San Francisco lawmakers approved three historic, neighborhood-transforming redevelopment proposals during the 12 months leading up to summer 2011.
First there was the rebirth of the Hunters Point Shipyard. Along with the redevelopment of the adjacent Candlestick Point, it promised to inject 12,000 housing units and thousands of jobs into an impoverished corner of the city.
Next came Treasure Island, a vision to plunk down a new neighborhood smack in the middle of the bay with 8,000 homes, along with hotels, shops, waterfront parks and rapid ferries whisking residents to the Embarcadero.
Finally, there was Parkmerced, a long-anticipated proposal to add nearly 5,700 apartments to the existing 3,200 homes already part of the west side development.
Nearly a decade later, the three projects — totaling 25,700 units — represent 35% of the city’s housing pipeline and are key to its efforts to address the housing shortage. Together they would fund thousands of affordable housing units, create hundreds of acres of parkland and help pay for ambitious transportation improvements.
While the projects look promising on paper, the reality has been different. After nine years, only 350 homes — 1.3% of the total — have been completed. Even as housing prices have skyrocketed and developers have scrambled to build condos and apartments, progress at the three mega-developments has languished.
Work has yet to start at Parkmerced, despite claims by the owner that groundbreaking was imminent. At the former Hunters Point Shipyard, about 350 units were built before construction was halted amid concerns that the $1 billion cleanup of toxic material and radiological contamination on the former naval base site has been marred by fraud.
Finally, on Treasure Island, construction crews just started the first phase of development, 266 luxury units on Yerba Buena Island, which is connected to Treasure Island.
The fact that three massive developments have yielded so few homes underscores a central challenge for the Bay Area: Much of the region’s future housing stock is dependent on extremely challenging and complex large-scale redevelopments.
At a time when housing is needed as soon as possible to stem the tide of displacement and homelessness, at least 75,000 units in the Bay Area are part of mega-developments — mostly on former industrial or military sites — that are frequently sidetracked for years or even decades due to long approval processes, high infrastructure costs, complicated environmental cleanup issues and financing difficulties.
While the state is pressuring communities to build their fair share of housing, megaprojects allow politicians and planners to take credit for permitting lots of units, giving them political cover when downsizing, delaying or rejecting smaller infill housing projects that would actually get built, said state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco.
“People don’t live in building permits — they live in homes,” said Wiener. “I don’t think cities should be relying on these multi-decade megaprojects to solve our housing problems. We have to aggressively pursue smaller infill projects that happen a lot faster.”
One reason many large projects stall is that residents and elected officials pressure developers to make big, costly investments in open space, affordable housing and transportation. These community benefits sometimes increase costs so much that the development can no longer work financially, Wiener said.
“You’ve got these massive negotiations and enormous concessions,” said Wiener. “The downside is that the projects are harder to finance, which makes them slower.”
The Bay Area has more megaprojects than most regions because it was home to so many military bases — 16 of them — all but four of which were shut down during the 1980s and 1990s. In addition to the Hunters Point Shipyard and Treasure Island, major developments are in the works at the former Concord Naval Weapons Station, Mare Island Naval Shipyard and Alameda Naval Air Station.
“We had an embarrassment of riches in terms of former military bases that became available for large-scale redevelopment,” said Matt Regan of the Bay Area Council, a business advocacy group. But “we have not seen a whole hell of a lot of progress since then. We’ve got a lot of pretty colors on maps, but we are not seeing much dirt turning over yet.”
Military bases come with big challenges. At the Hunters Point Shipyard, which was tainted by radiation experiments and fallout from atomic-bomb tests during the Cold War, future development is uncertain as the Navy prepares to retest the soil and gather new data. Meanwhile, home buyers have sued the developers, saying they failed to disclose the extent of contamination.
At Mare Island, where developers are hoping to build well over 10,000 housing units, it has taken seven years to remove thousands of tons of toxic soil.
“Base reuse is always going to be challenging,” said Regan. “The Navy has not got a great track record of being a good steward of land.”
Regan said that some of the most ambitious projects — like the Concord Naval Weapons Station, where more than 12,000 housing units are planned — are in communities with small planning staffs and little experience managing large-scale developments.
Planning on the Concord project started 14 years ago. If all goes well, the first buildings could start going up in 2025, said Guy Bjerke, director of the Concord Reuse Project. He hopes to have approvals by early 2021, but expects that opponents will sue to block it.
“It’s a lucrative and exciting project, but it has heavy upfront costs,” said Bjerke. “We are going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to bring in water and sewer and roads and try to make a sense of place. I’m going to be very old before it happens.”
While most of the Bay Area’s huge developments are years behind schedule, there are success stories. In San Mateo, the former Bay Meadows racetrack site now has more than 1,000 homes, a school, 1.25 million square feet of office space, retail space and parks. In San Francisco’s Mission Bay, 300 acres of former railyards were transformed into a thriving community with 6,000 housing units alongside a new hospital, sports arena, research campus and millions of square feet of office and biotech space.
Both projects faced early challenges — neighbors sued to stop Bay Meadows and Mission Bay struggled to attract tenants — but developed rapidly once they got started, said Alicia John-Baptiste, CEO of the urban think tank SPUR.
“We have some proof that we can create viable communities from these large development sites if we stay focused and follow through,” said John-Baptiste. “But there is no doubt we need to come up with strategies for getting these projects going faster.”
The bureaucracy involved in a megaproject can be overwhelmling, typically involving more than a dozen city departments, according to Judson True, who was appointed by San Francisco Mayor London Breed a year ago to advance San Francisco’s large housing projects. Breed has said, “Every single department needs to focus on getting these projects through.”
“Issues fester and time slips away if we aren’t vigilant,” True said. “These projects require us all to be working together towards the same goal — building more housing, faster.”
J.K. Dineen is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @sfjkdineen