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The Warriors’ Waterfront War: Friends, Foes Taking Arena Fight To Voters

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Artist rendering of the proposed San Francisco waterfront arena for the Golden State Warriors. (Snøhetta and AECOM)

Artist rendering of the proposed San Francisco waterfront arena for the Golden State Warriors. (Snøhetta and AECOM)

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SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — In May of 2012, the Golden State Warriors didn’t talk like they were shooting for a waterfront arena; they talked like it was a slam-dunk. Standing beneath the Bay Bridge, they described how their new home court would be a catalyst for Embarcadero development and a landmark for the city. Since then, the political landscape for such a development has shifted.

This week, San Francisco voters rejected an unrelated waterfront development, and that has a lot of people wondering if the Warriors will face the same kind of opposition. It appears as though the war on the waterfront is just beginning.

They were outspent 4 to 1, but a small, yet feisty group of activists convinced voters to kill a luxury condo project called 8 Washington, arguing that it was too tall, and too rich.

“It was a landslide,” says former San Francisco mayor Art Agnos, who helped lead the charge against 8 Washington. He calls his victory against the luxury condominium development a warm-up for a fight against the arena.

“A resounding defeat for the kind of project that was called for over there, as well as what is proposed for over here,” says Agnos, drawing a direct comparison between 8 Washington and the Warriors’ proposed waterfront arena.

The Warriors don’t exactly see it that way.

“Art Agnos won a game of ping pong and he thinks he is a Wimbledon champion,” responded Warriors spokesman Nate Ballard. “If we held an election tomorrow, the Warriors arena would win overwhelmingly.”

Ping-Pong, basketball, ballot initiatives — it’s just getting started.

“I know some of the people who opposed 8 Washington will also oppose the arena,” concedes San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, a supporter of both projects.

The 8 Washington battle was fought in the heart of San Francisco’s central waterfront, just north of the Ferry Building on a sea wall parking lot owned by the city. The Warriors want to set up shop exactly one mile to the south, where Pier 30-32 is literally falling into the water.

However, those plans don’t end with an arena. The project financing depends largely on a hotel/condominium/shopping development that would be built right across the street, on a parking lot technically known as Seawall Lot 330.

Sound familiar?

“A city-owned parking place. Luxury condos from $5 to $10 million apiece, 17 stories high,” says Agnos, continuing to draw parallels between the two projects. “It’s the same thing.”

“We’ve got sort of an expensive condo-on-the-waterfront element, but that’s really where it ends,” says KPIX 5 political analyst Melissa Griffin, who thinks the comparisons end with the luxury condo angle.

There is one obvious difference between the two projects. While people may not get excited about luxury condos, a lot of people do get excited about the Warriors and concerts or maybe tractor pulls. Griffin says it will be easier to find people that feel invested in an arena, and willing to to cast a vote in support of it, “as opposed to the reverse with 8 Washington.”

It should also be noted that this is not just any arena.

The architectural firm hired for the job is Snohetta, based in Oslo and New York. Visit their website and you’ll see an opera house submerged in icy Norwegian seas, plans for the SF MOMA expansion, a Saudi metro station that looks like science fiction, and yes, something of a Guggenheim for basketball.

Didn’t voters just say “no” to big buildings on the waterfront?

Jon Golinger ran the campaign that defeated 8 Washington, and while he’s not taking a position on the arena, he says Tuesday’s lesson was clear.

“Hands off our waterfront,” explains Golinger. “You can develop it in a way that’s open and fair, and within the existing rules, but if you go outside that, we’re going to have something to say about it.”

Perhaps with that lesson in mind, there are already reports that the Warriors will be scaling back the seawall lot development in their next designs. It also remains to be seen whether environmental groups will support an arena on the bay, how Embarcadero traffic will be managed, and whether simmering anger over housing prices, soaring rents and the perceived invasion of big money will prompt a voter backlash against big money.

One thing is certain — the voters will settle this battle.

“Actually, the people who might put it on the ballot are the Golden State Warriors themselves,” says Griffin, describing the developing chess match over which side takes the fight to the ballot box.

That move could save the Warriors the trouble of negotiating over their plans, especially if they’re convinced public opinion is on their side.

The Warriors will release the latest draft of their arena plans some time in the next several weeks.

(Copyright 2013 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed)

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