San Francisco

Treasure Island's New Parks Ready for Changing Climate

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Few people in San Francisco have ever heard of Buckeye Grove, or have any plans to head to Yerba Buena Island to visit it. You can't blame them. Just a year ago it didn't even exist. And yet its unique topography and storm drains reveal it as much more than just new scenery on an island in transition - but a tool to weather the changing climate. 

The park, and its four acres of storm drains and newly planted native plants, is known as a bioswale, more commonly known as a storm drain garden. It's a simple concept -- rainwater flows into several storm basins which then funnels it through plants and dirt, filtering out contaminants such as car oil and heavy metals. 

Yerba Buena Island has 45 acres of new storm gardens so far, with many more planned for adjacent Treasure Island as it undergoes mass redevelopment. 

"The overall vision for Treasure Island and Yerba Buena is to create a new mixed use community," said Kevin Conger of CMG Landscape Architecture, "in the middle of 300 acres of future forward looking sustainable parks." 

For the gardens, the group Literacy for Environmental Justice took clippings of native plants from the islands and around California and replicated them in a nursery where 50,000 plants grown by the group have already gone to green the gardens on Yerba Buena Island. 

Buckeye Grove, named for its sprawling native Buckeye tree, sits in a strategic location above the bay and below the hilltop where new housing developments are under construction. The garden is positioned to catch water runoff before it hits the bay. 

"It’s totally appropriate that everything we’re doing here is in support of healthy oceans," said Conger. 

Another new garden sits on the East side of YBI, at the edge of the bay beneath the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge. As traffic flows overhead, waters flow through its newly planted vegetation, functioning like a traditional tidal marsh. 

"This is a more level area and that has allowed us to create a larger stormwater garden," said Conger above the din of traffic, "that filters out the contaminants in the water by having the water flow through it." 

The new gardens got their first big test on New Year's Day as massive storms dumped record amounts of rain on the Bay Area. Conger's colleague, landscape architect Will Benge visited the island and captured video of water streaming through the drains and through the plants. 

"After constructing all of this and seeing and designing it I wanted to see how it was going to perform," Benge said. "And it has performed flawlessly, everything has drained quite well." 

The overall development project presented extreme challenges for planners as the islands are susceptible to climate change and rising sea levels. In 2009, then-California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger stood on Treasure Island unveiling new climate change maps and famously declared "Within a century, Treasure Island, this place where we are right now, could be totally under water."

Roadways around Treasure Island are now being elevated 36 inches higher than the projected century mark for sea level rise -- and planners said they would have the ability to incrementally raise them as need dictates. New homes will be set back from the shoreline and their ground floors will be 42 inches higher than the FEMA base flood elevation, according to information provided by the developer.  

Perhaps the biggest embrace of the future will take place on the north end of TI where old military housing will be razed and replaced with a unique ninety-eight acre park called The Wilds. 

"That park is actually going to allow future sea level rise to come in," said Conger, "and flood that park to create future tidal marshes." 

About 300 acres of open space is woven into the islands' future, with half that devoted to parks and new storm gardens which will ring Treasure Island, creating a utilitarian, yet scenic feature which the public can visit. 

"People can experience and see the habitat," said Benge, "and see the treatment happening before their eyes in that park-like setting."

Even as new construction encircles the islands, the idea of incorporating nature onto Yerba Buena and the man-made Treasure Island seems a central theme, supporting wildlife as well as the old and new residents populating the lands just a view away from San Francisco's mainland.  

"We’re making space to nurture and support nature," said Conger looking out on TI from Buckeye Grove. "That’s what we need to do actually to reverse climate change is to make room for more nature."  

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