If a green utopia on Treasure Island sounds far-fetched, dreamers have a plan
by John King
Thursday, June 2, 2005
Right now, San Francisco has a rare chance to do something that's historic and audacious:
create the world's first green urban neighborhood on our very own Treasure Island.
Instead of a windswept former naval base with poor access to the Bay Bridge, 403 human-
made acres could be a community where 20,000 people live mostly automobile-free lives.
Energy would be generated by windmills; shops and parks would be within walking
distance. Downtown San Francisco would be a 10-minute ferry ride away.
Far-fetched? Absolutely, and a long shot as well. There's a developer in place, but there
also are state regulations and well-intentioned constraints at every turn.
But if ever there were a time to dream, it's this week, when San Francisco plays host to the
World Environment Conference, and the notion of green cities is high on the agenda. On
Treasure Island, environmentalism and urbanism could fuse as never before -- a vibrant
community that creates its own energy, treats its own waste and has a transit system so
convenient that cars are superfluous.
And before you blanch at the thought of 20,000 or more people living where 1,400 now
reside, consider this: Environmental activists are the ones pushing us all to think big.
"There's the opportunity and the necessity to develop Treasure Island in a way that
exemplifies the idea of sustainable development," says Eve Bach of Arc Ecology, a San
Francisco environmental group. "To support the kinds of services you need on an island
requires a lot of people."
That's a far cry from the plan that has evolved in procedural fits and starts over the past
The current scenario calls for 2,600 housing units in four new neighborhoods, with 200
more tucked into the wooded natural hills of Yerba Buena Island to the south. There'd be
attached homes modeled on traditional San Francisco neighborhoods, modest towers near
a new ferry terminal on the island's southeastern cove, even an "eco-village" with
community gardens looking toward Berkeley.
As for open space, start with a 350-foot-wide park facing San Francisco and a 250-foot-
wide counterpart looking toward the East Bay. Add ball fields as part of a recreational strip
in the middle of the island. The finale: Treasure Island's northern 72 acres would be a
"nature park" with ponds and wetlands to help treat the island's storm water as well as
provide natural habitat.
Plus -- to pay for the above -- there'd be hotels and conference space and boutique
shopping near the cove.
"Here's an incredible opportunity to present something of respite to the Bay Area -- parks
and wetlands -- but also a place of vitality and life," says Karen Alschuler, a principal at
SMWM, the planning firm working for Treasure Island Community Development, the
developer selected by the city to convert the former naval base.
Give Alschuler and her team credit: It's a good plan as far as it goes, especially the efforts
to make the open space a functioning part of the larger environment.
But it's not the stuff dreams are made of.
That's because every line of every drawing is shaded by pragmatic and political
considerations. The cap on housing comes from a citizen advisory group that concluded
work in 1996, the year before the U.S. Navy closed its base. The wide bands of parkland
along the shore are a dictate of the State Lands Commission, which controls what is done
on filled land along the bay.
There's also a chunk in the middle of the island that's off-limits to any change at all
because it houses the Job Corps Center, a federal program that trains at-risk youth in
fields such as restaurant work and the building trades.
Navigating all this favors endurance, not imagination. Developers study the checklist --
such as a legal agreement with the Board of Supervisors that could come this fall -- and
steer clear of anything bold that might raise a red flag to potential opponents.
But sometimes bold is what's called for -- perhaps right here and perhaps right now.
What could be is glimpsed in a set of visions crafted by urban design students last
semester at UC Berkeley's College of Environmental Design. Professor Elizabeth Macdonald
led six teams through a study of Treasure Island, and then had them draw up plans for a
community shaped by "ecologically responsible approaches to transportation, energy,
water and waste disposal issues."
"There's timeliness -- decisions are being made that will be set in stone," Macdonald says.
"Treasure Island offers a great opportunity to really create a showcase."
While the student plans differ in specifics, certain themes are as pervasive as the island's
stiff afternoon winds.
Some feature lines of windmills to capture those gusts and put them to use. Most move
the ferry terminal so that it faces downtown San Francisco; visibility is priceless. Street
surfaces are designed to filter runoff into the ground, not into sewers.
More dramatically, the housing units don't include parking. Cars are kept off most of the
island, allowing for narrow streets used by bicycles and the island's own shuttle system.
And here's the grand counterintuitive leap: The student schemes call for a population
much larger than the 7,000 residents now envisioned. Not to give the developer a windfall,
but to make everything else work.
Ferries and shuttles, for instance. Developers promise to make them convenient, but it's
hard to build frequent service around day-trippers and a small population scattered across
Or what about a place to shop? The official plan calls for a cluster of shops and residents
in what it dubs Ferry Plaza Village. But that's at the southeast end of the island away from
most of the residents -- and the development team concedes that the approved
population isn't large enough to attract neighborhood-focused retailers.
"Once you start thinking about a car-free island, you start thinking about types of places
that are needed so people don't need to leave -- a serious grocery store, for instance,"
Push the imagination further. If Treasure Island has the systems in place to handle its own
energy, its own water and its own waste, suddenly a job corps there makes sense. Corps
members could learn to operate the green infrastructure -- a possible ticket to more
lucrative jobs than, say, learning how to prepare salads.
One official who has seen the student work is Mark Palmer, green building coordinator for
the city's Department of the Environment. He's intrigued.
"The island really does need to have a density to support all the lifestyle features we'd
like," Palmer says. "I hope we have an opportunity to reopen the density and population
discussion, because it deserves another look. "
Yes, all this has a utopian glow. It can also be sniped at from a dozen directions. Won't the
ferries cause pollution? Won't the windmills kill birds? Why not make the whole island a
Even this starry-eyed columnist is skeptical that an auto-free island could exist. It's hard
to imagine thousands of households comfortable with the notion that a car is something
you rent every month or two for a getaway to Big Sur.
But one thing I know for certain: The only credible way to ask people to give up
automotive convenience is to surround them with everything they want.
Such as a good supermarket. Movie theaters. More than one restaurant to choose from
when you don't feel like cooking after a day at work. All knit together so tightly that it's an
enticing alternative to any big-city neighborhood you can name.
Arc Ecology's Bach, for instance, outlines a scenario where neighborhood life revolves
around the link to the mainland.
"Imagine if the ferry terminal became the place to pick up mail, like the post office in
Carmel," Bach says. "The place where you buy groceries, where you locate the drop-in
childcare, where there's space for community activities ... you can build in all of these
Indeed you can. All you have to do is dream.
An island of treasures
Redevelopment plans for Treasure Island include 2,600 housing units, extensive open
space, preservation of several former naval buildings and a visitor-oriented commercial
district with hotels along the island's southern shore. While details of the plan are likely to
be revised further at a community workshop on June 14, below is the current version.
Eco-village: 475 housing units, including lofts, would be designed on so- called green
building principles around a central garden.
Westside Park: This low-rise neighborhood would contain 607 townhouses and flats in
what developers call a "typical San Francisco fabric."
Cityside: These 646 units line up to face spectacular views of San Francisco, with the
possibility of one or two mid-rise towers.
Clipper Cove: Another 646 units would be clustered near the proposed ferry terminal and
might include the island's tallest buildings.
Ferry Landing Village: This area could include hotels, a conference center, and shopping
areas similar to Fourth Street in Berkeley, along with a 400-slip marina.
North shore: This large open space would include wetlands that double as part of the
island's water reclamation system..
Source: Treasure Island Community Development, LLC.
Exhibition: Several UC Berkeley student designs are on display this week at thePacific
Energy Center, 851 Howard St., San Francisco. A community workshop on Treasure Island
is scheduled for 6 p.m. June 14. Registration starts 5:30 p.m. at the Port of San Francisco
offices at Pier 1 on the Embarcadero. Call (415) 554-5201 or log onto sfgov.org/site/