Google's mystery barge project: On hold until spring?

Google’s plans to use an ocean-going barge as a floating technology exhibition center appear to be on hold while the company sorts out some regulatory questions.

An official at a regional conservation agency said Thursday that Google has told him construction on the odd-looking vessel has been suspended while the company considers design changes ordered by the U.S. Coast Guard – and the work “likely will not be completed until late spring 2014.”

The San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, meanwhile, is now investigating whether there are proper permits for building the odd-looking, four-story structure that sits atop the barge, now moored at San Francisco’s Treasure Island.

BCDC executive director Larry Goldzband confirmed the investigation, which was first reported by Reuters. Goldzband said staffers at his agency, which must issue a permit for any permanent structure on the bay, realized it wasn’t clear if such a building project was ever authorized at the Treasure Island pier, which belonged to the U.S. Navy before the city of San Francisco took over operations at the island.

“Our preliminary investigation should be complete within a few weeks,” Goldzband said in a statement released to Silicon Beat. “At that time, we shall discuss with Google whether or not the barge can be constructed there or will have to be completed at a different location.

Goldzband has previously stressed that state law discourages using the bay for permanent structures. According to records at the Port of San Francisco, Google has hoped to comply with those rules by moving the barge every few weeks and mooring at different sites around the bay.

But while the company has been meeting with the BCDC and other agencies, it’s also been in discussions with the Coast Guard, which must certify the safety and seaworthiness of barges and other vessels in the bay. The Coast Guard has steadfastly refused to comment on its inspections of the barge. Goldzband, however, said Google representatives told him “they are working with the Coast Guard on the design” of the project.

Google is actually building at least two barges, one based on the East Coast and one here in San Francisco Bay. After staying mum for weeks, the giant Internet company confirmed last month that it hopes to use the vessels as “an interactive space where people can learn about new technology,” although it declined to offer further details.

Various sources, however, have said the company wants to use the floating structures as a venue for showing off the wearable Internet device known as Glass, and potentially other technology developed by the secretive R&D division known as Google X.

A Google spokesperson had no comment Thursday when asked about the permit and construction issues, but the company released the following statement, which echoes what what it has said previously:

“While we have explored many ideas in the past around the barges, our current plan is to use them as an interactive space where people can learn about new technology.”

(Photo of the barge at Treasure Island by Nhat V. Meyer, Bay Area News Group)

Brandon Bailey Brandon Bailey (281 Posts)

Brandon Bailey covers Google, Facebook and Yahoo for the San Jose Mercury News, reporting on the business and culture of the Internet.