Google's Mystery Project Won't Float

A San Francisco regulator casts doubt on the viability of a waterborne Google store.
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A mysterious barge docked off Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay might be home to a future floating showroom for Google products such as Glass. But if it is, Google's store-on-boat is not likely to open to the public, at least in the Bay Area.

Google's link to the barge was first reported on Friday by CNET, which speculated that the massive, shrouded structure on the vessel could be a floating Google data center.

The same day, KPIX 5 reported that the structure being built on the barge is intended to be a floating Google retail store and that Google aims to anchor its showroom at San Francisco's Fort Mason.

Brad McCrea, regulatory program director of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, confirmed in a phone interview that Google representatives have visited the SFBCDC to discuss the barge project but the reps did not provide much detail.

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"We still don't know exactly what it is," McCrea said. "They haven't been very clear on it."

Google did not respond to a request for comment. However, the company does appear to want to strengthen its retail presence. A job posting that went up two weeks ago suggests Google is preparing to expand its retail operations beyond kiosks operating in third-party stores. The company is seeking a head of retail field operations to "[d]efine the operating strategy and model for different retail formats including potentially store-in-stores, in-store kiosks, own stores, other creative format options."

Given Apple's success in retail and Microsoft's retail expansion, it would not be surprising if Google sought to increase its retail presence to showcase its growing line of products, particularly now that it owns Motorola Mobility.

Whether Google is building an offshore store or a water-based data center, its ability to place that structure on the San Francisco Bay will depend on finding a way to operate within California State Law, obtaining an exemption, or lobbying to get the law changed. Under the McAteer-Petris Act (1965) and subsequent amendments, Google must have a permit to operate a moored facility, which qualifies as filling in the Bay.

Google has not formally sought a permit. And the act's requirements make it extremely unlikely the company could obtain one for a floating retail structure. The law allows filling in the Bay "only when public benefits from [doing so] clearly exceed public detriment from the loss of the water areas."

And the law limits such permits "to water-oriented uses (such as ports, water-related industry, airports, bridges, wildlife refuges, water-oriented recreation, and public assembly, water intake and discharge lines for desalinization plants and power generating plants requiring large amounts of water for cooling purposes) or minor fill for improving shoreline appearance or public access to the bay."

In addition, the law states that permits should be granted "only when no alternative upland location is available for such purpose." These legal difficulties make CNET's suggestion that Google is designing an off-shore data center sound more plausible.

McCrea said that if indeed Google has been building a floating retail facility, it will have to take its store elsewhere. He suggested that if Google were allowed to operate a floating store, other retailers like Target would seek permits for themselves.

"We certainly see the attraction of using the Bay for different reasons, but that's not what the people of California called for," McCrea said.

This isn't the first time companies and individuals have sought to push the boundaries of what's allowed on the San Francisco Bay. McCrea said there have been proposals for floating hotels, a football stadium designed to drift back and forth between San Francisco and Oakland, a modern version of Noah's Ark, and floating storage sheds.

McCrea urged Google to communicate its plans to the commission more clearly.