With world watching, Google's mystery barge sits in limbo

Docked in the middle of San Francisco Bay, the mystery four-story structure is sitting idle day after day. It's not known why construction hasn't re-commenced.

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
The structure that is being built by Google on a barge in San Francisco Bay. James Martin/CNET

Google's mystery project on a barge in the San Francisco Bay, which has piqued the interest of media the world over, sits in limbo day after day, in full view of anyone close enough to see it.

Last week, CNET was first to report ties between Google and the structure, a four-story-tall building made from shipping containers that sits mostly covered in scaffolding and dark netting on a stationary barge alongside Treasure Island, a former Navy base in the San Francisco 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 San Francisco project and a very similar one that is currently located in Portland, Maine (see video below).

Now, with media coverage about the project in dozens of outlets, including The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, NBC, and others, Google still isn't talking -- and it isn't actively working on the project either. The executive director at the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Corporation (BCDC) did confirm to CNET Wednesday that Google is behind the project.

What has yet to be established with certainty is what it is. CNET speculated last week that it could be a floating data center, in large part because a 2009 Google patent described, in many ways, what the tech company has built on top of the barges in both San Francisco Bay and Maine.

Another theory, first reported by CNET parent CBS' San Francisco affiliate KPIX, is that the building is actually some sort of floating Google Glass retail or marketing venue. That theory was bolstered by a tipster who, prior to the KPIX report, contacted CNET suggesting sources inside Google had said the project will be a floating Google Glass store intended to move from city to city hawking the tech giant's futuristic augmented-reality glasses.

Google has not responded to numerous requests for comment from CNET.

Several media reports have suggested that work has stopped on the San Francisco project because BCDC has refused to issue a permit to tow the structure into the city, located just a few miles from Treasure Island.

However, BCDC executive director Larry Goldzband told CNET that although his agency has not granted a permit, it did not order Google to stop work. In fact, Goldzband said, he wasn't even aware that work had tailed off. "Google has not told me that the work has been halted," Goldzband said, "and my understanding is that the work is still under construction."

CNET visited the Treasure Island project four times recently, including on Monday and Tuesday of this week, and has seen activity on the barge-based project just once, even though each of the visits has taken place during normal business hours. The San Francisco project is in a holding pattern.

While BCDC is not behind the work stoppage, Goldzband doesn't know who is. Asked if the Coast Guard might be behind it, Goldzband said he wasn't aware of any such action, but he did note it was the Coast Guard's responsibility to issue certifications for vessels. He also said that BCDC "has not had discussions with the Coast Guard about certification."

The Coast Guard has not responded to multiple CNET requests for comment, but according to USA Today, it visited the Google structure today. That publication and Reuters also reported that at least one Coast Guard official has acknowledged signing a non-disclosure agreement related to the project. But assuming that the mystery project will carry a American flag, and is some sort of floating store, or even a data center, it's likely the federal agency would need to issue a certification before it could take to any waterways.

Goldzband said he attended two meetings over the summer to discuss a permit to tow the project into San Francisco, and each was attended by both a Google representative along with "a very experienced outside" attorney familiar with the regulations governing development in the bay.

Watch this: Google barges onto the Bay