A windsurfer sails near the Berkeley Pier in mid October, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
A windsurfer sails near the pier at the Berkeley Marina in mid-October 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a series of stories about the Berkeley Marina written by UC Berkeley journalism graduate students in partnership with Berkeleyside.

David Fielder tries to be on the water for at least 100 days out of the year at the Berkeley Marina. Now, with the prospect of a new cross-bay ferry service, he and other windsurfers are concerned that it will transform the marina from a recreational space into a commuter hub.

The combination of challenging currents and blustery winds that hit about 200 yards after sailing out the entrance channel has made the marina a favorite among windsurfers.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say it’s one of the premier spots in the world,” said Fielder, who has been windsurfing for over 40 years.

But concerns about the terminal surfaced more than a decade ago when ferry service was first proposed, including worries that the terminal would block windsurfing launching spots. Recreational users are also worried about congestion and parking and the feasibility of such a project.

In 2019, the Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA) and the Berkeley City Council agreed to jointly fund a planning study on the feasibility of a dual-use ferry and recreation pier at the marina. WETA, also known as San Francisco Bay Ferry, would cover a substantial portion of the costs of the ferry terminal, while the city would cover recreational use costs. 

The new structure would replace the nearly century-old municipal pier, which was declared unsafe and shut down for repairs in July 2015. Without a ferry component, the city would have to cover the entire cost of a recreational pier, with estimates ranging from $20 million to $55 million.

This year, an online petition asking Berkeley officials to “not sell out the marina” by prematurely committing to large-scale ferry service garnered more than 400 signatures.

“We would like to get the petition out to a broader range of Berkeley community with more of this information available and to have a meaningful community engagement process,” said the petition’s author, Camille Antinori, who chairs the Cal Sailing Club’s marina planning committee.

Although the petition does not entirely oppose a ferry, it asks that the project be carefully planned and funded while enhancing the recreational value of the Berkeley Marina. “We are concerned that the current planning effort is ferry-centric and will not achieve such a result,” the petition reads.

According to a 2016 Strategic Plan Study, WETA projects 1,500 passengers per day would use a ferry service by 2035. The ferry would run from the marina to downtown San Francisco and could include other destinations for regular or special event service, such as Oracle Park, Chase Center, South San Francisco, Mission Bay, South San Francisco, Redwood City and potential North Bay destinations.

But plans for a ferry depend first on deciding the fate of the existing, 3,000-foot municipal pier. The renovation options presented to the Berkeley City Council involve rehabilitation, seismic strengthening or replacement the pier altogether.

Rehabilitation is estimated to cost $22 million to $48 million, while seismic strengthening would cost $41 million to $65 million, according to current estimates. The recommended replacement option, based on the Berkeley Municipal Pier Structural Assessment, would cost $32 million to $44 million and $500,000 per year to maintain.

Currently, four replacement concepts are being considered, with different layouts for pier designs, mobility and ferry use.

The City Council “certainly asked a lot of questions about which of these alternatives for the ferry we want,” said Gordon Stout, a Cal Sailing Club member. “They never asked the question, ‘Do you want a ferry?’ They don’t want to answer that question.”

One concern raised is the potential lack of ridership.

“We offer the ferry as a solution that can provide some new capacity that makes the congestion on BART trains a little less bad when you’re getting out of North Berkeley during the rush hour,” said Mike Gougherty, a principal planner at WETA. 

Expanded ferry service would feature three round-trips during commute periods plus trips during midday, late evenings and weekends as part of WETA’s Pandemic Recovery Program.

Some marina users also worry that commuters will worsen congestion and claim parking spaces that recreational users need.

When the city of Berkeley first permitted small-scale ferries to offer service from the marina in late 2016, Stout noticed a dramatic reduction in available parking for the Cal Sailing Club and the Cal Adventures children’s playground. He fears expanded ferry service would further constrict recreational users.

People enjoying the water near the Berkeley Pier in mid October, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Rowers enjoying the water near the pier at the Berkeley Marina in mid-October 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

According to the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), a ferry terminal in the marina may be allowed only if it does not “interfere with current or future park and recreational uses” or “disrupt continuous shoreline access.” The outlined standard also states that parking “should not be usurped by ferry patrons” and that “shared parking arrangements should be provided to minimize the amount of shoreline area needed for parking.”

Planner Gougherty said WETA is confident the ferry project will meet BCDC permit requirements since it already operates several facilities in the region, including the Richmond Ferry Terminal. 

And while the windy climate of Berkeley makes it ideal for windsurfers, Parks and Waterfront commissioner and coastal engineer Jim McGrath predicts it will result in bumpy rides for passengers and require a breakwater high and long enough to shelter ferries while they load and unload.

“This is the toughest spot in the bay to try to put a ferry,” he said. 

Julietta Bisharyan is a student in the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley covering economic development.