Public Comment

NIMBYism On the Bay

By James McVaney
Thursday November 12, 2009 - 09:46:00 AM

There is no example more real, and relevant, as to why Berkeley should welcome a ferry system back onto its shores than the recent, and painful, days long closure of the Bay Bridge. And, according to a professional poll taken in April 2005, 83 percent of Berkeleyans think this restoration of service is a good idea.  

Furthermore, a return of this mode of transportation has been long in coming, and will not only provide emergency transportation if the bridges go down, again, but will also restore Berkeley to its true nautical and ferry centric roots that were, as Johnny Cash would say, “lost somewhere, somehow, along the way.” 

However, we are not quite there yet.  

In the Oct. 22 Planet commentary section, David Fielder wrote about the proposed ferry service. Unfortunately, Mr. Fielder did not disclose the fact that he is a fervent windsurfer, and therefore his observations are colored, not with the white of the alleged “white elephant” he thinks the ferry will be, but tinged with the burning red of anger, so often associated with NIMBYism—Not In My Back Yard. This is hurtful. Hopefully, with more didactic discussions, this burning red will turn into the soothing white of healing and growth.   

To help forward this discussion I will address some of the points he made. First, he notes the previous ferry service, which followed the Loma Prieta earthquake, did not last long because of a lack of demand. However, this lack of demand most likely resulted from the low sophistication of the service provided at the time. There was no terminal. Simply entering and exiting the Marina took the ferries five minutes, and required tight turns and careful piloting. The product was poor, and people responded by not utilizing it. This time there will be a terminal, and it will be built in a superior location with spectacular views. Also, it is being designed locally by architect, Marcy Wong, of Marcy Wong Donn Logan Architects, who also recently designed the new Freight & Salvage performance center on Addison. Additionally, since the ferry terminal will be located outside of the Marina, they will have a significantly shorter and quicker trip to the Ferry terminal in San Francisco. Moreover, the greener, built to LEED standards, stronger, built to withstand the largest earthquake expected, and dedicated facilities, will result in a higher level of sophistication. This level of service will undoubtedly help ensure the Ferry’s long term survival and success.  

Mr. Fielder then writes about the economics of ferry systems. Yes, the ferry is more expensive than other modes of transportation, but if the bridges ever go down the ferry system will be priceless. This fact has always been conveniently left out of his arguments, even though it is very salient, and its recent reality is still burning in the minds of commuters, and on the balance sheets of businesses all around the Bay.  

Next, Mr. Fielder discusses the Water Emergency Transportation Authority’s (WETA) handling of the project. Having been to almost every WETA board meeting this year, I can honestly say that he does not understand what he is talking about. For example, he writes about WETA proposing a two-story garage next to the terminal. WETA never proposed this. This was Mayor Bates’ idea. I believe Mayor Bates wanted the garage to make the underperforming Hs. Lordships lease more attractive to businesspeople when its expires later this decade. Furthermore, Fielder leaves out important things such as the fact that existing seawall parking spaces are saved for public, non-ferry, usage.  

Finally, Mr. Fielder closes his commentary with eight points. Of these only one is correct: WETA currently thinks it will begin by only providing weekday service, but this could easily change. Another one of his points addresses the dollar amount of the project. He believes the money can be better spent on schools and infrastructure. Nevertheless if Berkeley does not accept the ferry and its terminal, the money will still be spent by WETA on a ferry system, but it will be in the city of Richmond. Richmond has had a representative at almost every WETA board meeting I have been to, and definitely shows interest in having the ferry dock in their shore.   

And now for the rest of the story. (Thanks Paul Harvey).  

Berkeley was born from the Bay. The first buildings and businesses were built near the waterfront in an area known as Ocean View, present day West Berkeley. Berkeley’s roots found soil here because, in 1854, a man named Captain James Jacobs built a pier near 3rd Street and Delaware to bring in supplies and commerce to the ranchlands of the East Bay. Shortly thereafter, another pier was built at the foot of Addison Street. Two more piers were later constructed at the base of University Avenue. Consequently, Berkeley has a long, and storied past relating to its ferries. The first dedicated ferry service began in the 1870’s and continued, in some form, on different piers, off and on until the construction of the Bay Bridge in the 1930’s. Importantly, this ferry system was vital in transporting emergency crews to San Francisco in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake, and to Berkeley when its hills were engulfed in flames on Sept. 17, 1923. This proven emergency capacity is part of the rationale for restoring ferry service to Berkeley.  

Its simply the best idea and solution for Berkeley to accept WETA and its services. Tearing us apart from our past, simply because this project may interfere with a small number of recreational users, mostly windsurfers, would be a classic example of NIMBYism. Let’s not pander to the few. Instead, let’s group together and welcome the Ferry, and all of it iconic and nautical flavor, back into the salad bowl we all know as Berkeley.  


James McVaney is a live-aboard boater in the Berkeley Marin, and advocate for the Berkeley Ferry.