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Politics & Policy

Activists score victory in move to kill controversial San Francisco harbor project

A person looks out at boats floating on the water.
A person looks out at the San Francisco Marina in October 2023. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

A grassroots neighborhood movement to stop the construction of a yacht harbor in front of the Marina Green won a victory Monday when the San Francisco Board of Supervisors’ Land Use and Transportation Committee approved an ordinance that would block the contentious plan.

Marina District neighbors began organizing their opposition last winter after learning that the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department wanted to spend some of a $160 million settlement with PG&E to finance the harbor extension. The funds were intended to clean up the bay after decades of pollution from a former coal gasification plant.

Instead of just using the funds to clean up the pollution, the city proposed putting the money toward a wholesale redesign of the area’s waterfront. Most controversial, the proposal would expand the existing West Harbor in front of the Marina Green, a popular community green space. 

If passed, the ordinance would prohibit the city from moving forward on any project that would extend the West Harbor Marina beyond the existing jetty, home to the Wave Organ, though other versions of the project would still be allowed.

The Recreation and Parks Department has argued that extending the harbor and adding a new breakwater would allow the city to cut down on costly dredging, avoid disturbing polluted sediment in the east harbor and make the marina more financially sustainable.

A map shows a proposed redesign of the marina.
A map outlines the proposed changes to the San Francisco Marina. The project would relocate boat slips from the southeast corner of the Marina to in front of Marina Green. | Source: Courtesy of San Francisco Rec and Parks

But Marina District resident Evelyn Graham wasn’t buying it. She described the Marina Green as a gorgeous, peaceful and iconic piece of San Francisco where she walks every day. When she learned about the harbor extension proposal on a Nextdoor post, she joined a small but growing group of neighbors that eventually gathered at the local library in March 2023 to strategize on how to oppose the project.

“Everyone had enthusiasm and different ideas,” Graham said.

Her thought was to contact members of the Board of Supervisors to try to get the project changed.

“When you start at the top, it’s easier to get to the top,” she said.

Meanwhile, the group, which eventually took on the name Keep the Waterfront Open, began plastering the neighborhood with signs reading “No New Harbor.” That’s what first got the attention of fellow activist Erin Roach, another Marina resident who joined up.

Now, Roach brings pocket-size flyers every time she goes to the Marina Green and hands them out to passersby, she said. Those efforts have gathered supporters from across the city who travel to the space for boating, exercise and relaxation. That geographical diversity is the key to the activists’ strength, Roach said.

“If it were just the Marina people [opposing the project], it wouldn’t be persuasive enough,” she said.

The campaign has turned hundreds of people out to community meetings to hear local politicians speak about the issue. 

That includes Supervisor Ahsha Safaí, who said the activists deserve tremendous credit for how much they’ve been able to raise the issue to city leaders.

Birds fly over the bay with the city in the background.
Birds fly over the jetty separating the San Francisco Marina from the bay in October 2023. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

Safaí authored the ordinance that sailed through committee Monday with a unanimous vote from Supervisors Aaron Peskin, Myrna Melgar and Dean Preston. 

“I think Rec and Parks had a predetermined design and idea, and they’re not interested in going through a robust community engagement and exploration of additional fundraising options, or additional ideas of design,” Safaí said.

Next, the ordinance will head to the full Board of Supervisors for a vote, then, if it passes, it’s on to the mayor’s desk.

The Mayor’s Office declined to comment on the ordinance.

The Recreation and Parks Department has warned that the ordinance could have negative impacts on the marina. For one, the project is still in its planning process, according to department spokesperson Tamara Aparton.

“This proposed ordinance would limit that process, closing off consideration of the full breadth of design options and blocking any analysis of their pros and cons,” Aparton said.

As a budget deficit looms over San Francisco and cuts are on the horizon, some observers, Safaí included, have speculated that the harbor extension proposal could be driven primarily by a desire to balance the Marina’s ledger by building pricier boat berths and saving money on dredging.

Boats float in the harbor.
Boats float at the East Harbor at Gashouse Cove in San Francisco in October 2023. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

A recent budget analyst report concluded that if the Marina project moved forward with expanding the harbor in front of the green, the Marina could become profitable, bringing in about $1 million each year.

But if the west harbor stays the same size, the city would have to turn to other options to balance the budget, either by raising boat berthing fees by 15% to 20% over already-planned increases or by charging for parking at the Marina, the report concluded.

It currently costs about $11,700 a year for a 40-foot slip in the West Harbor, the most common size. A 25-foot slip, the cheapest, is $6,000, while the priciest 100-foot slip runs $30,600 annually.

“We remain concerned that if rates are raised so much that they drive people away, that will jeopardize the marina’s ability to operate independently,” Rec and Parks official Sarah Madland said during Monday’s meeting.  

Peskin was unmoved by that argument. Shortly before voting to move the ordinance forward, he said that the department exists to provide the public with parks, not make money.

“The Recreation and Parks Department is, by design, a money loser,” Peskin said.

Noah Baustin can be reached at