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What lies beneath the Treasure Island redevelopment?

Ben Trefny
Visitors to Treasure Island may or may not see this sign tucked against a wall in the grasses

After decades of dreaming, planning, and delays, Treasure Island is set to be transformed. On March 30 a coalition of developers and investors led by Lennar Urban announced the start of ambitious construction plans, beginning with the demolition of 40 existing buildings followed by infrastructure development, including new roads, utilities and parks. The end result: up to 8,000 housing units, commercial and retail space, and even 500 hotel rooms. It's a growth bonanza for a city with little available space. So why did it take so long to get here?

The answer is both complicated and concerning.

Credit Miranda Jilka (G.F.Bunting+Co)
Artist rendering of Treasure Island development plans

Treasure Island has been a place of promise for over three-quarters of a century. Prominently located in the center of San Francisco Bay, it’s a flat, man-made expanse just over a mile long attached to rocky Yerba Buena Island. It was created as the site of a World’s Fair in 1939 called the Golden Gate International Exposition — a site showcasing dreams of the future. After decades of use by the Navy, the site was decommissioned in 1993. Last May, the Navy conveyed all of its land on Yerba Buena Island and half of its land on Treasure Island to the Treasure Island Development Authority, which is administering the property. For many years, the island inspired developers to draw up plans for high-rise ecotopias with extraordinary views for tens of thousands of residents in an ideally located model community with easy access to the city and the East Bay.

This young resident's family recently moved here, to The Villages at Treasure Island

Right now, Treasure Island looks a lot different from that vision. It's home to fewer than 2,000 San Franciscans who live in supportive housing through the Treasure Island Homeless Development Initiative or in other rental properties.

It’s generally accessible only by car or bus, and that’s a big transit challenge, since it’s located between the eastern and western spans of the Bay Bridge. San Francisco doesn’t operate any conventional public schools on the island, so children need to commute long distances to get their education. And the island has little commerce, meaning there are few healthy food options close to home. Instead there are dozens of derelict buildings — monolithic testaments to another generation's military history. It leaves little for people to do on the isolated expanse.

Broken windows and unkempt landscapes now mark what were once signature facilities

What lies beneath?

That’s all what’s apparent. What’s less visible is the toxic and radioactive history left by the years of Naval occupation. Since the base was decommissioned, clean-up crews have been working to make the island safe for residents. As standards have changed, and new concerns identified, some residents have been paid to leave properties, and their former homes have been fenced off. Today, it’s a common sight on the northwest side of Treasure Island to see townhomes with well-kept yards standing side by side with other townhomes fenced off with signs warning of radioactivity.


A young woman walks home past a house fenced off because of concerns over radioactive contamination.

“[The Navy] is removing debris, and soil contaminated with lead; polychlorinated biphenyls; polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons; and dioxins,” according to spokesman William Franklin. “The area is also being screened for low-level radiological objects that may be mixed within the debris. The majority of these objects are pieces of metal coated with radium paint. They were used aboard Navy ships allowing sailors to find their way inside a dark ship during power outages.”

Signs on a fence warn passersby to keep out


A detailed article from the Center for Investigative Reporting in 2014 determined that more than paint contributed to the radioactive legacy of the island. Atomic testing took place in classrooms with safety standards that would be considered questionable, today.


Growing up in a clean-up zone


Eighteen-year-old Erick Cortez says, “I definitely think it’s a hazardous thing, and it’s being dealt with now.”


Life Learning Academy helps unconventional students think and reflect

Cortez lives with his mother on Treasure Island and attends Life Learning Academy, a charter high school on the island currently serving 47 students whose needs are not met in conventional learning environments. Cortez sees signs warning people to stay away from contaminated buildings right across from his school, and all over the island, but he says they’re easy to ignore.


“So I skated in a little blocked off area with two water towers,” he says. “Apparently there used to be radioactive stuff in there. I skated in there for a little bit. I had a friend filming me doing some tricks and stuff. It’s full of graffiti and there are plants in there.


Ari Liccardo walks past abandoned warehouses on his way to see friends leaving Life Learning Academy

“Honestly, at first, it didn’t really bother me,” he says. “But then I started reacting a little bit. Like, ‘What if I get sick.’ I started playing mind tricks on myself, and I started feeling sick. But it was just my mind playing tricks on me.”


He says neither he nor his mother is concerned about how the island’s toxic history is affecting their health.

Others are not so sure. Many residents contacted a law firm with an interest in filing a lawsuit, but the case was dropped for lack of evidence.


What will Treasure Island’s future hold?


Driving onto and around Treasure Island brings a rapid succession of contrasts into view.

Beneath the rugged beauty of Yerba Buena Island, you immediately see stunning views of the Bay Bridge and San Francisco to the southwest

Big, brawny Naval buildings rule the south side

The center of the island includes a series of little league fields dwarfed by a mountain of dirt — a public works project to stabilize the artificial island in an earthquake

To the north, winding streets lead through nicely kept suburban townhomes, many bounded by fences warning of radioactivity

With the announcement of construction plans, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee stated, “It’s taken almost two decades to get to this point, and we’re eager to transform this former naval base into a vibrant community with more housing, jobs and economic opportunities for our residents." Developers say it could take another decade or two to see the plans through.

As they begin building their blueprints into brick and mortar, clean-up crews race to complete their jobs. Navy spokesman William Franklin says the solid waste clean-up is due to wrap up next summer with all work completed by 2020.

Many questions remain. Why did it take so long for development plans to become reality? Why are formerly occupied homes that were once deemed safe now behind fences protecting residents from contamination? What will happen to the renters currently living on Treasure Island when long-term visions become reality?

San Francisco's next big redevelopment project is beginning; but it's a long way from being finished.

Ben handles daily operations in the news department, overseeing the editorial and sound engineering teams, delivering daily newscasts, producing the nightly news and culture show Crosscurrents, and supervising special projects including KALW's Audio Academy training program.