Treasure Island was a tribute to the triumph of modern mankind over nature when it was built on landfill in the middle of San Francisco Bay—a perch that allowed visitors during a 1930s World Expo to catch a glimpse of two newly built bridges on a clear day.
Some eight decades later, after being drafted into military service since World War II, the 1930s New Deal project is under local control for the first time. A new generation of planners and residents are pinning their ambitions to the more than 400 acres of underdeveloped land.
Developers and city officials are finalizing a $6 billion plan to create from scratch what they say would be the nation's most environmentally sustainable full-service community on the island. It would feature 8,000 new residential units, some set aside for lower-income residents, as well as hotels, parks, restaurants, retail stores and nightlife.
Yet the plan has its critics, and there is serious debate over whether the ambitious plans to upgrade the island for the 21st century can become reality.
Critics include environmentalists who say the development will not go nearly far enough to prevent liquefaction in the event of a serious earthquake or sea-level rise from global warming, and they say its tall buildings will clutter the skyline.
There is also a transportation issue. Planners say they would discourage additional automobile traffic to the island by charging a toll and increasing bus and ferry service because the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge currently is at capacity and is the only way to reach the island.
"We're just deeply concerned that given the population that these towers assume, it's going to be impossible to move people on or off the island in any reasonable fashion," said Saul Bloom, executive director of San Francisco environmental nonprofit Arc Ecology, who has been involved in island development talks since 1994. "We support the development of Treasure Island. The real question is how much is too much or how much is enough, and that's really where the environmental community and Arc Ecology is sort of shaking our heads and wondering if we aren't overdriving capacity."
City officials say their ambitious plan addresses a predicted global warming-related rise in sea levels with an extraordinary remedy. The development would raise parts of the island several feet.
Current residents will be relocated during the construction, which could start next year and is to be finished by 2028.
In a land-constrained city like San Francisco, the opportunity to develop such an amount of land in the middle of the bay is a once-in-a-generation chance, said Michael Cohen, who managed the project as Mayor Gavin Newsom's Office of Economic and Workforce Development chief until he resigned last month.
"The opportunity to bring to bear all of the latest and greatest thinking about city building on a project in such an iconic location is really a unique opportunity," he said.
The potential and the peril of the development of Treasure Island as a self-sufficient community of some 15,000 people are in full evidence to visitors today. The man-made isle almost appears to float on the bay, offering spectacular views of downtown San Francisco, Oakland and other communities in the East Bay.
Built from seabed dredgings, the island was used as the site of a 1939 World Expo that allowed visitors to marvel at the industrial genius on display, including the awe inspiring new bridges that would become iconic landmarks, the Golden Gate and the Bay Bridge.
Today, the island's infrastructure looks almost primitive. The main way to reach Treasure Island is driving halfway across the Bay Bridge and taking a one-lane exit through Yerba Buena Island, a natural landmark for the Ohlone Native Americans of prehistoric times. The Navy also is turning over about 90 acres of Yerba Buena to the city.
A community of fewer than 2,000 people live among Treasure Island's art deco office buildings, low-rise warehouses and aging barracks.
"It's kind of sleepy, but there's a lot of really cool entrepreneurial folks," said Jim Mirowski, who owns Treasure Island Wines, a winery that has operated since 2007 out of a former Navy food-processing warehouse on the island. "You could be out there in the middle of the day and it's quiet, but you're literally 5 minutes away from San Francisco."
The island has sporadically attracted shoots for movies, such as director Steven Spielberg's 1989 "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" and Ang Lee's 2003 "Hulk."
After two decades of discussion, the U.S. Navy agreed earlier this year to transfer Treasure Island, which it has controlled since the land was drafted into service for World War II, to San Francisco.
In exchange, the developers will pay the Navy some $105 million and share profits from the project. The development is a joint venture including Miami-based homebuilder Lennar Corp., which is also developing the city's largest swath of undeveloped land, another former military base at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard.
The final transfer is expected next year following an environmental review.
"The transfer of Treasure Island is a win for San Francisco. It is a win for the state of California, a win for the United States Navy and a win for the American taxpayers, who paid for this base and all the infrastructure that was here," said Navy secretary Ray Mabus at an event marking the transfer this summer.