Closure of Pier 38 “Death Trap” Looks Inevitable, But City Commits to Re-Open Tech Hub

9/21/11Follow @wroush

Yesterday I had a chance to catch up with Jason Wong, the CEO of San Francisco-based Rereply and i5labs, who’s been a longtime tenant at the Pier 38 startup hub and has been closely involved in efforts over the past two weeks to stave off the facility’s impending closure. Wong attended a meeting last Friday between Pier 38 tenants, city officials including Mayor Ed Lee, and officials from the Port of San Francisco, which manages the pier. He says there’s bad news and good news.

The bad news is that Port officials didn’t waver from their position that conditions at the pier are unsafe and that all tenants must move out by September 30, as previously ordered. In fact, Wong says Port officials escalated their rhetoric, calling Pier 38 a “death trap” where conditions for tenants are “life-threatening.”

The good news is that Port officials agreed, under pressure from the mayor’s office, to expedite the necessary repairs to the pier, so that the space can eventually be reopened and startups invited back in. Officials offered no timeline for the repairs, but seemed to agree that Pier 38 shouldn’t merely be fenced off and allowed to decay, as the neighboring Pier 36 has.

“What we might have gotten out of this, maybe, is an acceleration of the timeline, or at least [Port officials] expressing an interest in working with us to preserve it as a technology hub,” says Wong. “As opposed to where they were before, which was basically, ‘Okay, let’s get this place inspected and repaired at our own pace of two to four years.”

Mayor Lee and officials from the San Francisco Fire Department and the Department of Building Inspection visited Pier 38 before the meeting with Port officials on Friday for a walk-through of the building and a look at the safety problems identified during the Port’s own inspections in August. Wong says the city officials apparently found no room for disagreement with the earlier inspection report (which Xconomy has reproduced here).

The executive director of the Port, Monique Moyer, told the San Francisco Business Times earlier this month that the agency moved to evict the scores of tech companies at Pier 38 without slowing down to notify the mayor’s office because of concerns about fire risk. Wong says Port officials made it clear at Friday’s meeting that those concerns haven’t abated. “They used extreme wording, and said that the state of the pier was actually life-threatening,” he says. “Being that we’ve been there for six years, its hard for us to imagine that it’s actually that bad, but liability is liability.”

With the total evacuation of Pier 38 by September 30 now a certainty, startup founders are scrambling to find temporary or permanent homes elsewhere—and wondering what form a reconstituted startup community might take at the pier. Even if renovations were to proceed quickly, it’s likely that many of the companies and organizations losing their homes, such as Polaris Venture Partners’ Dogpatch Labs operation, will be forced to sign long-term leases elsewhere, making it difficult or impossible for them to move back.

But with the startup scene still booming in San Francisco, Wong predicts that there will always be a fresh crop of companies ready to fill up the space, which has proved so enchanting to employees of previous startup tenants like Appjet, Automattic, Instagram, Formspring, LOLapps, 99designs, Recurly, TaskRabbbit, and Yardsellr. “With the reputation that Pier 38 has, I am 100 percent sure that somebody will step up,” Wong says.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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