In 1851, entrepreneurs new to California discovered that a little creek on the Peninsula emptied out into an exceptionally deep channel in San Francisco Bay.
Before long, loggers were floating redwoods down that creek — aptly dubbed Redwood Creek — to the Bay, where they were lashed onto barges and shipped up to San Francisco, which was in the midst of the first of what would be many building booms.
Nearly 160 years later, that same deep channel is being used to support construction in the Bay Area. The Port of Redwood City remains essential to the building industry, handling the importation of cement, sand and aggregate to the region, along with exports of waste metals.
Now, the capacity of the Port is about to grow, as it moves forward with a $15 million renovation that will involve demolishing the two oldest of its five wharves and constructing a new one with two 30-foot wide ramps to the shore.
The project would make it possible to simultaneously unload two vessels on adjacent berths, which is not currently feasible, thereby increasing the Port’s import capacity. The old wood pilings and docks would be replaced with larger concrete docks, complete with modern stevedoring, or cargo-handling, equipment.
Additional planned improvements include a paved road, an 800-square-foot longshoreman building, a 12-foot high sea wall, improved security lighting and a modernized electrical system, according to Port documents.
With that growth could come more money for the surrounding area, as the Port contributes revenue to Redwood City. In fiscal year 2008-09, that was $323,000, down from $610,152 in fiscal year 2005-06, according to city budget figures.
Port improvements would help the maritime facility weather the recession. Officials are also considering how expansion plans could accommodate a small container operation or niche import and export markets.
However, there also are concerns about the Port’s future.
A massive development project with up to 12,000 homes proposed for the 1,436-acre Cargill Saltworks site adjacent to the Port has businesses associated with the marine facility worried.
The Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, which represents terminals and shipping operators, has voiced concerns to the Cargill site developers and to Redwood City officials that the new residents would likely complain about the dust, noise and odors that invariably spew from an industrial facility the size of the Port, and advocate that it be shut down or condensed.
"It’s been a front-burner issue for us in San Diego and Los Angeles and Seattle," said Michael Jacobs, a vice president with the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association. "When you introduce incompatible uses with port uses, you end up threatening the ability of that port to operate as a port in the long term."
Redwood City Port Executive Director Mike Giari — who sent a letter to the developers of the Cargill site expressing similar concerns — said he’s not necessarily against the development, but he wants to ensure that if it’s built, an industrial buffer or land for Port expansion is set aside. Such a buffer could include a section earmarked for light-industry use that would work as an intermediary between the heavy-industry operations of the Port and the residential neighborhood.
"The current plans are very preliminary, and they’ve got a long ways to go with this project, but yeah, this project has the potential to [cause problems for the Port] if it’s not planned carefully," Giari said.
John Bruno, a spokesman for DMB Associates, who’s developing the Cargill site, said such concerns will be addressed during redwood City’s environmental review process, which started last month and will continue through next year.
"Because you have a piece of property this large, we believe there are the opportunities to address the conflicts brought up not only by the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, but all of the other stakeholders," he said.
City Manager Peter Ingram said the Port has been a big draw for business and the city sees its continued operation as a high priority.
"I’m hearing loud and clear from the community that the Port is important," he said. "I’m hearing from the community that we want to maintain and enhance a diverse waterfront, including industrial uses."
Will Travis, executive director of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, a state agency that will have to sign off on any plan to develop the land, said similar concerns about the impact on the Port were raised when the sizeable Pacific Shores office complex was built just east of it.
"The developer of that project described it as industrial NIMBY-ism," he said, using the term for people who might support certain uses, but "not in my back yard."
Nevertheless, Travis said he thought the Port’s concerns were "entirely justified."
"This is one of the tensions that exist in planning and it’s one that we have to address," he said.
Jacobs said it would be a major loss for the region if the Port were to shrink or close because of nearby development.
"Once a port is gone, it’s lost forever," he said.
More than 20 years ago, when the nonprofit Marine Science Institute was looking for a permanent home, Silicon Valley executive Mark Sanders, who sat on the nonprofit’s board, had a breakthrough: Why not build one?
Such a project would require constructing a small marina where the nonprofit could keep its boats for educational forays in the Bay with Peninsula children. It would be a hefty project, but Sanders couldn’t imagine it would take more than a few years.
Little did he know it would take four years of cajoling the then-owner of the Cargill salt ponds to sell about 50 acres of waterfront land, followed by 12 years to get all the permits from local, state and federal agencies, and then another four years of arranging financing and dredging 26 acres of salt ponds.
"I found out that developing waterfront in the San Francisco Bay is second only to the nuclear power industry in how many permits you need," Sanders said, jokingly.
Last year, at long last, the first docks of the new Westpoint Harbor opened. It’s the first new marina to be built on San Francisco Bay in nearly 30 years.
But by then, the Marine Science Institute had long given up on Sanders’ vision and had found itself a home on Discovery Parkway.
The new harbor, with its long and wide slips, aims to fill a niche market for yacht owners. Located at the end of Seaport Boulevard past the Port of Redwood City, Westpoint Harbor is still completing its first phase of development — more docks and a harbormaster’s building are currently being constructed. Future plans include a restaurant, yacht club and other high-end amenities.
It’s a tough time to get in to the boat-harboring business, said Will Travis, executive director of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, one of the entities that granted Westpoint a permit.
He said that with the dour economy, "there is a vast oversupply of marina berth space right now." However, large boat spaces may find more of a market than a harbor of smaller boat spaces, he said.
Sanders, who declined to reveal the project’s exact price tag, said he’s confident it will be successful.
"You can do much more profitable things with 50 acres of waterfront land. You have to have a passion for boating to build a marina these days," he said. "But I’ve been a sailor my whole life, and I’m a former naval officer. I was ready for the long trek."
— Katie Worth
The busy Port of Redwood City is planning to expand operations.
130: acres Size of the Port
30 feet: Depth of Bay channel
$15 million: Cost of planned improvements
5: Wharves at the Port
1.44 million: Metric tons of cargo handled in
Contribution from Port of Redwood City to city coffers:
Source: Redwood City budget, 2008-10