Google Barge, $35 million and counting

Even though the famous floating showroom is leaving Treasure Island for Stockton, it's still far from ready for prime time -- and Google is still on the hook for half a million dollars in rent.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
4 min read
Google Barge. Josh Miller/CNET

Google Barge is about to be on the move, relocating from its current berth alongside Treasure Island in the middle of San Francisco Bay to Stockton, Calif., a delta city about 80 miles east.

But what does that mean for the future of the project, expected to be a floating showroom for Google X products and concepts like Glass, driverless cars, and more?

It's hard to say for sure, because no one in the know is talking. What is known is that the $35 million project, made out of dozens of shipping containers, and intended to float from location to location around the San Francisco Bay and beyond, is unfinished and not ready for prime time. As of this writing, it is sitting idle in the middle of San Francisco Bay, covered in scaffolding and black netting, with little or no work having been done on it since late October, shortly after CNET uncovered the project's ties to Google.

The Google Barge has been sitting idle alongside Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay for months. Now it's expected to be moving to Stockton, Calif., as early as next week. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Though Google has barely spoken on the matter, it seems probable that its decision to move to Stockton, which CNET was first to report, is based on a desire to avoid being assessed with penalties by the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), a California state agency that manages bay waters. Earlier this month, BCDC -- which had been for some time investigating whether Google needed a construction permit to complete the project at Treasure Island -- said that Google either needed to get such a permit, move elsewhere, or begin accruing fines that would top out at $30,000. The agency gave Google a 35-day grace period.

Google did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

According to Mirian Saez, director of Island operations at the Treasure Island Development Authority, which manages leases there, Google plans on leaving for Stockton by next week, weather permitting. Because that city is outside BCDC jurisdiction, Google would escape paying the penalties altogether. And while $30,000 is a pittance for a company with a market cap of $409.7 billion, it surely wants to avoid being in violation of state laws meant to preserve and protect the San Francisco Bay.

As of yesterday, Port of Stockton Director Richard Aschieris said he had yet to be contacted by Google or any of its representatives, so it's not known precisely where in Stockton the barge will end up and who will do the construction work required to finish the project.

Today, Aschieris told the San Francisco Chronicle that Google lacked permits to dock at the Port of Stockton. "There would have to be an agreement negotiated in advance of any vessel arriving at the Port of Stockton and that hasn't happened," Aschieris said. "We have many potential users or representatives of users contacting us all the time. It's relatively easy to collect information on our facilities, but they will still have to eventually contact us and get an agreement in advance of arrival."

Also unclear: how long the final construction work will take. As CNET reported in December, the project was officially put on hiatus at some point after an October inspection by the US Coast Guard, which was said by BCDC to have had issues with the structure's interior design.

But while construction work done in Stockton would exempt Google from needing a BCDC permit, that would not be the case if it wants to bring the floating showroom back into San Francisco Bay waters once it's done and ready for public visitation.

Presumably, though, Google will indeed want to bring the project back into San Francisco. Original plans for the project, officially called the "San Francisco Studio," according to documents Google submitted to the Port of San Francisco, suggested that the company's intention was to move it between a number of maritime locations in and around San Francisco Bay. The documents alluded to the idea that those potential spots had "already been permitted for the mooring of vessels and that no additional BCDC permitting would be required." But Larry Goldzband, BCDC's executive director, said last fall that the agency hadn't issued any permits to Google for the project, and that it wouldn't do so until it was convinced that the barge would not be considered "fill in the bay," a term meaning a vessel moored there for too long.

Of course, the "San Francisco Studio" documents also suggested that the project would be finished and formally unveiled by November 2013, and would be circling the San Francisco Bay until November 2014. Clearly, Google is months behind that schedule, and it's unclear how that delay will affect its long-term plans for the floating showroom.

What's equally unknown is the fate of a second unfinished Google floating showroom project that has been sitting idle in Portland, Maine, since early October. That structure is expected to be taken into New York in order to evangelize Google's products there. But a Coast Guard representative said late last year that the belief in Portland is that no additional work will be done there until the "San Francisco Studio" is completed. All told, according to the Chronicle, Google has spent $35 million on the entire project, which is also thought to include a third barge intended for Los Angeles.

Regardless, even after the barge has sailed off Treasure Island, Google will still be responsible for six more months of rent in and around the massive Hangar 3 there that was used for much of the project's then-secret construction. According to the lease for the property, Google is on the hook for monthly rent of $79,000 through August 31, totaling $474,000. However, the document does appear to give Google the ability to vacate the premises with 30 days' notice.

Update, 10:04 p.m. PT: This story now includes additional comment from the director of the Port of Stockton.