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San Francisco Chronicle

April 12, 2010

Treasure Island Plan a Trove Full of Promise

By John King

Beware of putting too much stock in glossy development plans, but if Treasure Island is reborn along the lines being touted, the result will be a neighborhood like none the Bay Area has seen.

Only about 110 of the artificial island’s 404 acres will be urban, but they’ll be filled with more than 7,000 housing units along streets where, for the most part, pedestrians have priority over cars. Land will be farmed alongside ball fields. Solar panels will cover more roofs than not.

And high-rises will sprout in the middle of the bay – as many as 25 rising at least 18 stories, crowned by a central tower that exceeds the height of the Bay Bridge by more than 100 feet.

The vision was conceived in 2005, and the most optimistic scenario has the first homes opening in 2013. Now, though, the push for approvals is gearing up, and the public can begin to gauge whether the much-ballyhooed green neighborhood could someday offer a truly different way to live or simply a denser version of Emeryville and Mission Bay.

Judging by the 319-page draft of the design guidelines released last month, this enormous project deserves to move from drawing board to reality: It is an intriguing 21st century take on what an urban neighborhood can be.

Seeking to avoid surprises

But the real-life details will determine whether the “new” Treasure Island succeeds as a worthy addition to the symbolic center of the region. Now is the time to look hard at what’s proposed, so people aren’t caught by surprise if and when buildings start to appear.

The basics of the plan haven’t changed since 2005, when a suburban-style concept for the former Navy base was scrapped by the city-selected development team in favor of one with many more people on much less land.

The developed area would be confined to a thick L along the island’s western and southern edges, with a commercial district at the hinge and a new ferry terminal offering a straight shot to the Ferry Building. The rest of the island would become protected open space, except for 37 acres in the middle managed by the Treasure Island Job Corps, a federal training program.

The rationale? For Treasure Island to be an enticing community, it needs a population large enough to sustain features like a large grocery store. And by concentrating them near the hinge, walking and bicycles become genuinely convenient travel options.

The fleshed-out version that will make the regulatory rounds in coming months allows for more than 7,000 units of housing, up from 6,000 in 2005, while continuing to reserve 230 acres as open space (these numbers include 70 acres of parkland and up to 300 homes on adjacent Yerba Buena Island). Many of the smaller residential buildings have nudged from four to five stories, and loosened height limits allow modest housing towers on almost every block.

“We’re encouraging a variety in heights, but we’re protecting lights and views around the towers,” San Francisco’s Planning Commission was told last week by Karen Alschuler of Perkins + Will, one of three design firms involved in the planning. The others are the San Francisco office of Skidmore Owings & Merrill and the landscape architecture firm CMG.

Nod to environmentalism

The most exciting thing about the plan is how it integrates environmentalism into a dense urban landscape.

Part of this is obvious, such as the contrast between built-up blocks and wide open spaces reserved for shoreline promenades, recreational fields, an artificial wetlands to treat storm water and even a swath of agricultural land.

The plans include moves more artistic and subtle, as well.

You see this in the difference between the housing blocks that face San Francisco and the ones along the marina on the side of the island facing Oakland. The latter – dubbed the “Eastside District” – centers on a 110-foot-wide landscaped commons free of cars. The former organizes its blocks along narrow meandering streets and a strand of small neighborhood parks, each park marked by a tower on the north edge that provides a wind buffer without blocking sunlight.

Old as well as new elements

As for the commercial district, it makes the case for the sustainable merits of historic preservation as sustainable design by using the three remaining buildings from the 1938 Golden Gate International Exposition to define the commercial district. They’d be centerpieces, not leftovers.

The difficulty with a plan like this is getting a handle on all the elements.

Height is a perfect example.

With the plan’s fine grain comes one iconic stroke, a “landmark residential tower” capped at 650 feet. Framing it would be three other towers allowed to climb as high as 450 feet.

To put these in context, the iconic tower of the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge will be 525 feet tall. The towers of the existing western span are 470 and 519 feet tall.

It’s already startling to see the 590-foot One Rincon loom next to the Bay Bridge approach. These towers would jut up from sea level, visual rivals in the middle of the bay.

These are the kinds of design issues to be sorted through after this summer’s release of the environmental impact study.

On another level, the public needs to be shown how the development team of Lennar Homes, Wilson Meany Sullivan and Kenwood Investments prepares for risk of severe earthquakes and sea level rise (in the latter case, the ground floor of all buildings would be at least 42 inches above the currently projected 100-year high tide).

Here’s the important part: The vision for Treasure Island makes a convincing case that we can pair intensive new development with holistic and smart environmentalism. If what ultimately takes shape is as persuasive, other regions will take notice.

To learn more

The draft of the design guidelines and other Treasure Island documents are at

Next steps

EIR and approvals: San Francisco planning officials hope to release the environmental impact report for the project by July, followed by comments and hearings and then, in early 2011, final approvals.

Construction: If this occurs and the land is transferred to the city from the U.S. Navy, infrastructure work could begin in the summer of 2011. Private construction should begin approximately one year later, with the first buildings opening by 2014.

Read the original story here.