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Google's plan for floating retail stores runs into legal quandary

Google's low cost, super-sized floating retail strategy being assembled on a barge. Photo: Daniel Eran Dilger

Google has tried to keep its construction plans for giant retail showroom barges under wraps, but with new details leaking that the "temporary technology exhibit spaces" are actually floating stores, legal permits may be hard to obtain.

Google was quickly identified as the money behind a barge structure being assembled from shipping containers on a large pier on Treasure Island (below, top left of photo) in San Francisco.

A report by the SF Chronicle states that the structure is the first of three in a $35 million project being built by Turner Construction.

The site obtained a confidential report by the construction company that indicates the barge structures are not exactly a "studio" or "temporary technology exhibit space" that Google represented them as being in permit applications submitted to the Port of San Francisco.

Instead, they are "floating retail stores." Mirian Saez, the director of operations of the Treasure Island Development Authority, said representatives from Google told her the floating stores "would be an important opportunity for the launching" of Google Glass.

Google Glass barge retail store

Such an effort would mimic Apple's retail store plans, which Steve Jobs credited with enabling the company to launch its status quo disrupting iPhone and iPad.

However, rather than spending billions to build permanent new retail stores or lease high traffic locations in existing malls as Apple did, Google appears to be floating a lower budget experiment to expose customers to its face mounted Glass device.

However, that strategy may not fly in San Francisco, where a permit from the Bay Conservation and Development Commission is required to moor a barge for any period of time. Gaining such a permit requires a legitimate plan involving maritime or recreational use.

Google Glass barge retail store

Commission executive Larry Goldzband told the Chronicle investigators Phillip Matier and Andrew Ross that "a floating retail store that is not a bay-oriented enterprise would probably make a lot of jaws drop at a commission meeting."

Goldzband characterized Google as not being very open about its plans, stating "we have told them we don't want to wait a heck of a lot longer because [...] the public needs to know what Google is doing."

Google Glass barge retail store

Asked about whether it plans to use the barges as retail stores, Google told the reporters, "while we have explored many ideas in the past around the barges, our current plan, as we've stated before, is to use them as an interactive space where people can learn about new technology."

Previously, Google said its structures were intended to "drive visitation to the waterfront," and the company's plans indicate the stacked container barges would be outfitted with decorative sails to look like a boat. That might not be enough to sneak a huge Google Glass retail store through the permitting process.

"The commission is going to ask, 'Is there an alternative (land) location for this program to occur?'" Goldzband stated. "If there is, then the commission is going to have a very difficult time convincing the public there should be something happening on the bay."