Google's barges: The mystery treads water on two coasts

The company has built mysterious four-story structures on barges that are currently in San Francisco Bay and in Portland, Maine's harbor. But neither project is finished, and no work is being done on either one.

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
3 min read
This mysterious structure, seen on a barge in Portland, Maine, was built by Google. It's sitting idle in Portland Harbor, as is a similar structure in San Francisco Bay. John Ewing/Portland Press Herald

A couple of secret Google projects going up on opposite sides of the country are apparently stuck treading water, as word of a work halt on the Portland, Maine, effort joins last night's news of a work stoppage in San Francisco.

Last week, CNET was first to report the connection between Google and a mysterious structure going up on a barge in San Francisco Bay. The edifice, some four stories tall and made from shipping containers, is now covered in scaffolding and dark netting on a stationary barge alongside Treasure Island, a former Navy base in the bay.

Is this 'secret project' Google's floating data center? (pictures)

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CNET was also first to report the connection between the mysterious Google building and a nearly identical project currently docked in Portland, Maine (see video below). Since this story was first reported, Google has remained mum, leaving the world to speculate about what the company might be planning. The two main theories center around the possibility of floating data centers or Google Glass retail stores.

Over the last few days, CNET has made repeated visits to Treasure Island. It's clear from close observation that no work is being done for the moment.

Meanwhile, the Coast Guard in Portland, Maine, confirmed that no work on the barge project there is under way. "Since no work's being done on the barge at this time," said Coast Guard Ensign Connan Ingham, "we don't have as much involvement."

Google fingerprints
Ingham said the Portland barge pulled into the harbor in early October, according to the Portland Press Herald, and at that point, the Coast Guard met with representatives of the project from a company called By and Large. CNET has linked By and Large to Google through documents and a contact provided by the Treasure Island Development Authority.

Larry Goldzgand, executive director of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, confirmed to CNET yesterday that Google was indeed behind the project.

What's not known is why no work is being done in Portland. "The assumption," Ingham said, is that the owners of the project -- in other words, Google -- are waiting to complete the San Francisco Bay construction before moving on to the Maine project. "That's the assumption here," he said. "But there's no facts. We can't confirm that that's happening."

Still, Ingham said, that theory makes sense, and he added that the entire Portland community is speculating as to why the mysterious building was towed into the harbor in the first place, and why it's been sitting idle for weeks since.

Back in the Bay Area, there's been some speculation that work there was shut down because the San Francisco Bay Coastal Development Commission was unwilling to give Google a permit to tow its barge-based structure into San Francisco. But Goldzband told CNET that though the agency hasn't given Google a permit, that's not why work stopped. Goldzband said he didn't know why work had stopped in SF.

One theory is that the Coast Guard is unhappy with something about the project. Ingham said that if there's a problem during an inspection, the Coast Guard has the authority to stop work in order to "make sure that safety was met and that the public is safe."

The Coast Guard in the San Francisco Bay is said to have inspected the mystery structure there, but it hasn't shared any information about it. The Coast Guard in Alameda, Calif., which serves the San Francisco Bay, has not responded to CNET requests for comment.

We've contacted Google for comment and will update the post when there's more information.