Open Menu

Latest News and Developments
Stay in touch and sign up for Boulevard’s eForum:
Spreading Meaningful Ideas About Urban Development and City-Making.

May 21, 2006

CASTLES ON THE SAND/Is the multilayered development plan for Treasure Island a vision for ecotopia or a pipe dream?

San Francisco Chronicle, by Sam Whiting

The Treasure Island Chapel has no congregation so there won’t be a displacement when the church is underwater. In the new and improved model for the redundant Navy base, the ground underfoot will be notched out so a ferry can come right through the Avenue of the Palms, the church parking lot and garden, and dock up against what is now venue B. In the morning, after a 10-minute float, San Franciscans will debark for a day in the new regional park while organic farmers whistle off to work the back 40. In the evening, thousands of new Treasure Islanders will debark into a retail plaza and meander home along paths to a series of nine neighborhood parks running parallel to the Great Lawn along the western shore. Each neighborhood will be defined by a low residential tower, between 15 and 18 stories. There will be some affordable housing among the 5,500 units, and, of course, much more of the unaffordable kind, most prominently in the skinny, twisty 60-story condo tower that will stand and sway just to the north of the historic crescent-shaped Administration Building.

“The idea is to make at least one tower, just like Venice, that marks the arrival point for the ferry, sort of, like a campanile,” says architect Craig Hartman, whose campanile will be twice the height of that other Campanile, the nonresidential one over in Berkeley.

The shimmering new 600-foot campanile doesn’t yet have a name. But it ought to be called the Sun Tower for two reasons. One, it will be built of glass embedded with photovoltaics facing south to capture solar power. Two, it is designed to evoke the pointy 400-foot Tower of the Sun from the Golden Gate International Exposition held here in 1939. Built specifically for that purpose, as a New Deal make-work project, the island is essentially a 400-acre sand box. A rectangular rock seawall was filled with sand and gravel dredged from the bay and the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, according to the city government Web site. The name Treasure Island comes from the assumption that there was gold in the dredgings.

Seventy-seven years later, speculators are still searching for the gold on Treasure Island. Three years ago the Treasure Island Development Authority, a state redevelopment agency that oversees the property, selected the Treasure Island Community Development, a partnership of investors, to come up with a plan. A year ago the consortium hired Hartman, 56, a partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. His notable contributions to the San Francisco skyline are the 30-story 101 Second Street office tower and the 42-story St. Regis Museum Tower next to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. A downtown tower is, of course, necessitated by the lack of horizontal building space. Treasure Island will be nothing but horizontal building space. The three historic structures at the entrance — the Pan Am Clipper terminal and the two seaplane hangars behind it — will remain. The sprawl of Navy housing, school, theater, bowling alley, gymnasium and all the other boarded-up Dust Bowl detritus will be “deconstructed,” meaning scraped and recycled. And that is how they will leave it.

Hartman’s plan is to manufacture density by going vertical. Cram all the people onto one-quarter of the island and turn the other 300 acres into parkland, marshland, farmland. It will be a mini Chicago — a flat place on the water with Modernist skyscrapers shooting up from the crops.    “The practical thing is to use height to make it less consumptive of land and to make it dense and focused to the ferry terminal,” Hartman says.    The vast north and east shores will be open space surrounding a 20-acre organic farm where produce for the island’s restaurants and markets will be grown. “It’s not really meant to be a commercial enterprise,” Hartman says. “It will grow enough greens to supply 2,000 people.” With what? “It depends on how much salad you eat.”   There will be no industry on the island unless the people who live in the tower condominiums happen to be farmers, descending from the 60th floor in overalls and work boots.

Everything will be within a 10-minute walk from the new ferry terminal. That convenience alone will cost $20 million. The existing battleship pier on the east side — part of a previous ferry plan — is of no interest. Nobody wants to ride a ferry all the way around to the back, when the action is on the front, Hartman says.   Treasure Island is within the boundaries of the city and county of San Francisco, the point of view is that it is just another San Francisco neighborhood, no more isolated than the avenues. And a lot less isolated if the ferry runs, say, every 15 minutes on that 10-minute run from the Ferry Building to the nearest point on the island.   Cars will be de-emphasized on the island. There will be one parking slot per residential unit, but only half of those will be in the neighborhood. The others will be stored away. There won’t be any boxy garages in front of houses and there won’t be any curbs in pedestrian areas because there won’t be any cars.

If that doesn’t cure the urge to drive, there is the neck-straining, stress-inducing merge onto the Bay Bridge from the island, flooring it from the stop sign to build up enough speed to avoid a whiplashing rear-ender.   “The intent here is to make this a new national model for what a wholly sustainable community can be about,” Hartman says. “It involves the land, it involves a response to the microclimate.” Anybody who has stood out there in the western wind would probably rate it a “macroclimate,” one more thing it has in common with Chicago. But Hartman has a plan for that. He’s going to switch the entire orientation — streets and all – a quarter turn counterclockwise so his new neighborhood will face south instead of west and south. “If you turn it 45 degrees, you can actually buffer the wind,” Hartman says. “You open up the island to the sun and you also are blocking the wind if you arrange the buildings and landscape right.”   Even if he manages to redirect the wind and direct the ferry into the west side, there is still the little problem that has been on the Bay Area collective mind the past month or so. That is the likelihood of a 100-year earthquake.

Before any infrastructure is built, the island’s rock seawall will be strengthened with a system of rock piles anchored in bedrock. The low and mid-rise buildings will be anchored by conventional pilings. It gets trickier with the skyscrapers, but Uri Eliahu, president of Engeo, the geotechnical consulting firm on the project, has a simple system for that.   In order to anchor a 60-story tower, “you build a 130-story tower and pound it down into the ground,” he says. Eliahu is joking, but not by much. The towers will be anchored by a system of drilled case piles just like the structural supports on the new east span of the Bay Bridge, he says.    “A hole is drilled in the sand and this steel pipe is advanced to whatever depth,” he says. “All the dirt from inside the pipe is removed. All the reinforcing steel is placed into this casement.”

The tallest towers will be glass wrapped with an “exo-skeleton” of X braces, like the Alcoa Building downtown, or the Sears Tower in Chicago. If a major quake hits, the towers will be standing, even if they are standing in the water. In any case, Treasure Island will be no worse off, “and probably better off,” Hartman says, than the towers at Mission Bay or South Beach, or for that matter, the Skidmore office at One Front Street, on the corner of Market.   There is a scale model of the plan up on the 24th floor, and standing behind it, Hartman sees it for what it is. “This is a massive, massive project compared to anything you’ll see almost anywhere else,” he says, and that includes the new Beijing Finance Street he designed, with 25 buildings currently under construction.

To get a handle on a 600-foot skyscraper, it is 50 feet taller than the One Rincon Hill tower already approved to become the tallest residential tower west of the Mississippi, according to estimates. If the Sun Tower goes to its full height, it will render One Rincon Hill a short-lived record holder, like Mark McGwire’s 70 home runs in 1998, three seasons before Barry Bonds out-enhanced his performance with 73. “It’s a creative scheme. Introducing high-rises here makes a certain amount of sense,” says Dean Macris, planning director for the city and county of San Francisco. “When you have a flat piece of earth, the introduction of views improves the quality of life.”

Behind the Sun Tower will be “the three sisters,” about a third as tall. In all, there will be 13 to 15 towers ranging from 15 to 60 stories. The population may be 12,000, about the same as in Hartman’s own commuter town of Larkspur.  “We’re not attempting to build a town. This would just be a neighborhood,”says Anthony Flanagan, President of the Urban Development Division of Lennar, a real estate development company, which is the senior member of the team.

Town or neighborhood. Either way, where will the buyers and renters come from? “We’re basically going to be providing different types of products that will appeal to different parts of the market,” Flanagan says. “Some people may want to be on the ground, because maybe they have kids. Maybe they want a larger floor plan. Others may love high-rise living and want to have a great view of the city and would be willing to pay for that.”   Flanagan also believes people will be willing to pay Four Seasons prices for a luxury hotel with a view back at the city, so it is being added to the mix. For the lower end, 15 percent of the 5,500 units will be rentals. The developers will shoulder the cost of all new infrastructure, from sewer lines on up. Flanagan won’t even estimate what it will cost beyond “hundreds of millions of dollars.” If all goes perfectly, it will be under way by 2009, to honor the 80th anniversary of the world’s fair. But there is a lot that can go un-perfectly, starting with the height of the Sun Tower, which may be knocked down to 400 feet, the same height as its ancestral Tower of the Sun.

No one will know for another two years, which is how long it is expected to take for the plan to reach the Board of Supervisors for final approval and permits. There is also the technicality that the land is still owned by the Navy, but that should be resolved by then, after 10 years of talking, at least two high-flying ambassadors — Annemarie Conroy and Tony Hall — and several shot-down concepts. The usual naysayers haven’t found too much to say nay about this incarnation. Yet. “It needs significant public vetting,” says Supervisor Chris Daly, whose district includes Treasure Island. “We are past due.” Daly applauds the relocated western ferry terminal, and the open space, but laughs off the high-rise concept as “The Vancouver model, only in the middle of the bay.” As for the tall skinny buildings to protect sight lines? “Aren’t all the towers slender?” he asks. “It’s kind of a buzz word.”

Buzz-kill Daly will get his due this summer when the development plan, which is not legally binding, is expected to go before the Board of Supervisors. Public testimony will be invited.   “We’re getting an entitlement, and in exchange for that entitlement, the city is getting a regional park (one-third the size of Golden Gate Park) and 30 percent of the housing will be affordable,” Flanagan says. The public is also getting the missing link between the city and the bicycle lanes being built on the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge. From Yerba Buena Island, it’s a downhill coast to the terminal and onto the ferry.

So will it ever happen? “I started working on Mission Bay in 1982 and people said, ‘Is this ever going to happen?’ ” responds Planning Director Macris. “It’s taken 20 years.”    Treasure Island developers are slightly less patient. They’d like to get it done in 10, building in phases. People living in the 575 units of Navy housing won’t be transitioned until the land is needed. Then they will get the first crack at affordable housing, both owned and rented, on the island.    “From our perspective, it’s not just the towers but the holistic vision for how the land use and urban design will create a successful project,” says Jack Sylvan, Treasure Island project manager in the office of Mayor Gavin Newsom. “The public benefit that’s being provided out there is the most extensive of any project that we know of in recent history.”

Hartman calls it the most extensive in ancient history too, or at least “since 1907,” Hartman says. “I don’t think there has been anything like this, in one single piece, since the earthquake.”