Treasure Island lies in the middle of San Francisco Bay, visible to the left of the Bay Bridge as it crosses from San Francisco to Oakland. Abutting hilly Yerba Buena Island, Treasure Island is a man-made island and former naval base created in the 1930s from dredged bay mud and sand. In 2000, plans were announced to redevelop Treasure Island from a dumpy former military base with sensational views of San Francisco into a model sustainable residential community only a ferry ride away from downtown. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors recently unanimously approved a planned $1.5 billion green redevelopment plan for the island, after the San Francisco Planning Commission green-lighted the environmental review earlier this spring. The vote went forward despite blowback from environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club, due to concerns over increased vehicular traffic and potential tsunami risks, as well as community concerns over affordable housing.

San Francisco, Treasure Island, Sustainable Development, Green Building

The plans for Treasure Island entail a massive population shift for the tiny island – from around 2,000 to more than 19,000 residents. The concept for a sustainable urban community includes multiple units of housing, an artificial wetland area integrated with water treatment, wind power, recreation and gardening areas, a marina, and a small shopping district. Skidmore, Owings + Merrill head up the design team along with Perkins + Will and Conger Moss Guillard. Some of the original naval structures will remain intact, notably the Treasure Island Administrative building. Originally built in the 1930s for the Golden Gate International Exposition, the impressive white structure stood in for the Berlin airport in the film Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade.

Since Treasure Island and Yerba Buena Island fall under the jurisdiction of the city and county of San Francisco, the project is a collaboration between a San Francisco redevelopment board and a private development team.  As a man-made former military base in a sensitive ecological region, the Treasure Island redevelopment also must contend with multiple stakeholders from wetland commissions to the Navy and housing agencies.

San Francisco, Treasure Island, Sustainable Development, Green Building

Even though the Treasure Island development could be one of the biggest intentionally green communities in the U.S., critics have pointed out many potential pitfalls. Detractors claim that building a large development off the city grid with limited transportation options is anything but sustainable. For San Francisco, the opportunity to add housing for 19,000 new residents would be a boon in a tightly constrained urban space; but for commuters, residents, and climate change activists, it could be a traffic nightmare.

There is only one Muni bus line that connects to Treasure Island and The Bay Bridge, a toll bridge that links the San Francisco peninsula with the East Bay, is already a major bottleneck. The planned eco-village is centered on pedestrian and bicycle traffic (after all, the island is less than a mile square), but there must be a large enough population to justify regular bus and ferry service. If the plans for Treasure Island as an “eco-utopia” are to go forward, the issue of transit and fossil fuel emissions must be addressed.

San Francisco, Treasure Island, Sustainable Development, Green Building

Other concerns are related to sea level rise in the case of climate change or tsunami. Treasure Island is completely flat, and as a result of being built from fill, it is especially vulnerable to earthquake damage. Another risk unique to Treasure Island is a legacy of the island’s use as a naval base for many years – there is abundant toxic buildup in the soil, including radioactive waste, due to ammunition dumps and decontamination activities. Community advocates also worry that Treasure Island could  end up falling prey to the environmental risks and drawn-out timelines of other area redevelopment projects like Mission Bay and Bayview.

Developers say that new fill, higher sea walls, and dedicated bus and ferry lines should stave off most of these worrisome side effects. San Francisco policymakers are clearly satisfied with the plans, and have cleared the project to move ahead. The Treasure Island green development has been dubbed a Clinton Climate Intiative founding project, and developers Wilson Meany Sullivan, Lennar Urban and Kenwood Investments hope to break ground in 2012.

+ Conger Moss Guillard