Environmentalists want better planning

SAN FRANCISCO -- Conservation groups on Thursday called on city leaders to improve plans for reducing the environmental impact of events related to the America's Cup in 2013, when the world's fastest yachts will race on San Francisco Bay drawing millions to its famous shoreline.

City planners heard public comments Thursday afternoon on the 1,400-page draft environmental impact report outlining plans to protect water, air and land from pollution during the event's 50 days of racing.

The America's Cup is expected to draw 5 million spectators, including 500,000 people a day on peak race days. San Francisco's total population is just above 800,000, so city residents, especially in neighborhoods near the waterfront, are girding themselves.

According to the draft plan, the city faces big hurdles in preparing for the race. San Francisco plans to remake its historic northern waterfront between the Bay Bridge and Fisherman's Wharf and build a number of spectator venues along the water in one of the country's highest-density cities.

To do this, San Francisco officials plan to open up environmentally sensitive parks such as Crissy Field, the Marina Green and Aquatic Park to spectators who want to watch the 72-foot yachts speed by. Plans call for fences to be built to block sensitive habitat for birds like snowy plovers and other animals and to hire staff to help keep people out of those areas.

America's Cup and city officials hope to have final approval by the end of year so work can begin on converting several piers to racing team bases, while also setting up an America's Cup center. After the renowned yacht race is finished, this center is expected to be converted into a cruise ship terminal.

The race is expected to create thousands of jobs and pump more than $1.4 billion into local coffers.

A group of 30 environmental organizations said Thursday they support holding the race here, but they want more assurances that the event will be held in an environmentally sustainable way.

The groups charge that the city's voluminous environmental document is often vague when it comes to precise plans for protecting water and air quality and marine life.

"All of us want the America's Cup here and want it done right," said Deb Self of San Francisco Baykeeper. "We want it to leave a positive legacy for future generations ... and we think it can be done right."

Self said the environmental council submitted dozens of pages of suggestions to mitigate pollution, but the draft document incorporates few of the comments. That will cause headaches later when organizers have to fix the document so the event complies with state law, she said

"We really need to take care of the shortcomings of this document now, before it gets rushed to final approval," Self said.

A chief concern raised by the environmental council is the waste expected to be sent into the bay from an increase recreational vessels watching the race. The groups urged authorities to publicize that boaters cannot simply dump their waste overboard and that it needs to be disposed of properly at a dock.

"I love the Bay and I love the America's Cup, but I'm getting cold feet because the environmental prenuptial that the city has developed does not go far enough to protect the Bay Area's air, water and marine life from the many impacts that we expect," said Teri Shore with the ocean conservation group Turtle Life Restoration Network.

Another concern highlighted by the groups is a plan to put a large floating screen on a barge in the Aquatic Park, where competitive swimmers and rowers train on a daily basis. The city also plans to erect screens in other areas like one site near City Hall, to give spectators options other than trampling the shoreline to see the yachts.

"They just do their races and the rest of us have to eat the consequences," said Ken Coren, an attorney who is also vice president of the Dolphin Swimming and Boating Club in San Francisco, whose members row and swim in the Aquatic Park every day. "It's just not appropriate use this historic maritime park for super yachts and a floating video jumbotron."

After hearing hours of testimony, planning board members said they will take all of the comments under consideration while finalizing the environmental impact report. The board also said the city is not the only entity involved in planning the event, noting that some spectator sites will be on federal parkland and other jurisdictions.

"While it's complex, it is a chance for improvement for the city and the waterfront," said Rodney Fong, a planning commissioner.