Island Life: New Communities Form off the Coast of San Francisco

Treasure Island and Yerba Buena Island / CMG Landscape Architecture

Treasure and Yerba Buena islands are about a mile off the northeast coast of San Francisco. They have a strange history. They were originally part of the city of San Francisco before they were confiscated by the federal government as naval and coast guard bases during World War II. The federal government then sold the islands back to the city government, which in turn created the Treasure Island Development Authority (TIDA) and sold much of the property to real estate developers Wilson Meany, Lennar Urban, and Kenwood Investments.

As San Francisco housing prices continue to skyrocket, the aim is to create 8,000 new housing units on the islands, nearly a third of which will be affordable, transforming these islands into the “next great neighborhood” just 12 minutes by ferry to downtown San Francisco. On the 425-acre Treasure Island, some 300 acres will be turned into public parkland, creating the largest new public green space in the city since Golden Gate Park. This is the kind of grand city-building rarely done in the U.S. anymore.

At the American Planning Association (APA) conference in San Francisco, one of the developers, Wilson Meany, and the planning and design team, SOM and CMG Landscape Architecture, walked us through the many facets of the $1.5 billion development, which integrates the latest thinking on both sustainability and resilience.

First, a brief history of the islands: In the 1930s, the San Francisco — Oakland Bay Bridge was constructed, linking downtown San Francisco to Yerba Buena and Treasure Island and then those islands to Oakland.

The very-flat Treasure Island was built up in 1936-37 through tons of imported rocks added over shallow shoals, all in time to become the site of the 1939 World’s Fair, which was officially named the Golden Gate International Exposition. The island later became a municipal airport, where the Pan Am clipper flew to Shanghai. Now, only those passenger terminals and hangars remain, and they are the only historic, protected buildings on the island.

Treasure Island / TIDA

At the onset of World War II, the U.S. government confiscated the island and transformed it into a naval station, an embarkation point for the Pacific theater of war. In the 1950s and 1960s, Treasure Island was the site of the U.S. Navy Naval Technical Training Center (NTTC). And according to the book Gay by the Bay: A History of Queer Culture in the San Francisco Bay by Susan Styker, there was also a dark, cruel episode in the island’s history: a psychiatric ward on the base was used to study and experiment on naval sailors who were being discharged for being gay. The base facilities closed in 1997 through the base realignment and closure (BRAC) program. The federal government remediated brownfields that littered the landscape, opening up the island for residential and commercial development.

In contrast with the flat artificial nature of Treasure Island, the nearby Yerba Buena Island is nature made, very hilly, and rich in native plant and bird life. Once called Goat Island or Sea Bird island, this smaller 150-acre island has a similar history. The U.S. federal government confiscated it and managed as part of the Treasure Island naval base. The island was home to officer housing, including for residence for Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, who was commander of the Pacific fleet in World War II. There is now a U.S. coast guard search and rescue base and clipper boat cove. Across both islands, there are now a few thousand people living full-time.

Yerba Buena Island / TIDA

According to Chris Meany, a partner at Wilson Meany, the process of developing the island started in earnest in the 2000’s. After a decade-long “mind boggling” negotiation process, Mayor Gavin Newsome agreed in 2009 to pay the federal government $105 million for Treasure Island, while the federal government retains some 40 acres for U.S. Department of Labor Jobs Corps facilities and a section of Yerba Buena Island for the U.S. Coast Guard. In 2005, the first land plan was developed by the city and a team of developers at Wilson Meany, Lennar Urban, and Kenwood Investments. The plan included a development rights swap between Treasure and Yerba Buena islands in order to protect 75 percent of the richly bio-diverse Yerba Buena from development and concentrate denser housing on Treasure island.

Treasure Island and Yerba Buena Master plan / CMG Landscape Architecture

For the new communities on the co-joined islands, the city and the developers aimed for sustainable and resilient design excellence. This involves creating public transit access; orienting communities to reduce wind; building sustainable and resilient housing, parks, and promenades; and creating a massive park that can adapt to rising sea levels.

Leo Chow, a partner with SOM, said Treasure Island is a beautiful place with access problems. Right now, visitors can either drive, bike, or take the bus over the Bay Bridge — just one route. A new ferry terminal in development on Treasure Island will add an important option and take people to and from downtown San Francisco in 12 minutes. At the new ferry landing, people can also hop on a bus or access bicycle lanes. “It will be possible to circumnavigate the island by bike.”

The new commercial and residential eco-districts are oriented on a “parallelogram grid” to maximize sun exposure but reduce the impact of high winds coming off the bay.

Parallelogram grid / CMG Landscape Architecture

The commercial district will include a retail corridor in the historic airport terminals and hangars. Residential communities themselves will be compact developments, 90 percent of which will be a 10-15 walk from the primary ferry and bus terminal.

Amid the new housing, there will be smaller, shared streets that privilege pedestrians and bicyclist instead of cars, leading to pocket parks and coastal parks, promenades, and bicycle pathways.

Compact neighborhood development with shared streets / CMG Landscape Architecture
Neighborhood parks / CMG Landscape Architecture

Neighborhoods themselves will mimic San Francisco’s urban feel — the “white, gold city.” Architects will follow rigid design standards calling for white buildings. “It will be a light-colored city against rich nature.”

Kevin Conger, FASLA, a founding partner at CMG Landscape Architecture and an integral part of the design team for the islands, said the public spaces were designed with both the 15,000-20,000 full-time residents and the many thousands of expected visitors in mind.

The public spaces had to be thought of as an “attractive destinations for the whole city — a city-wide waterfront park and a regional open space destination, with sports fields, a 20-acre urban farm for local food production, and natural areas, along with facilities for kayaking, sailing, and bicycling.”

Treasure Island development / SOM

CMG thoughtfully designed all the landscape infrastructural systems to be multi-purpose, too. The green spaces ensure that the island manages 100 percent of its stormwater run-off but also create habitat for wildlife. An island waste water treatment plant funnels reclaimed water to wetlands and is used for irrigation. “The goal was to close all these cycles in a self-contained eco-district.”

The large parkland was designed to accommodate future sea level rise as well. “We purposefully set-back developments 350-feet from the shoreline, so we may protect the community now and accommodate further future adaptation.” In the area called the wilds, which is filled with adaptable wetlands in an inter-tidal zone, the park will naturally recede or retreat as waters rise. The designers anticipated sea level rise out beyond 2070, and future adaptation needs are covered in the long-term budget.

Nature area of the Treasure Island park / CMG Landscape Architecture

Overlaying the ecological elements is a public art master plan, which puts 100 percent of art in the public realm, “increasing the cultural value of the parks.” Conger believes art is an important ingredient in a walkable public realm — “it’s so critical to reward pedestrians with a high-quality walking environment.”

Local landscape architecture firms, like Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture and Hood Design Studio, are filling in pieces of the parks on Treasure Island and Yerba Buena Island as well. Cochran is designing the plaza for the multi-modal ferry and bus terminal around building 1, while Walter Hood, FASLA, is creating a new park with 360 degree views at the peak of Yerba Buena Island that is also expected to become a regional destination park.

Treasure Island plaza / Andrew Cochran Landscape Architecture

Over on Yerba Buena Island, where CMG devised a comprehensive wildlife habitat management plan that creates “natural landscape patches,” connected habitat for birds and plants. Some 75 percent of the island will be reserved for parks, beaches, and 5 miles of walking and bicycling trails.

Beach on Yerba Buena Island / CMG Landscape Architecture
Views from Yerba Buena Island / CMG Landscape Architecture

Working with the San Francisco department of the environment, the team has already removed invasive species and propagated many thousands of native plants from seeds and then planted them back into the island.

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