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Why the Golden State Warriors’ San Francisco arena no longer seems like a sure thing

Eric Freeman
Ball Don't Lie

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An aerial rendering of the new Warriors arena along San Francisco Bay (via Warriors.com).

In May 2012, the Golden State Warriors unveiled plans for a sparkling arena on Pier 30-32 on the waterfront of San Francisco Bay. The move across the Bay Bridge figured to give the franchise greater chances at profits, a more cosmopolitan image, and an improved shot at nabbing big-name free agents. The artist's renderings were impressive (confusing inclusion of multiple kayaks notwithstanding) and presented the project in its best possible light. With full support of Mayor Ed Lee and city leaders, the Warriors looked likely to move by 2017.

Eighteen months and two designs later, the project continues to move forward but looks like much less of a sure thing. Although city government continues to support the project, activists and other civic voices have spoken out against its aims and underlying philosophy. In the midst of widespread concern about the direction and perceived changing character of San Francisco, the new arena has become both a tangible and symbolic source of controversy.

The organization's third plan for the project, announced Tuesday on the third anniversary of owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber taking control of the franchise, helps explain some of the issues at play. From the press release at Warriors.com:

Today, the site is a dilapidated 13-acre pier that’s falling into the Bay. The Warriors would restore the crumbling pier, build a new event pavilion, and create nearly eight acres of new public open space on the waterfront – the equivalent of three new Union Squares.

With parks, plazas, and wide-open paths featuring views of the Bay, in “Design 3.0” the open space has grown from half of the project area to 60 percent. The new, slimmed-down design reduces the event center area by over 30,000 square feet, expands total open space by nearly one acre, lowers building heights, and removes 1.3 million cubic feet of volume. [...]

“This is an incredible opportunity for the region,” Lacob said. “Building a state-of-the-art, environmentally friendly event pavilion, amid a myriad of public transportation options, represents smart development and an incredible economic engine, and it will ensure that the Warriors remain the Bay Area’s NBA team for the next 50 years.”

“Going into this project, we wanted to build a world-class event center that incorporates the best in design and technology,” said Peter Guber, Co-Executive Chairman of the Warriors. “Now, because of the constructive feedback we’ve received, Piers 30-32 will also be transformed into a world-class waterfront park and public gathering place that serves as a model of sustainable urban development.”

You can take a look at the full set of updated renderings here, and check out the press release for further explanations of the differences between each of the three versions of the project.

It should be noted that the designs all look very nice, in keeping with what we've come to expect from state-of-the-art basketball arenas in 2013. It's easy to see why the Warriors want this project to move forward, and the city clearly supports it because it has the chance to bring in additional revenue.

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An artist's rendering of the arena complex, with a slice of bay views to the right (via Warriors.com).

However, the form of the press release helps explain why the arena project has faced opposition. On November 5, San Francisco voters flatly rejected plans to develop a high-priced housing complex — widely promoted as a set of new parks, which was wildly misleading — at 8 Washington St., a space only a short 1.1-mile walk from the Pier 30/32 site. Voters opposed the measure for many reasons, including the very concept of deciding on development projects through ballot initiatives, but the loudest opposition came from citizens who believed (with plenty of merit) that the project would benefit a relatively small group of San Franciscans while simultaneously blocking views of the bay (for, it should be said, a larger group that is nonetheless pretty wealthy in its own right), placing a private housing complex in the middle of a fair amount of public space, and introducing a fairly standard-issue, antiseptic design property into a downtown area with a rich architectural history.

Not surprisingly, the same groups that opposed the 8 Washington development have turned their efforts towards the arena plans, with concerns regarding the project's environmental impact, the height of the arena and its related effect on views of the bay, the rather antiseptic quality of the architecture, and various other issues that impact large segments of the city's population. Their worry, in part, is that the arena will really only benefit those corporations and individuals wealthy enough to purchase season tickets. For the rest of the city, it'll represent what many longtime residents see as a widespread effort to rob San Francisco of its unique qualities and turn the city into a playground for its richest denizens. It's an argument that's found traction as the current tech boom facilitates rapid gentrification and evictions and developers build new apartment buildings with sky-high costs and cookie-cutter designs.

So, for their part, the Warriors have done their best to address these concerns. As noted in the press release, the new plan includes a shorter arena height that won't block sight lines as much, more public space, fewer parking spots, and further compliance with environmental standards. Yet, for all these responses, the essential character of the project hasn't changed, and it's unlikely that they will assuage preexisting concerns. It looks increasingly likely that the arena's fate will be decided via another ballot initiative, in keeping with most sports stadium plans in San Francisco's recent history.

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A pristine rendering that also shows the extent to which the arena would block views (via Warriors.com).

If forced to bet, I would assume that the arena will eventually be built at the Pier 30-32 site, if only because the team continues to get better (and therefore more popular among casual fans) and vast amounts of money tend to help in citywide votes (the results of Measure B notwithstanding). Yet it's also likely that arguments over the Warriors' plans will get more heated, largely because the underlying issues aren't going away any time soon. The project faces opposition not just because of its specifics. Ultimately, the question up for consideration is how much an organization that represents the Bay Area to the basketball-loving world cares about understanding and continuing to promote the historical character of the region.

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Eric Freeman is a writer for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at efreeman_ysports@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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