Hidden Treasure: An “Eco-City” in SF Bay?

Thousands roar by Treasure Island every day without a passing glance. That could soon change…radically.

Listen to Alison Hawkes’ companion radio feature on The California Report, Monday morning, and see a slide show of the island’s transformation, below.

Architect's rendering of a proposed "eco-city" on Treasure Island, in San Francisco Bay.

San Francisco’s twin islands in the Bay – Treasure Island and Yerba Buena – are not exactly jewels of nature. Although they have stunning views, a half-century of use by the U.S. Navy and years in redevelopment limbo have taken a toll.

Some sites on Treasure Island are severely contaminated, and much of the island is cracked asphalt and derelict buildings. Yerba Buena is solid rock but Treasure Island is entirely artificial, conjured from bay mud as an engineering showcase for the 1939 World’s Fair. As time passes, a corner of Treasure Island is gradually sinking into the sea. Rising sea levels as a result of climate change could subsume the island entirely, returning it back to its natural state, which is to say underwater.

In short, the place needs some serious help and this is where a massive multi-billion dollar redevelopment takes stage. Private developers want to transform the islands into a high-density “eco-city” with as many as 20,000 residents, making use of the best that technology and city planning have to offer in sustainable development.

But some environmentalists are critical of the plans. Mike Lynes, the conservation director of Golden Gate Audubon Society, says bay wildlife has been suffering with the loss of about 40% of open water habitat and 90% of wetlands.

“The nice thing about Treasure Island and Yerba Buena Island is that they’re relatively unpopulated compared to most of the central Bay,” Lynes says. “It was highly developed, especially Treasure Island, so the biological resources there are very limited right on Treasure Island itself, but Yerba Buena has areas rich in bird species and butterflies.”

Lynes says 20,000 people — nearly tenfold the number living there now – will take a toll. High-rise buildings pose a hazard to birds, trash attracts predators to native species, and cats and dogs kill wildlife, he explains.

He’s looked in detail at one aspect of the plans – a high-speed ferry that will take island commuters to San Francisco. Lynes says he’s worried that the ferry will disturb birds that raft together in the bay during winter as they rest up for the spring migration.

But Craig Hartman, a design partner at the San Francisco architectural firm SOM, and the development’s master planner, says the project’s net impact on wildlife will be positive, considering the conditions out there today. Asphalt – which sends contaminated rainwater directly into the bay – will be replaced with parks. Three-quarters of the islands will be open space and new plantings will replace invasive species with natives.

“It’s actually a major transformation of the constructed natural system,” Hartman says. “This is an interesting anomaly because this island is not a natural place and we’re now constructing wetlands and green space that’s never existed there. So it will be a major new sanctuary for wildlife that has not existed in the past, especially for bird life.”

The debate illustrates a longstanding tension within the green community about whether people – by their very presence – are a harm to nature. Or whether they can, with proper planning, play a positive influence on wildlife, even in densely populated areas.

Two brands of environmentalism are at odds – the wildlife preservationists versus advocates of “smart growth” strategies, which include higher-density, transit-oriented communities, to reduce car travel and greenhouse gas emissions. Lynes sees no easy answer.

“It’s more energy efficient if people live in tall buildings than if we live in a more sprawling suburban lifestyle,” he says. “I have particular concerns about wildlife, but I also acknowledge that if were going to have smart growth in the bay area we have to figure out how to balance those values.”

  • http://mattbaume.com Matt Baume

    I wonder if there are any plans to do something similar on Yerba Buena, most of which is currently occupied by the Coast Guard and off limits to the public.

  • Alison Hawkes

    Hi Matt,
    Yes. Yerba Buena is included in the redevelopment plans, although most of the overhaul will happen down on Treasure Island. The former military housing will be torn down on YBI and replaced by market-rate condos and there’s talk of putting a hotel up there. Some of the old buildings — including the so-called “Great Whites” — on YBI will be renovated and reused. I believe the Coast Guard will still have access to points on the island, but YBI as a whole is very much part of the redevelopment plans, although certainly gets less attention.

  • Michelle Myers

    I am a bit skeptical that “high speed ferries” will solve the obvious problems with getting people on and off the Island. Ferries are not very eco friendly, they usually run on diesel. You will have to truck all goods and then garbage on and off the island – so even if the people aren’t commuting, there stuff will be. I heard that there are even plans for a regional shopping center in the mix of high rises. Spending $250 million just to stop the toxic, man made Island from sinking makes little sense as far green development.

    What if there was a disaster, how do you evacuate 20,000 residents?

    • Jason

      One can always come up with a list of what/if bad case scenarios. E.g., if there was an emergency, why would you necessarily need to evacuate. By the same token assuming you are referring to an earthquake, how would you evacuate the 100′s of thousands of people in San Francisco? The expense of rectifying settlement issues on the island are borne by the people who want the million-dollar views of the bay and are willing to pay the price, it has little to do with the green development aspects of the project that actually have a very positive green effect of tansformingt the blighted naval facility into some asthetically pleasing and more inviting to wildlife.

  • Norrie Robbins

    On islands such as Kirbati, people are trying to figure out where to migrate because sea level is taking their island. It sounds like some people in San Fransisco need their heads opened to help figure out where their brains went. On the other hand, overpopulation is an emerging problem in need of novel solutions.

  • John J. Hills

    Alison – Thanks for your interesting article describing the issues and varying points of view re T.I. and Yerba Buena.

    In 1943 I was in the Navy and was stationed on T.I. for about 3 months. We were housed in and used buildings from the ’39 World’s Fair. Then, preparing to go to the South Pacific, I was stationed on Yerba Buena (Goat Island) for about a week. Thousands of US Navy sailors were stationed on T.I. through the war years. A far lesser number made it to Y.B. These two isles were good-duty stations. I wonder how many of us are left who had duty there.

    I can’t get to meetings re proposed changes on T.I., but, if feasible for you, I’d certainly appreciate what ever pix/articles could be emailed.

    Thanks.

    John J. Hills (Polytechnic SF ’40; tchr Skyline Oakland ’60-’65.

  • Alison Hawkes

    Hi John,
    What an interesting perspective you must have on the two islands! Have you seen our photo slideshow? We have lots of pictures there — many of the ones I took, actually.