By Kate Snyder
The motion from the water can’t be dampened completely and the views are very distracting, but John Grubb, CEO of the Bay Area Council, has no regrets about the Bay Area Council’s decision to restore the historic Klamath Ferry and turn it into the organization’s new headquarters.
“It was a mystical experience to watch lines on paper and conversations in conference rooms become walls and chairs and plumbing,” he said. “Unfortunately for other people, I believe this was a one-of-a-kind effort.”
Prior to moving into a ferry boat, the Bay Area Council, a nonprofit organization dedicated to making the Bay Area the best place to live and work, leased an office for $500,000 per year and the rent was about to increase to $1 million per year. Grubb said they were looking for a new place to operate out of when he remembered once hearing about a company that worked on an office boat. And by pure happenstance, he said, the Klamath was for sale.
The Klamath is one of the dozens of ferry boats that provided transportation to the Bay Area during the early 20th century. Eventually, the rise of automobiles and the construction of several bridges pushed aside the use of ferries and the Klamath was retired in the 1950s, according to information from the Bay Area Council’s website. Later, the Klamath returned to service as the headquarters for Landor Associates, a global branding company, and then it moved on to Stockton as the home of Duraflame, a fire log manufacturer, which owned the boat until the Bay Area Council purchased it in early 2020 for $1.8 million, or about $51 per square foot.
“We ended up buying the Klamath the day before the shutdown of COVID-19,” Grubb said. “It was definitely one of those feelings of, ‘what have we done?’”
The restoration the boat needed cost millions, and Grubb said the council took out an $8.7 million loan from the Bank of San Francisco as well as raised nearly $12 million in a capital campaign for the project. Ten different agencies had to sign off their approval for the project, he said, and California law had to be amended to allow an additional historic ship to be docked in the city.
Just over a year ago, the boat was returned to San Francisco from its berth in Stockton, and earlier this year, it opened as the Bay Area Council’s official headquarters. It’s docked at the Port of San Francisco – its address is Pier 9, The Klamath, San Francisco – and has a 15-year lease for what Grubb said is, “essentially…a square of water.”
“Our lease is 125 pages long and took a year and a half to negotiate,” he said. “But the ambition of the project…excited everyone.”
Out of the boat’s available space, the Bay Area Council uses about 12,000 square feet for its offices and approximately 5,500 square feet is taken up by subtenants. One third of the boat is public access, but at this point the group is still awaiting final permits to be able to open the ferry to the public, which Grubb anticipated to occur sometime in November.
Featured amenities include a 1,000 square foot sun deck, a roof deck with gardens, conference room, museum and lots of seating. RMW Architecture was the architect for the project, and Grubb said the design is “cutting edge” for an office. A representative for RMW Architecture declined to comment on the project.
Though the boat has been restored to modern standards, the Klamath has a long history, and Grubb recounted several stories from its past that have led it to where it is today. It was built in 1924 and was the last major ferry boat to operate in the San Francisco Bay. During World War II, it was out in the bay when the boat operator left to change his pants, Grubb said, and the ferry hit a submarine, making the Bay Area Council’s headquarters the only office building that has ever rammed a submarine.
The Bay Area Council was part of the reason it was put out of business, Grubb said, because the organization supported the construction of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, which made the ferry no longer necessary for transportation. Grubb is happy that, even if it took several decades, the organization was able to eventually save the boat from the scrapyard.
“Our vision for the Klamath is that it becomes a hub for the Bay Area,” he said.