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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 >

47 Responses leave one →
  1. Matt the Engineer permalink
    May 13, 2011

    I once worked on a project of manmade islands off the coast of Dubai. Glass-covered massive buildings of 7,000sf vacation homes built on sand dredged from the bottom of the ocean and powered by an island of electric generators that run off petroleum. The summer design conditions were 115F and even the shower water had to be mechanically cooled. Most access would be by private yacht.

    But everything was designed to achieve LEED Silver. Which, though ironic, is much better than nothing. At least all of that glass is spectrally selective and the amount of fuel they will burn up in a year was probably cut in half thanks to these decisions. That said, I’m happy that the plans I helped draw are sitting on a shelf somewhere as yet unused.

  2. Dan Staley permalink
    May 13, 2011

    There is a thread on a well-known planning chat board where the nearby planners think this idea is just ducky, and gosh! residents will take the ferry and there will be little to no impact on the bridge and traffic. Uh-huh. IIRC from sailing in the Bay the wind howls right through there, carrying the gray wall of fog straight to the joyous residents.

  3. MrMonitor permalink
    May 13, 2011

    LEED, youth job training center, urban agricultural park… this one screams GIMMICKY. Where are the jobs? This is a suburb on an island. Maybe they should give these “awards” out AFTER the projects have been built and when they can be evaluated whether they actually work.

  4. Dan Vaja permalink
    May 13, 2011

    Leed, youth job training center, urban agricultural park… this one screams ‘gimmicky’. Where are the jobs? This is a suburb on an island. Maybe they should give these ‘awards’ out after the projects have been built and when they can be evaluated whether they actually work.

  5. May 13, 2011

    Wow, what an abortion.

    I agree, it is more a collection of fashionable buzzwords than a real city design (most architecture these days is barf with buzzwords), including and especially the “urban agricultural park.” They are trying to get closer to something which is human-friendly, but not really getting there as the buildings consist of a bunch of monolithic blocks vaguely in the 20th Century Hypertrophic pattern (Le Corbusier/government housing projects). How about something like this instead?

    However, with that said, I don’t think these criticisms above really hit the mark. There is nothing wrong with building something on this nice little island. A ferry can work — see for example Discovery Bay on Lantau Island in Hong Kong, whose only meaningful transportation link is a ferry. I had a friend who lived there and liked it.

    Here we of course have bus access as well. Between the two of them I don’t see why it is a problem. This would be an excellent place to implement some sort of no-car policy. Why not? What would this island project look like if it were decided on before hand that there would be no cars whatsoever, just as Venice today bans all cars (and bicycles)? (Probably you would have some utility vehicles for deliveries and so forth, which could be done with little electric trucks.) Perhaps you could have some sort of parking structure by the highway, if you wanted.

    That’s what I would do — make it a no-car zone.

  6. Steve permalink
    May 14, 2011

    If I remember correctly, the new bay bridge span (between Treasure Island and Oakland) includes a bike lane. So the green living folks on Treasure Island (theoretically) can bike…but not if they want to go to SF.

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