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San Francisco’s mayor says he doesn’t know what it is. Police say it’s not their jurisdiction. And government inspectors are sworn to secrecy.
Google Inc. is erecting a four-story structure in the heart of the San Francisco Bay but is managing to conceal its purpose by constructing it on docked barges instead of on land, where city building permits and public plans are mandatory. Construction became obvious a few weeks ago.
The Internet giant’s actions at Treasure Island appear legal. But the mystery surrounding the bulky floating building — and a similar one off Portland, Maine — is generating speculation and worries.
Privacy experts, environmentalists, and legal authorities say that whether it is a store to sell Google’s Internet-connected glasses, a data storage center, or something else, the secrecy may backfire because Silicon Valley residents are highly protective of one of the most scenic and environmentally sensitive bays in the United States.
“At some point they’re going to have to unveil what it is they’re doing, and it will be sad if they have put a lot of money into something that is simply not allowable in the bay,” said Deb Self, executive director of the environmental group Baykeeper.
Ms. Self said whether the barge-mounted structure is a store or a data center powered by wave action, for which Google has a patent, there are concerns.
“We don’t really want to see the bay used as a shopping mall. Unacceptable,” she said. And environmentalists warn that water-cooled data centers might warm the sea and harm marine life.
Google’s usually responsive media relations team did not respond to repeated calls or emails, but records and other official accounts identify the project as Google’s.
Google has dodged public scrutiny by essentially constructing a vessel, not a building. Thus it doesn’t need permits from San Francisco, a city with copious inspection and paperwork requirements for builders.
If, when the project’s ready, Google wants to sail it out the Golden Gate and into the Pacific Ocean, the tech giant won’t ever need to explain what it’s been up to.
But if Google wants to do anything with the structure in the bay, it will have to face public scrutiny, said BCDC executive director Larry Goldzband. He said the agency has had a few meetings with Google, but “they’ve been less than specific about their plans.”
“When they decide to let us know what they plan to do with it, or hope to do with it, then we can decide if it’s allowable,” he said.
A similar four-story structure was built this summer in the New London, Conn., harbor, and has now moved north off Maine.
The Day newspaper in Connecticut found details tying that barge to Google in documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.