Here’s a little known fact: of the four Cities on the Carquinez Strait, Benicia has the only stretch of ‘walkable waterfront,’ along the path at the Benicia Marina. The phrase, offered up by Mayor Elizabeth Patterson, means that you have only to cross a city street to access the shoreline. This is just one of the reasons the marina, to sailors and landlubbers alike, is such a valuable community asset. The Carquinez Strait, a narrow tidal estuary connecting the Suisun and San Pablo Bays, is home to four cities: Benicia, Vallejo, Crockett and Martinez. Port Costa, also on the Strait, is not a city but a “Census-Designated Place.” In the other three, there are additional obstacles to getting to the waterfront beyond just crossing a street. “The marina is a huge asset that could be a powerful economic anchor,” says Patterson. So just why isn’t it?
First, a bit of history: The 340-slip marina is operated by the Benicia Harbor Corporation. Vessels therein range from kayaks and dinghies to a 76-foot yacht. It’s a stopover point for Delta boaters heading to the Bay and vice-versa, and cruise-in events where boaters from Yacht Clubs around the Bay and beyond come to visit our town. It’s also home to “liveaboards,” who comprise ten percent of the total occupied slips.
The marina was dedicated in 1983, the year my husband and I got married, took up residence here and had our first child. And as with starting family, there are many layers of complexity in birthing a marina. In the mid 1970’s there was a land swap between the City and Benicia Industries, whereby the City exchanged land it owned in the port area for several parcels between First and East 5th Street. Four city managers and many governmental agencies were involved in determining the ecological and commercial viability of building and maintaining the marina, including the Departments of Public Health, Fish and Game and Navigation and Transportation, the Regional Water Quality Control Board, the Association of Bay Area Governments, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, the California Department of Boating and Waterways (Cal Boating) and the Bay Conservation and Development Commission.
In 1976 the City entered into a loan agreement with Cal Boating for $500,000 for the initial phase of the marina development, with seven subsequent amendments over time for additional funding to complete the various phases of the build-out. That brought the loan total to $5,200,000. The terms of the loan required commercial activity to generate enough sales tax to offset the cost of marina operations, including dredging. Over the years, the murky waters of our local politics seeped into the process and controversy has surrounded the project’s commercial/residential/public use mix. There are deep disagreements along philosophical lines and differing perspectives amongst politicians and stakeholders about why the commercial aspect has not come to fruition.
Ultimately the decision was made by Benicia voters in 2004 with the passage of Measure C, which preserved the area south of B Street as a waterfront park, in lieu of development. Berthing fees, liveaboard fees, gas sales and condo lease fees all generate revenue, but not quite enough. According to Vice Mayor Alan Schwartzman, that left the City with “only a small space available for any commercial operation, in the ‘Historic Triangle’ adjacent to the Depot. The passage of Measure C made it virtually impossible to have a commercial anchor at the end of First Street.”
Without a commercial anchor to fill the revenue gap, how do we move forward to complete the marina project, especially in light of recent budget problems? Acting Economic Development Manager Mario Giuliani is helping to pursue grants for the creation of a master plan to complete the waterfront park, which could include raised walkways, benches and public art; and an entrance that “makes a statement” and bridges a gap in the Bay Area Ridge Trail. “Regardless of how we got here, if we are going to have a waterfront park, let’s make it the best park we possibly can. There are funding opportunities for construction on these types of projects,” says Giuliani. “It may take time, but we’ll get it done eventually.”
Beyond any small commercial possibilities, the hope is that completion of the waterfront park will draw more people downtown, increasing sales tax revenue, so that we can move beyond previous differences and fully realize the potential and promise of another community asset—an economically viable downtown.