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The Right Stuff In The Wrong Place

2011 May 13
by dan bertolet

< Rendering of Treasure Island by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill >

What’s wrong with this picture?

The city in the top left is San Francisco, and the polygon of land in the bottom right is Treasure Island, the 400-acre site of what will supposedly be “the most environmentally-sustainable large development project in U.S. history.”

But that, I’m afraid, is a tough claim to swallow when the only terra firma connection this development will have with the outside world is a big driveway called Interstate 80 and the Oakland Bay Bridge. Because no matter how energy-efficient the buildings may be, no matter how pedestrian friendly the urban design, with such an isolated location, Treasure Island is guaranteed be a transportation suck.

Last month the $1.5 billion redevelopment, in the works since 1997, was approved by the San Francisco Planning Commission, and is now awaiting final approval from City’s Board of Supervisors. Plans call for 8,000 housing units (25% “affordable”), three hotels, a retail/commercial center, an expanded marina, a ferry terminal, and about 300 acres of open space (see graphic below).

<Source: Treasure Island Development Authority via SFGate >

Designed with the help of international green engineering superstars Arup, the impressive list of sustainability features  includes LEED certification, pedestrian-oriented urban design, on-site stormwater and waste-water treatment, and a target of 50% of energy drawn from renewable sources. It’s already racking up the awards.

The root problem with all this is that Treasure Island is, well, an island. Even with a commercial center, the majority of residents can be expected to drive off the island not only for work, but also to satisfy many of their everyday needs—there won’t be a Costco on the island. Likewise, delivery of all the supplies for living will rely on that single I-80 lifeline. Add to that the fact that it’s built on sketchy soil that could liquify in earthquake, and is likely to be threatened by rising sea levels caused by climate change.

Treasure Island is analogous to an uber-green single family home sited in a remote forest. It’s reminiscent of the ass-backwards new city of Masdar in the United Arab Emirates, touted as “one of the most sustainable communities on the planet,” never mind that it’s located 11 miles from the nearest city in an empty, blazing Arabian desert.

For sure there is value in the high-density, green design that will be implemented at Treasure Island—we will learn a lot from doing it. But to be truly sustainable, a community must be efficiently connected and integrated with the urban fabric of its immediate surroundings, as well as with the greater region. (Seattle’s Yesler Terrace is a good example of such a location, where large-scale redeveloment makes sense.)

Green enclave is a contradiction in terms.

We ought give back the Treasure Islands of the world to the harbor seals, eagles, and trees, and plant people where they belong.


< Rendering of Treasure Island by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill >