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San Francisco Eyes an Offshore Treasure

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For more than 60 years, occupants of this mound of mud and rock in the San Francisco Bay have watched the city swell.

Dazzling minarets of glass and steel rose from the crowded hills. Three-story houses the breadth of a single-wide mobile home lined the boulevards. Thousands of visitors decided they had indeed left their hearts in San Francisco, and world-class traffic clogged the streets.

Ever-resourceful, the city grew up and in. Elegant skyscrapers formed a filigreed skyline, while builders wedged slivers of homes and businesses into every inch of empty space.

Now, faced with a 1% vacancy rate and nowhere left to grow, San Francisco is eyeing Treasure Island.

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Hungrily. Greedily. Longingly.

“It’s the most precious piece of property in the city and county of San Francisco--more valuable even than the Presidio,” said state Sen. Quentin L. Kopp (I-San Francisco). “It’s within the city limits, and it has [360-degree] views. There is nothing else like it in the bay.”

A construction project completed in 1937 to celebrate the opening of the Golden Gate and Bay bridges, Treasure Island was targeted for civilian use in 1993 by the Defense Base Realignment and Closure Act. San Francisco hopes to buy the land from the Department of Defense. Neither the asking price nor source of the purchase money has been decided.

During its tenure on Treasure Island, which is less than a mile square, the Navy built more than 900 houses and apartments, a marina, several piers, a chapel, medical and dental clinics, restaurants, a school, movie theater, jail, gym, bowling alley, conference center, and more than 1 million square feet of office and warehouse space. It was, in essence, a small city.

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And what a view.

“When you stand on the main road of Treasure Island and look across the bay, you feel like you can touch the city’s skyline,” said Jeff Young, a spokesman for the Navy’s Base Conversion Office. The island “has wharves and waterfront, huge hangars for movie-making, housing and open space. It has a lot of potential.”

Potential for growth and, this being San Francisco, for controversy.

In 1997, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to give Mayor Willie Brown control of a nonprofit corporation that would buy Treasure Island from the Navy and oversee its development. It was quickly dubbed Willigan’s Island.

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This year, voters balked. Led by Kopp, one of Brown’s most outspoken and acerbic critics, they passed Proposition K, an advisory measure crafted to curb the mayor’s power over the island.

Proposition K demands that the supervisors dissolve the Brown-controlled corporation and turn the conversion of the base over to existing city departments and agencies. The supervisors have not acted on the measure.

Most recently, regional transportation officials voted to rebuild the 60-year-old Bay Bridge north of the existing structure. This plan would take the bridge over a part of Yerba Buena Island, Treasure Island’s neighbor, that is considered critical to all construction plans for both islands, and could throw development plans into a tailspin.

“The mayor has made statements to the effect that we may not accept [Treasure Island] should the bridge go to the north,” said Annemarie Conroy, a former supervisor appointed by Brown as executive director of the Treasure Island Development Authority Project. “A northern alignment of the bridge would preclude development that would have been an important part of the reuse plan.”

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In the meantime, Treasure Island has become a sort of Rorschach blot for everyone from developers and environmentalists to home buyers and advocates for the homeless.

Dreams and schemes have included a casino, an amusement park, a brothel, a luxury hotel complex, a women’s prison, a wetland, an artists’ colony, a sports complex, a 13-story theme hotel resembling a Mayan pyramid surrounded by a faux jungle, and affordable housing.

Although the brothel proposal has few supporters and a casino is prohibited by state law, plans for hotels, restaurants and housing are gaining momentum.

“On Treasure Island, you have the opportunity to create a world-class destination,” said Darius Anderson, a Bay Area resident who, in partnership with Los Angeles supermarket tycoon Ron Burkle, submitted a plan to the authority to develop the Treasure Island marina.

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“There is not a world-class marina on the West Coast, and this would be a wonderful opportunity to create one,” Anderson said. “San Francisco should become the center of the boating world.”

The fact that Anderson is a former Democratic fund-raiser who has pumped big bucks into Brown’s campaigns has added an extra kernel of controversy to the ongoing drama.

Meanwhile, life on Treasure Island goes on.

Many of its present uses are expected to continue, including a Job Corps training site, a firefighting school, and several hangars converted to sound stages, where the television show “Nash Bridges” shoots and where the movie “Sphere” was filmed.

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Last year, the cost of water, sewage, electricity and road maintenance ran between $7 million and $8 million. Such basic costs are often taken for granted in established communities.

“What many people don’t realize is that it will cost a lot to maintain the island,” said Ken Parsons, base conversion manager for the Navy.

“Also, this isn’t compacted soil, so anything that’s built is subject to damage in an earthquake.”

Treasure Island’s assets may sound good on paper, but in reality, many of the buildings and facilities are, well, ugly.

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A number of the structures date to the 1940s, when the Navy built with an eye to utility, not beauty. Apartments and townhouses have the dreary look of bad public housing. No effort has been made to disguise the storage yards, barracks, warehouses or sewage treatment plant. Just a fraction of the 4,000 plants and shrubs, 250,000 tulips and 400,000 perennials planted for the 1939 exposition have survived.

Plus, the island is sinking. City officials estimate that since its creation, Treasure Island has sunk five feet, to nine feet above sea level. That leaves some parts of the island under water during high tide.

“From a developer’s standpoint, Treasure Island has certain attractions, but it’s a very expensive and complicated project,” Conroy said. “The asking price could be in the billions, and our position is that if we paid $1, we overpaid. We have inherited 400 acres of fixer-uppers.”


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