A wave election in San Francisco

City voters are being asked to pass a bond measure to make a downpayment on strengthening the Embarcadero seawall
The rejuvenated Embarcadero is one of the city’s burgeoning destinations for business, recreation, and tourism. The seawall bond will ensure it doesn’t sink into the sea. Photo: Frank Schulenburg

November will bring a wave election to San Francisco voters, but not for partisan reasons. The tidal forces facing the city’s voters instead will come through a ballot measure regarding the Embarcadero’s seawall. Proposition A — or the Embarcadero Seawall Earthquake Safety Bond — would, if passed, authorize the city to issue $425 million in bond debt. The funds would support overdue repairs to an underappreciated part of San Francisco’s infrastructure.


Infrastructure upgrades are like dental check-ups: as much as you’d like to avoid them, skipping too many in a row results in costly cavities or worse. Unfortunately, despite plenty of warning, San Francisco has thus far failed to heed warnings about its seawall. As far back as 2007, when the Bay Conservation and Development Commission produced maps forecasting how climate change would alter the city’s shoreline, concerned parties have flagged the Embarcadero seawall as a weak point in the city’s earthquake and climate change preparedness.

In the case of the seawall, insufficient preventative care has resulted in widespread and severe physical cavities. A visit to the Aquatic Park Pier, pockmarked and crumbling from years of exposure to the sea, may help voters visualize the condition of the Embarcadero seawall.

Alternatively, voters can simply consider the Port of San Francisco’s assessment, which asserts the seawall is “in desperate need of repair.”

Port officials also warn that skipping this chance for seawall maintenance could threaten the city’s financial well-being. They estimate that the seawall-protected waterfront area of San Francisco hosts $100 billion in assets and economic activity. The economic significance of the area may explain why local businesses like Ritual Coffee are doing what they can to increase community support for Proposition A. Ritual is offering a limited-edition Seawall Stroll espresso to at once wake up coffee drinkers and awaken them to the dismal condition of the seawall.


Even with the jolt of espresso-backed enthusiasm, there’s a chance Proposition A will not pass. There are four other propositions on the ballot this November, and beyond Proposition A, Propositions C and D involve some degree of taxation that would result in an even larger city budget. Voters skeptical of the size of the city’s budget may wonder if A, C, and D should all pass.

Others might challenge the city’s continued reliance on bond measures to address major infrastructure programs. But the port is hoping voters will again turn out in force for a big bond ask.

Voters have recently shown immense confidence in the city’s bond propositions. In 2015, 74.26 percent of San Francisco voters backed an affordable housing bond.

In 2014, 71.87 percent rallied behind the Transportation and Road Improvement Bond, which authorized the city to borrow $500 million. And in 2012, 72.11 percent backed the city’s ask for $195 million to fund their Clean and Safe Neighborhood Parks initiative.

Despite a strong track record on bonds, seawalls historically do not generate as much voter energy as housing, transit, and parks. But San Francisco will need voters now and down the road to fully restore the seawall’s soundness. The city predicts the total reinforcement program will cost at least $2 billion. Additionally, current testing efforts might reveal even more structural flaws that require substantial outlays in the future.


Here’s to hoping that a swell of support comes in for Proposition A. Seawall supporters are rightfully worried about some of the scarier side effects of yet another missed check-up appointment.

Imagine walking into the Embarcadero BART station, only to find your Allbirds covered by several inches of seawater. It’s more likely than you might think: city prognosticators speculate that the sea level could jump by a full foot by 2030; by 2100, it’s possible the sea will have risen by more than five feet.

Then there’s the ever-present chance of the next “big one.” In its present state, the seawall would struggle to withstand the worst-case scenarios the city has in mind. At three miles long, the Embarcadero is critical to rapidly deploying resources to different parts of the city. A crumbled seawall would jeopardize the mobility of emergency responders in the event of a disaster.

And, though San Franciscans might like to think that the city’s bleak outcome in San Andreas, the disaster movie starring Dwayne Johnson, is merely Hollywood hyperbole, voters should not forget that the USGS recently put the chance of at least a 6.7 magnitude quake before 2037 at 99.7 percent.

By passing Proposition A, San Franciscans can literally shore up the city’s long-term prospects.


As many of us know, a check-up is cheaper and easier than a root canal. When you pick up the ballot this November, be sure to back Proposition A. You can help San Francisco stay up-to-date on its maintenance and stay above the impending rising tide.

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