A Treasure Trove of Open Space

As developers in S.F. pay millions for tiny vacant lots, a massive, 8,000-unit project breaks ground on Treasure Island.

Piles of peeling paint dot the weeds next to old, sun-bleached military barracks. Plywood boards buckle loose from the nails holding them against window frames. Chain-link fences riddled with holes sag into the bushes. Treasure Island appears somewhat apocalyptic.

Just four miles away in San Francisco — mainland San Francisco — developers draft complicated plans for micro-apartments, doing the complicated math of squeezing 12 units of housing onto a parcel only 18 feet deep. As the housing crisis marches forward, it’s only a matter of time before Treasure Island experiences a massive redevelopment. The plans have been drawn up, politicians have signed off, and construction vehicles are moving in. A $5 billion community, which is estimated to take 20 years to construct, is already breaking ground.

The numbers are fairly astonishing: Developers plan to construct 8,000 units of housing, 25 percent of which will be offered below market rate. Around 20,000 residents will move in. Three hotels with up to 500 rooms total will open, along with 550,000 square feet of restaurants, retail, office, and commercial space. As for sea level rise, never fear: The developers have already planned to build new structures 3 feet off the ground.

The island will include two physical communities, “arranged on a series of fine-grained, walkable blocks.” One will run along the western edge with views of San Francisco, and another along the eastern side, where residents can glimpse the Bay Bridge and East Bay hills. Planners have even commissioned Ai Weiwei and Andy Goldsworthy to custom-build public art pieces, each with a million-dollar budget.

The city’s description of the project — which includes such phrases as “walkable, compact, and eclectic; economically, ethnically, and demographically diverse; sensitive to topography, views, and aesthetics; memorable and distinctive” — is unabashedly utopian, and immensely thorough. In the 271-page “Phase 1” report, everything from hourly wind mitigation tactics to the surface of the sidewalks has been laid out. But Rome wasn’t built in a day, and there is one big problem in all of this: There are already hundreds of people living on Treasure Island, and their homes are going to be demolished.

It’s inevitable, sadly. But what exactly will happen to those residents remains to be seen. In 2017, the Board of Supervisors approved a $1.24 million contract with the aptly named Associated Right of Way Services, Inc, who they’ve tasked with the big job of relocating current Treasure Island tenants. Last year, around 675 households lived on the island, 250 of them in low-income housing. In total, around 2,000 residents are believed to be living on the small stretch of land.

The Treasure Island residents who’ve been on the island since before 2011 (when the city approved the development plan) will receive up to $6,300 in cash, or a new rental unit once it’s built, or a down payment toward the purchase of a new home.

In addition, formerly homeless residents who live in the 250 affordable homes on the island will be allowed to move into new units, “regardless of when those households became residents on Treasure Island,” the budget analyst’s report says. “However, the affordable households are not entitled to in-lieu cash payments.”

The above groups are the lucky ones. For the 205 households who moved in after 2011, only “advisory services” are offered for relocation.

This isn’t the first time tenants have been evicted en masse from their homes on the lump of land between San Francisco and Oakland. In 2015, 40 households were forced to vacate Yerba Buena Island to make way for redevelopment. Of those, one-third took cash payments and relocated, and the remainder found homes next door on Treasure Island.

Work is already well underway for the first phase of the project, which includes 2,100 homes. New, shiny chain-link fences have gone up, and the large field that held the Treasure Island Music Festival main stage is now flattened, spotted with huge piles of dirt. In a few years, people will live on top of it.

Depending on your political leanings, this massive plan could make a huge dent in our housing crisis and lower rents citywide, or simply provide 6,000 wealthy people with luxury housing and clog up the Bay Bridge. Either way, the days of watching the sunset over the San Francisco skyline while The National plays a live outdoor show to thousands of people are over.


More Stories on Treasure Island

Treasure Island: San Francisco’s Strangest Neighborhood
It’s only existed for about 80 years, and big changes are in store.

Where to Eat and Drink on Treasure Island
It’s not the most well-rounded restaurant ecosystem, but there’s plenty for a Sunday Funday.

The Treasure Island Music Festival Had a 10-Year Run. Now What?
T.G.I.T.I.M.F.! Producer Jordan Kurland vows it will be back this year, at a yet-to-be-disclosed location that will be announced soon.

TreasureFest Moves from West to East
The newly-branded Treasure Fest, with its dog sweater stalls and margaritas, has begun to resemble Renegade Craft Fair.

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