new runways at SFO a mile out into the bay, San Francisco voters passed a measure to ban all bay filling over 100 acres without a vote of the people, effectively killing the project.
Similarly, in 1982, when Mobil Oil proposed building 20,000 homes at Bair Island, near Redwood City, environmentalists put the measure on the ballot and killed the plan by a margin of 42 votes. A Japanese developer tried again, finally giving up in 1997 and selling the land for $15 million to the Peninsula Open Space Trust. Today, Bair Island is part of a national wildlife refuge, its wetlands thick with harbor seals, fish, herons, egrets, joggers and walkers.
Opponents of the Warriors' plan, including the Sierra Club, were concerned about traffic, the arena's height and project plans to fill part of the bay. They gathered 21,000 signatures in a month to place a measure on the June ballot in San Francisco that would ban construction of new buildings along the city's waterfront in excess of existing height limits without voter approval.
If Proposition B passes, the team would face years of lawsuits and political battles -- and no guarantee the arena would ever be built.
The Warriors will move the location of their arena to the Mission Bay area of San Francisco, on a lot near Third and 16th streets -- near the water, but not over the bay itself.
In an interview Monday night, the team's co-owner, billionaire Joe Lacob, told Bay Area News Group columnist Tim Kawakami that the main reason for the move is that the team won't have to obtain as many permits to open the stadium by 2018.
"We did a lot of polling, and we could've won," Lacob said of Proposition B. "But there was opposition -- lawsuits and everything -- that could've held us up for a while. This has a much easier and simpler regulatory path."