academic environmental studies   macalester college
                               1939                                                             2008                                                             2030?
GG Expotifromairredevelopment renderings

Treasure Island Redevelopment


Island of Sand: The History of Treasure Island

The Redevelopment Plan

Criticism and Conclusion

References & Resources

Comments & questions to:

The most sustainable American development in history?

        When the Navy moved off of Treasure Island in 1997, it left San Francisco with 450 acres on which it could build from scratch. The city has created two political entities to coordinate and advise the redevelopment of Treasure Island. In 1997, the Treasure Island Redevelopment Authority (TIDA) was formed to govern the island’s redevelopment, and in 2000, the Treasure Island/Yerba Buena Island Citizens Advisory Board  (TI CAB) was formed to provide “broad-based policy guidance and oversight regarding the redevelopment of Treasure Island.” TI CAB has 25 members: the mayor appoints 12, the Board of Supervisors appoints nine, and residents of Treasure Island elect four. Both organizations have been heavily involved in the planning: developers and government officials say there have been hundreds of public meetings during the planning process. Both TIDA and TI CAB have passed the current redevelopment plan by near unanimous votes. LINK 3A However, many of the TIDA meetings are closed to the public, and this has drawn criticism.
        After years of debate, in 2005 the city threw out a proposal for a conventional suburb, and decided to try to craft a proposal that would be “one of the most sustainable communities in the country,” according to San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. The $6 billion plan, the latest edition of which was released to the public on April 6th, 2010, would be built out over the next 15 to 20 years. A public-private partnership between the city and three private developers – the Lennar Corporation, Wilson Meany Sullivan, and Kenwood Investments – has created a plan which supposedly will allow the entire development to take place without taking anything from the city’s general fund, due to projected sky-high real estate prices for bay and downtown views. Private capital, tax-increment financing, and Mello Roos bonds (which levy a fee on top of regular property taxes) are slated to pay $400 - $500 million each. In a San Francisco Chronicle article from January 2010, Michael Cohen, the mayor’s economic development director, was quoted saying, "It's all supported by revenue the project generates. That's why this project is so attractive.”
     The redevelopment plan has steadily added more housing, seeing increased density as a key to attracting the businesses that could serve a true neighborhood on Treasure Island. It calls for 7,540 housing units on just 100 acres of developed land on the southern and western edges of the island, making the urbanized portions of the island as dense as San Francisco’s most compact neighborhoods, Chinatown and North Beach. Nearly one third of these units would be sold below market rate. The Island Center, the focal point of the development, would have a ferry and bus terminal, a 650-feet residential and commercial building, tentatively named the Sun Tower both for its photovoltaic inlays and to hearken back to an old structure from the Golden Gate Exposition. The Island Center would also have up to 500 hotel rooms, and up to 240,000 square feet of commercial, retails, and office space.
      The rest of the development consists of two residential strips that would fan out along the island’s southern and western shore from the Island Center, mostly consisting of dense, low-rise structures, punctuated by 10 – 15 and 40 story towers. All the residences would be within a 17-minute walk of the center. Nearly three-quarters of the island, or 300 acres, would be devoted to a new regional park with trails and recreation, which would include a 10 – 15 acres stormwater wetland, and a 20-acre organic farm. This would be the second largest stretch of open space in San Francisco, behind only Golden Gate Park. In addition to providing affordable housing, a pressing need in San Francisco, the development would have other social benefits. The Job Corps center currently on the island would remain, and potentially provide a training center for green jobs on the Island’s new infrastructure. Supportive housing for homeless residents would expand. Some buildings from the naval station would be preserved, such as Building 1, which has a rich military history. However, the vast majority of buildings on the rest of the island would be razed. New services planned for the island include a new grocery store, library, and child-care center, so residents can have their needs met nearby, and it can be a fully integrated neighborhood rather than a suburban satellite of San Francisco.
     The sustainability plan for Treasure Island is based in a “triple bottom line” approach emphasizing environmental, economic, and social factors. The sustainable plan was a product of the site’s unique characteristics and restrictions, which allow it to be a test of models that serve as alternatives to suburban sprawl. An emphasis on public transit is one example. Treasure Island’s only link right now to the rest of the Bay Area is the Bay Bridge, using an infamous on-ramp that requires drivers to merge into interstate traffic from a complete stop in only about 200 feet. Although improving the bridge entrance is part of the plan, the bridge is functionally at capacity, so the development plan cannot rely on automobiles, as backlash against increasing traffic on the Bay Bridge would result. Although housing units have one parking space each, transit has played an extremely large role in the development, with no housing unit further than a 17-minute walk from the transit center with ferries and busses to San Francisco and Oakland, and parking spaces are often decoupled from housing. The proposal even includes a test of a congestion charge for cars coming on and off the island. Measures such as this have led many environmental organizations to praise Treasure Island, and it has won several awards for sustainable planning: LIST AWARDS
       Remediation of contamination and larger-scale infrastructure changes and are also planned to make the island habitable and address future sea-level rise. These are projected to cost $1.2 – $1.4 billion, possibly almost a quarter of the total construction costs. One of the major concerns is the remediation of environmental contamination. Although, since it was primarily an administrative location, Treasure Island is not as contaminated as other bases currently undergoing redevelopment (such as Hunter’s Point in the southwest corner of San Francisco, a Superfund site), it still has a toxins from its military history. Identified contaminants include dioxin, lead, and PCBs. The Navy is currently cleaning up the site, and is estimated to be two-thirds done bringing it up to federal standards. In addition, the Treasure Island proposal describes the current infrastructure built by the Navy as “crumbling,” and lays out a plan to compact the current land and add more fill on top, to simultaneously address seismic vulnerability and adapt to climate change. For the latter issue, TIDA has partnered with the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Corps (BCDC) to plan an adaptive management system that allows for 16 inches of sea level rise by 2050 and 55 inches by 2100, well within IPCC predictions of sea level rise. Development will be set back 300 feet from the shoreline, using shorefront park as a buffer, to allow for more climate mitigation measures such as dykes and levees if sea levels rise faster than expected. Michael Cohen, the director of economic workforce and development for the city of San Francisco and a primary planner, described the shoreline parks as “graceful mounded edges where you can walk along the top and see great vistas.”
     Overall, the city has a lot to gain from this project. In addition to the obvious benefits – the jobs provided from construction, the increase in tax base, the 2,400 units of affordable housing in a city that desperately needs it – a successful Treasure Island redevelopment would cement San Francisco’s reputation as an environmental leader among cities. And developers stand to profit due to sky-high real estate prices due to bay views. Yet, despite the redevelopment’s projected environmental, economic, and social gains, a chorus of critics has warned that the development is not as well off as rosy projections and architects’ renderings would have citizens believe.

close to downtown!

Figure 3a: An abandoned gas station at Treasure Island. Most of the island's infrastructure will be torn down entirely during

near downtown

Figure 3b: Treasure Island's proximity to downtown makes it possible to have only a 10 minute commute via ferry.

Last updated:  5/7/2010


Macalester College 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55105  USA  651-696-6000
Comments and questions to