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Just a Couple of Dreamers?

The Warriors’ co-owners explain why building a multimillion-dollar arena on the waterfront isn’t as dubious as it sounds. 

Joe Lacob and Peter Guber are sitting on adjacent chairs at the swank City Club of San Francisco, facing a well-connected lunchtime crowd. Everybody’s mind is on basketball. The two men, co-owners of the Golden State Warriors, are here in their ongoing effort to explain to the movers and shakers of San Francisco exactly why building a downtown arena on Piers 30–32 in the shadow of the Bay Bridge is an excellent proposition.

     For one, there’s the fact that the piers are derelict, able to support little beyond the blighted parking lot currently sitting atop them, and could well be condemned within a decade. Lacob, a partner at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and Guber, CEO of Mandalay Entertainment Group and producer of films such as Rain Man, Batman, and Flashdance, are offering to foot the bill for the piers’ repair, with estimates running as high as $100 million.

     Then there’s the notion that San Francisco’s decades-long lack of an arena has cost the city untold numbers of tourist dollars that could have come from various events, tours, and conventions. Lacob and Guber are offering to pick up that tab as well: They say their complex will also include 100,000 square feet of restaurant and retail space, and cost around $500 million.

     Finally, there’s the idea of what a spiffy new home would do for the Warriors themselves, a laughingstock of the NBA for nigh on two decades, with but a single playoff appearance over the past 18 seasons. (“That’s pretty hard to do,” says Lacob. “Sixteen of the thirty teams make the playoffs every year. That means, on average, we should make the playoffs 50 percent of the time.”) Such a new facility, the owners posit, could serve to attract the type of talent necessary to restore civic pride in the local team, and it would cap a steady string of institutional upgrades made since they paid a record $450 million for the fran- chise in the summer of 2010. 

     When all of this is out on the table, the duo field a question from an audience member: “Will there actually be anyone to come out against your plan?”Guber sighs. “Look out the window,” he says.

     Yep, this is San Francisco, standard-bearer for onerous civic-approval processes. Making this project happen involves securing acceptance from the State Lands Commission and the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, both of which are charged with protecting open sgroups, particularly the one closest to the proposed development—the South Beach, Rincon and Mission Bay Neighborhood Association, which has already indicated uneasiness with the potential for increased traffic and parking nightmares.

     But Lacob’s financial experience (he also owned a piece of the Boston Celtics before purchasing the Warriors and was an investor in the women’s American Basketball League in the 1990s) has given him reason to look beyond the logistical problems. “In 25 years in venture capital, I’ve seen that there’s always a reason not to invest, especially at the startup stage,” he says. “Well, Google wasn’t always Google. Everyone can tell you why you shouldn’t. The point is to figure out why you can, and how to make it happen.”

     He starts by pointing to some of the project’s obvious selling points, including the fact that there are 6,000 public parking spaces in nearby lots—more than are usually used at any given game in Oakland—and the facility will be easily accessible via Muni, BART, Cal- train, and ferry. Also, its proposed 2017 opening coincides not only with the end of the Warriors’ lease at Oracle Arena but also with the scheduled debut of the nearby Transbay Transit Center.

     The response from city hall has also given team brass reason to be optimistic.  To say that Mayor Ed Lee is enthusiastic about the project would be to sell the man short.  (It's something he does relatively well on his own, spouting nuggets like “I may be only 5 foot 5, but I feel like I just hit a three-point score with the Warriors.”)

     In fact, Lee opened the conversation when he first heard that the team’s lease at Oakland’s Oracle Arena was due to expire in five years. “At that first meeting they said, ‘We want to stay in the Bay Area,’” explains Lee, who broke the ice by introducing himself as Jeremy Lin. “We heard that very clearly—not Oakland, but the Bay Area.” Indeed, the Warriors have played full time at their current home since 1971, but labeling their geographic allegiance as “Golden State” instead of “Oakland” has always suggested a reluctance to embrace their East Bay identity.

     Lee has gotten all 11 city supervisors to sign off on a letter in which they pledge to work with the team. The Warriors see it as a great start, but are under no illu- sions that the road ahead will be smooth. “We know we don’t have all the answers yet—we don’t even have all the questions,” says Guber. “The idea of finding our way through this is a process.”

     Part of which involves making their pitch at places like the City Club. While their constituents on this day eat niçoise salad with perfectly seared tuna and chocolate royale topped with gold flakes, the two owners are onstage, saying things like “I’m trying to do as much listening as possible to the people who have responsibility in the community” (Guber); “We realize this is a preeminent piece of real estate along one of the great roads in any city, anywhere” (Lacob); and “I love the Warriors—that’s obvious—but this is a larger proposition than just the Warriors” (Guber again).

     By the time the pair arrive at Red’s Java House an hour later for yet another interview and a photo shoot on the pier, it’s clear that all the glad-handing at the City Club prevented them from eating. So they order baskets of fish and chips and, peering out at the bayside views they hope will soon be visible from a basketball arena, happily dive in.