Inside a former radioactive-waste site that’s now a $5B housing development

New York Weekend Edition /
Aug.August 05, 2017 10:06 AM

Treasure Island, a man-made island off the coast of San Francisco, looks more like a postapocalyptic wasteland than a Bay Area suburb.

But as demand for housing in the tech capital continues to climb, developers have turned to Treasure Island in hopes of creating the next big real-estate destination.

In 2011, the city of San Francisco approved a proposal to add 8,000 homes, 500 hotel rooms, 300 acres of parks, 140,000 square feet of retail, and 100,000 square feet of office space to the island over 15 years. It comes with a price tag of $5 billion.

With construction on infrastructure underway, we decided to spend the day exploring Treasure Island — and learned there’s more to this former toxic-waste site than meets the eye.

You can live in San Francisco your whole life and never set foot on Treasure Island.

Treasure Island sits in the San Francisco Bay halfway between mainland San Francisco and Oakland.

It doesn’t get many visitors outside its two major attractions: a flea market held on the last weekend of the month and a music festival that draws tens of thousands of fans. The festival was postponed this year because of the massive development project.

On a recent weekday, I learned that Treasure Island was closer to downtown San Francisco than my San Francisco apartment is. I reached the island from the city’s SoMa district in about 15 minutes by bus.

You can see the length of The Island From The Exit Road off Interstate 80. It’s small.

The island was built on a rocky bank just north of Yerba Buena Island. It served as the fairgrounds of the 1939 World’s Fair, which celebrated the city’s two new bridges.

Several years after the Fair, at the height of World War II, the US Navy took control of the island. The Navy used the space to clean boats thought to be exposed to nuclear-weapons testing in the Pacific.

The decontamination site caused radioactive materials — including radium, plutonium, and cesium-137 — to seep into the earth and contaminate the groundwater and soil.

When the station was decommissioned in 1996, the burden fell on the US Navy to undo the damage. It spent the following decade removing industrial toxins and sludge from the island, selling parcels of land back to the city of San Francisco as it scrubbed them clean.

By 2007 the Navy was prepared to hand off the island entirely, but reports of a botched cleanup emerged. Experts found sites where radiation levels reached 1 million times what the Environmental Protection Agency or the California Department of Public Health allows for occupancy. Parts of the island remain uninhabitable while the Navy’s cleanup continues.

Some of the earliest civilian tenants on Treasure Island were the formerly homeless. The city leased the former officer housing to low-income residents below market rate.

More than 2,500 people called Treasure Island home as of the 2010 census. On a recent visit, I stepped off the bus and found a community nearly deserted. Abandoned buildings seemed to outnumber the occupied ones. Forgotten military barracks, school houses, and overgrown parks looked like a set out of “The Walking Dead.”

Signs with hazard symbols were posted on fences along the western side of the island.I passed only a handful of people — but hundreds of seagulls flew overhead. Their feathers littered the streets and building roofs. Geese laid claim to an unused soccer field.

I needed a way to get around. Twice I circled Building One — one of the last remaining structures of the World’s Fair — before finding the bike-rental shop tucked in the back.Tammy Power, the owner, came to Treasure Island six years ago looking for shelter when she was homeless. As she watched a bike lane open up on the new bridge connecting Yerba Buena Island and the East Bay, a lightbulb turned on. The island needed a bike shop.

She saved up the money she made working as a bike mechanic and bought the essential tools necessary for bike repairs. Powers persuaded the owners of Building One, an administrative building, to lease her the space without ever revealing her living situation.

A Tran’s Bay Bike Shop now offers bike rentals. Powers says she serves mostly tourists.

Powers knows every nook on the island and can put visitors on a course that includes the few shops and restaurants open for business. But part of the fun is exploring.

Aracely Cafe is the only restaurant on the island that serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The rustic-décor spot offers items like croissant french toast and avocado toast.

After brunch, I set out on my bike. As I rode down empty streets, I reveled in the quietness. It was surreal to have huge swaths of the neighborhood to myself.

Nearby, I spotted a graffiti artist working on a shipping container. He turned out to be a member of a Burning Man camp, painting the group’s storage unit. Space is at a premium in San Francisco, so the group leases storage here more cheaply.

In August, the group will tow the container to Burning Man in Black Rock City, Nevada.

The first Treasure Island grocery store opened in 2012. It carries almost everything residents need and has a popular Cooper’s Express counter that sells fried chicken.

Several small-batch wineries are located on the island. Fat Grape Winery sells sulfite-free wine and hosts free tastings out of a former Navy military prison.

Founder Patrick Bowen said most of his business was in distribution, though he gets some walk-ins. “There’s a brochure on ‘free things to do in San Francisco,’ and I’m in it,” he said.

In a few hours, I exhausted nearly everything you can do on Treasure Island. It takes a certain kind of a person to weather life on Treasure Island. The isolation of island life can make you a bit stir-crazy, according to Powers, the bike-shop owner.

Because of the challenges they face, “locals have a lot of pride,” Powers said.

Change is coming to Treasure Island, whether residents like it or not. After the naval base closed in 1996, an amalgam of real-estate developers joined forces seeking to turn Treasure Island into a housing destination. The project proposal promised to bring thousands of new homes — and jobs — to the Bay Area at a time when it needed both.

The plans were approved in 2011, and construction on infrastructure began last spring.

In 2032, skyscrapers may tower over the shoreline where dilapidated buildings now stand.

The project is expected to generate an estimated 8,000 homes, 500 hotel rooms, 300 acres of parks and open space, 140,000 square feet of retail, and 100,000 square feet of office space, the San Francisco Business Times reported in 2016. The island’s population is expected to grow to about 20,000 from about 2,500 by 2032, when the final stages of development wrap.

Most of the existing buildings will be demolished to make room for new developments.

Kai Vetter, a nuclear physicist at UC Berkeley, warns that as construction crews dig at the sites of future luxury housing and office space, trapped sources of radiation could come loose.

Vetter told the local radio station KAWL that most of these materials emitted low levels of radiation but that it would be unsafe for a child to eat the dirt — as kids do. “Then the major damage starts,” he said.

The Navy and the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, which monitored the Treasure Island cleanup, maintain that the island is safe for humans to live on.

The first residents are expected to move into new housing in 2018. Current islanders have a choice: They can rent other units on Treasure Island or take a cash payment from the city.

Despite the impending commercialization of Treasure Island, people living there can’t escape the fact that they’re isolated on a 400-acre landfill floating in the San Francisco Bay.

To top it off, Treasure Island is especially vulnerable to damage caused by earthquakes because it’s made of loose sand. An earthquake may make roads buckle and buildings collapse.

An estimated one-fifth of the $5 billion budget for the development project will be spent on making the land suitable for new construction. This includes compacting the soil and adding more to raise the elevation, the San Francisco Business Times reported in 2016.

Future residents have a lot to think about.

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