Reject the Treasure Island plan

Pub date April 26, 2011

EDITORIAL After a long, long hearing April 21, as the San Francisco Planning Commission prepared to vote on an ambitious development plan for Treasure Island, Commissioner Gwyneth Borden acknowledged that the plan wasn’t perfect. But, she said, on balance it ought to be approved: “Twenty five percent affordable housing is better than zero percent.”

That’s not necessarily true.

Treasure Island is an usual piece of real estate, 403 acres of artificial land created in 1937 by dumping sand and dirt on a shallow part of the bay. It’s less than two miles from downtown San Francisco — but there’s no rail service, no BART station. The only way off the island is by boat — or by driving onto a Bay Bridge that’s already jammed way beyond capacity every morning and afternoon.

The soil is unstable, prone to liquefying in an earthquake — and if sea levels rise as high as some predictions suggest, the whole place could be underwater in a few decades.

A strange hybrid agency called the Treasure Island Development Authority, created by former Mayor Willie Brown, cut a deal with Lennar Urban (the same outfit that has the redevelopment deal for Bayview Hunters Point) and several partners to construct a neighborhood of some 19,000 people on the island. Among the features: a 450-foot condominium tower and 6,000 units of high-end housing. The developers brag that a fleet of new ferries will offer a 13-minute ride to the city and that some streets will be designed for pedestrians and bicycles.

But the fact remains that the developers want to add 19,000 new residents — almost all of whom will work off the island somewhere — to a place that has no credible transportation system. City studies show that even with an extensive (and costly) ferry service, at least half the new residents would drive cars to work (and, presumably, to shop, and go to movies, and eat and drink), joining the mob of vehicles heading east or west on the bridge. That’s almost 10,000 new cars each day trying to jam onto a roadway that can’t handle the existing traffic. The backups would stretch well onto San Francisco surface streets and as far back as Berkeley.

A rail line on the Bay Bridge would solve part of the problem. So would bike lanes. Neither option is even remotely possible in the foreseeable future. Free, or heavily subsidized ferries could, indeed, be a positive alternative — but who is going to pay for that service? Nonsubsidized ferries would be far more expensive than current Muni or BART service, a particular burden on the residents of the below-market housing.) And does anybody really think there’s going to be enough ferry capacity to carry 10,000 people a day to downtown SF, the East Bay, and the Peninsula?

The bottom line: this isn’t a good deal for San Francisco. The affordable housing level is too low. The transportation problems are nightmarish. The last thing Treasure Island needs is a 450-foot tower.

There’s no rush to approve this — and no immediate downside to waiting for a better deal. The supervisors should tell Lennar to come back with a project that has fewer residents, better transit options, and more affordable housing. Because zero is looking a lot better than what’s on the table.

PS: The 4-3 Planning Commission vote demonstrated exactly why it’s important to have key commission appointments split between the mayor and the Board of Supervisors. The mayoral appointees all rolled over — but at least the board-appointed members made strong points, forced real debate, and gave the supervisors plenty of ammunition to demand a better deal.