What's in a Name? (Or: Car-Free on the High Seas)

To discuss San Francisco's redevelopment plans for Treasure Island, one must first confront the name and its legendary implications. It is an evocative piece of nomenclature, conjuring up iconic images of towering pirate ships, buried chests filled with gold of an unearthly shimmer, skulls, crossbones, and all that jazz. But the little island in the middle of the 'Frisco Bay is not at the center of any pirate legends, glamorous or not. It does, however, have its own rather unique and storied history.

Built from dredged silt to host San Francisco's 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition, it was supposed to be converted to an airport after the expo, but the Navy bartered Mills Field, now the site of SFO, for the island. The Navy decommissioned the base in 1996 along with the Presidio, and since then it has been used as a mish-mash neighborhood largely populated by students and low-income residents.

All that is set to change, though, thanks to the recent approval of a plan by Skidmore Owings and Merill to turn Treasure Island into one of the first (if not the first) car-free communities in the United States. And what better place to try such an idea out than an isolated island in one of the most environmentally progressive cities in the world? Indeed, the concept of a car-free community going up anywhere seems almost too good to be true; but in the US, the birthplace of the autoculture? Treasure Island is taking on a whole new kind of legend.

What makes this plan so exciting, I think, is that it doesn't appear to treat the environment as a token. It joins the ranks of other eco-cities like SOM's Chongming island development in Shanghai, in the recent push to plan cities that encourage (or even mandate) eco-conscious lifestyles (see Planning Cultural Values Part II). From SOM's website: "Housing is designed at a density as high as 100-units per acre—enough to support ferry service while allowing the majority of the island’s acreage to be dedicated to a variety of open spaces. The plan designates these to include wetlands capable of filtering the island’s gray water, bike and hiking paths, and a large demonstration site for organic gardening." It's holistic eco-urbanism.

In real estate, location is everything. But what is a good location? This is a classic urban development conundrum. If a location is too good, if it is already intensely desirable, trying to build there comes with a whole slew of extra problems. Building in iconic locations, trying to borrow the status of a famous building or public space or district, can be a nightmare for developers -- as anyone who has tried to build anywhere in San Francisco recently has likely learned. The more impressive the location, the harder it is to try something new there.

Treasure Island, then, poses a very rare opportunity indeed. It is a spot rich with history and blessed with a very iconic name. To see this megadevelopment taking shape in a way that takes cues from the site's intangible contextextual elements to create an iconic place is very exciting. The island is flat and small, but the design is anything but. The buildings and streets are carved out by the wind, and the enterprising architecture pays subtle homage to the modern, streamlined buildings that made up most of the Exposition for which the island was created. That island has always showcased leadership and ambition. Now that legacy is being interpreted in a new and exciting way.

And as for the name? The new Treasure Island might not have much to do with pirates or burried gold. But creating a car-free oasis in the middle of one of the largest urbanized areas in the world? Sure sounds adventurous to me.

(First photo from GGIE.com; second from SOM, see link below.)

California Redevelopments Move Forward (Architectural Record)

Bending the Grid (SOM)

If a green utopia on Treasure Island sounds far-fetched, dreamers have a plan (SFGate)


mike g said...

"All that is set to change, though, thanks to the recent approval of a plan by Skidmore Owings and Merill to turn Treasure Island into one of the first (if not the first) car-free communities in the United States."

It may be one of the first but it is not THE first car free community in the US. Mackinaw Island in Northern Michigan went car free more than a century ago.

From the Mackinaw Island Tourist Site:
Because we care about our horses and our environment, we prohibit the use of personal motorized vehicles. Instead all those living or visiting the island enjoy leisurely horse drawn carriage tours, horse drawn taxi service, trail riding or many of the other alternative modes of transportation: biking, hiking, sailing, boating, kayaking or simply strolling around the Island.

Brendan Crain said...

Oh, very true. Having grown up on the Great Lakes, I'm somewhat ashamed that I forgot Mackinaw.

I suppose I was a bit swept up in SOM's hubris. ;-)