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Planners See Treasure in Bay's Island

Developers want to turn an abandoned military base near San Francisco into a model of new urban living. But many hurdles loom.

January 09, 2006|Maria L. La Ganga | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Here in one of America's most densely populated cities, there are more than 15,000 people per square mile. Land values soar as high as skyscrapers. There is little room to grow in any direction except up.

But if all goes as planned, a 20-acre organic farm could be planted within the city's bursting boundaries -- part of a new open-space preserve a third the size of Golden Gate Park -- alongside up to 5,500 housing units that would make neighbors of formerly homeless people and wealthy condo owners.

The proposed enclave would have spectacular views and rules so stringent that Manhattan would look car-friendly by comparison; local officials are already gushing about "the most environmentally sustainable large development project in U.S. history."

Large, of course, is in the eye of the beholder.

This winter, after more than a decade of effort, San Francisco officials are unveiling proposals to create what amounts to a self-supporting miniature city on the former Naval Station Treasure Island, a 400-acre island dredged from the bottom of San Francisco Bay.

Although decommissioned military bases often give cities enviable opportunities for development, Treasure Island is a case apart. On the plus side, it is a "flat pancake in the middle of the bay," said Michael Cohen, the city's director of base reuse, which makes it "a perfect palette to play out some of these cutting-edge concepts" with no neighbors to offend. On the minus side, well, it's an island in the middle of the bay. Until a $35-million to $40-million ferry terminal is built, the only way off is the traffic-choked San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. It's so windy that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers couldn't get a single private dredger to bid on a contract to build the island even though work was scarce during the Depression. And it's really, really small.

On less than two-thirds of a water-ringed square mile, a development team headed by Lennar Corp. is figuring out what amounts to the basic building blocks of smart growth:

How many people are needed to support a grocery store? How many commuters make a ferry line possible? How many rich owners of market-rate housing are required to enable a city to provide affordable homes? Can the bay's ample sun and whipping winds be harnessed to power homes and businesses? Can food be grown in the middle of a housing development to help feed thousands of new residents?

"On islands, experiments can happen; they're controllable because they have defined boundaries," said Eric Antebi, national press secretary for the Sierra Club, who describes Treasure Island as a case study with effects that will go beyond San Francisco's borders. "It's rare that a city gets the chance to say 'If we do it right, what does right look like?' "

First envisioned as the site for an airport, Treasure Island was originally built by the Army Corps of Engineers, who dredged 30 million cubic yards of mud, sand and gravel to create the small, flat land mass. Local dredgers stayed away from the project, in part because of "their fear of the weather conditions prevailing on the waters in which the work was to be done," according to "Engineers at the Golden Gate," an Army Corps history of the region.

"Their concern was justified," the history continued, because the area "is indeed subject to severe winter storms as well as heavy wind and wave action during the summer months. As a matter of fact, there are very few months of the year which might be termed favorable for dredging."

Which raises the question: What is the weather favorable for?

Although the airport never materialized, in 1939 and 1940 the island was the site of the Golden Gate International Exposition, which celebrated the completion of two monumental bridges that span the scenic San Francisco Bay.

When World War II broke out and American military forces began to mobilize, Treasure Island was turned over to the Navy. Although the base was selected for closure in 1993, the military has yet to give San Francisco permanent title to the property, which is a necessary step before development begins. Negotiations between the city and the Navy continue over the terms of the transfer and the routine environmental cleanup.

Today, the island is a motley mix of shuttered military buildings, a just-closed public school and a federal vocational training program. Around 850 units of refurbished Navy housing are rented out, some through a supportive program for the formerly homeless.

There are a few city offices, and some historic buildings. Some film production takes place on the island. A small cafe is open a few hours each day, and disposable cameras are sold from a hut so that bundled-up tourists can capture the panoramic views.

But the weather that kept dredgers at bay does raise questions about whether the winds can be tamed enough to make Treasure Island suitable for condos and crops.

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