Whatever Happened to the San Francisco Dragon Boat Festival?

Have you ever wondered what happened to the San Francisco Dragon Boat Festival? The short story is that City staff evicted the Festival in order to help clear the way for real estate developers who wanted to build a luxury marina on the Festival site at Clipper Cove. So, the San Francisco Dragon Boat Festival moved to Oakland and the crowds of 60,000 spectators disappeared from Treasure Island.

The back-story came to light when the Treasure Island Citizens Advisory Board questioned Bob Beck, Island Director for the City’s Treasure Island Development Authority (TIDA). Beck admitted that the departure of the Festival was a “TIDA decision.” He defended the eviction by saying that the Festival was a temporary/interim use that was able to be accommodated for a number of years, but it’s a TIDA decision about what programs go on there.” [click here to read the meeting minutes]

The “interim use” of Clipper Cove by the San Francisco Dragon Boat Festival began back in 2005. And by 2011 the Festival was drawing crowds of 50,000. That year Island Director Mirian Saez congratulated the San Francisco Dragon Boat Festival on behalf of the Mayor’s office and welcomed the Festival back for a 7th year, writing: “Treasure Island is a unique place for the festival because of its regional access, spectacular views and the ability for participants to race in the Bay in protected waters. I would like to thank both the California Dragon Boat Association ·and the participants in this year's festival for choosing Treasure Island for the seventh consecutive year and for helping to make Treasure Island the Bay Area's recreation destination.[emphasis in original]

By 2015 the Festival was celebrating its 20-year anniversary, marking its 10th year at Clipper Cove, and drawing a crowd of 60,000. But 2015 was to be the last year for the Dragon Boat Festival in San Francisco. TIDA staff quietly informed the Festival organizers that the event would not be welcome back in 2016.

So, what happened between 2011 and 2015?   What happened was the re-emergence of a dormant proposal by real estate developers to build a luxury marina right across the heart of Clipper Cove. The marina proposal had gathered some steam in the early 2000s, but stalled out along with Island Development in general. And by 2012 the negotiating agreement with the marina developers finally expired for good and was not renewed.

In meantime public use of Clipper Cove exploded as City residents discovered that the Cove is a mecca for small boat sailing and recreation. During the Navy’s tenure at Treasure Island Clipper Cove was closed to the public. But after the Navy left and the Cove was opened up, the public started flooding in. The Treasure Island Sailing Center, the City’s only community sailing center was established and grew in parallel to the Festival. Currently the Sailing Center programs bring thousands of youth and families onto the San Francisco Bay each year at Clipper Cove, including a science/sailing STEM program that each year now provides classes to 1,500 4th and 5th graders from San Francisco public schools.

The unique geography of the Cove, cited by former Island Director Saez, is what makes the Cove so special. The Cove is protected on three sides, with a low-slung land-bridge on the western end that blocks the Bay’s infamous chop and moderates the afternoon winds that whip across the Bay. As a result Clipper Cove offers a rare combination of moderate wind and flat water protected from the Bay’s notorious tidal currents.

Of course, those are the same qualities that drew back the developers who wished to revive their proposal to take Clipper Cove for a luxury marina.  And in the spring of 2015 they presented a new plan for marina development to the Treasure Island Development Authority, proposing to take over nearly the entire Cove. 

In August of 2015 the President of the Dragon Boat Festival wrote to TIDA requesting a broader assessment of the impact of the proposed marina. However the eviction went ahead. And developers told the community that they should prepare for construction in the Cove to begin in the spring of 2016.

In the event, of course, no such construction began. And the proposed marina still lacks numerous approvals. However, the San Francisco Dragon Boat Festival is now gone to Oakland, and may not return. Others, such as the Treasure Island Sailing Center had no where else to go, and decided to fight the new proposal.

Coming back to the present: as if to add insult to injury, the TIDA staff report submitted in 2017 to support the proposed marina now argues that Clipper Cove needs “rejuvenation” and that the proposed marina is the only feasible project for rejuvenating the Cove.

Thousands of San Francisco families and youth who sail and boat on Clipper Cove would beg to disagree. While one horrible planning decision by the Treasure Island Development Authority has cost the City dearly, we don’t have to repeat that mistake.

On April 30, at 1:30 PM, the Land Use Committee of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, led by Supervisor Katy Tang, will hold a hearing on a resolution to protect Clipper Cove. Please come to show your support for the Cove.

And in the meantime, you can share your views by emailing Supervisor Tang at katy.tang@sfgov.org


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