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The San Francisco Shipyard: Creating a new town in the city
San Francisco is booming as construction cranes transform the city skyline. One of the most significant changes is happening at the Hunters Point Shipyard. It's a project so big, it seems like a whole new town is being built within the city. Residences, shops, parks, and high-rises are being built and will replace the naval shipyard – once a major source of employment, but dormant for years.
Now this sleeping giant is on the verge of reawakening.
I’m standing at the top of Donahue Street on the easternmost side of San Francisco. From this hill, I’ve got a panoramic view, and right in front of me is the huge abandoned shipyard. The old docks, an enormous crane, and some vast empty buildings. To my right I see Candlestick Park. Across the Bay I can see past the Port of Oakland To the hills. I trace the Bay Bridge west and end up with a stunning view of San Francisco’s downtown skyline. It’s a perfect spot for a housing development, if you ask Danny Cooke.
"Well, think of the most beautiful development that you will ever see and that’s the picture," he says. Cooke is an executive vice president with Lennar Urban, the company chosen by the city of San Francisco to rebuild Hunters Point back in 1999 .
"We will ultimately on Hunters Point have 12,000 homes of various type: townhouses, condos, we will have high-rises, hotels." There will also be affordable housing and a new retail center, as well as 25 acres of public space." We’ll have a lot of amenities," Cooke says.
"When you look at our plans, what jumps out is the amount of greenery and coastal walking pass and bicycle passes, just beautiful environment where people will live," Cooke says, and the development will be accomplished in 2 phases.
Phase 1, according to Cooke, includes 1308 homes. That should be completed within the next 5 years. Then there’s phase 2. That's the remainder of the Naval shipyard, which the Navy is responsible for cleaning up.
"Once they have that remediated to the satisfaction of the environmental agencies, they then will convey it to the city. They are going to convey it to us to proceed with development," says Cooke.
All of this should all be wrapped up in the next 7 years at a cost of 15 billion dollars.
"As you can see from the infrastructure, this is a huge investment by Lennar," says Cooke.
And it has taken a long time to get to this point.
"The project has been around the drawing boards for around 20 years. And as you can see from the size of developments like this, there’s a lot of issues."
In order to understand those issues, why the project has taken so long and how it will affect people who live in the area, we need to consider how we got to this point.
The history of the Shipyard
Oscar James was born and raised in Bayview Hunters Point in 1946. James’ father worked in the shipyard until 1956, and he followed in his footsteps in the 70's.
"A lot of people were working in the shipyard," he says. "A lot of people lived in Hunters Point, South Basin, Potrero Hill."
He says, "Back then it was everybody making money, having fun. It was a mixed community, with all different races being here."
Many African Americans migrated from the South to work in the Shipyard. In the 1950s, African Americans made up about a quarter of the Hunters Point population. That grew to over 50 percent by 1960, and nearly 80 percent by 1970.
But in 1974, the Navy left the shipyard.
"A lot of people lost their jobs after the shipyard closed" James says.
Thousands of people were suddenly unemployed, and unemployment levels in Bayview Hunters Point quadrupled in the years following the closure.
"It had a dramatic effect on the residents of Bayview Hunters Point," James says.
By 1991 the shipyard was completely shuttered, and residents like James worried about what would happen to it next.
"We had seen what they did in Western Addition," James says, referring back to the '50s and '60s, when African Americans were displaced from the Fillmore and Western Addition in the name of redevelopment.
"The whole concern has never really been with the residents of Bayview Hunters Point," James says. "We always had to fight for our own."
The idea of the neighborhood being actively involved with redevelopment was born out of that concern. James shows me a letter from 1973 written by community members and addressed to Joseph Alioto, then Mayor of San Francisco. In the letter, residents lay out their idea of creating a “new-town-in-town” after the shipyard closed down.
“This letter was requesting different facilities in the shipyard," James says. They wanted to build a community that was more than just houses. They also wanted a theater, a bowling alley, and a church.
But instead of development, the community witnessed deterioration. Nearly half of residents here live below the Federal poverty level.
“Bayview Hunters Point has always been a black eye to the City and County of San Francisco,” James says.
Despite the long awaited need to revitalize the shipyard, it wasn’t until 1993, 20 years after the Navy left, that the city announced redevelopment was officially happening.
Immediately, a Citizens Advisory Committee, known as the CAC, was created. Its aim was to hold developers accountable to neighborhood residents. The CAC’s offices were located right inside the construction site.
“People were complaining about environmental issues about the dust and all like that,” says CAC chair Veronica Hunnicutt.
“The CAC meets the second Monday of every month as we have done all these years, and we have had the opportunity to connect the people with the individuals that could address their concerns," Hunnicutt says. "Many of these recommendations were actually folded into the design.
"When the community comes together with the design team, and the City and County of San Francisco and their representatives, wonderful and positive things can happen,” Hunnicutt says.
Design to development
The apartment building Hunnicutt is talking about is being erected right at the entrance of the shipyard. Right now only the frame is visible, but it will grow to be five stories tall. The affordable housing scheduled to be built near here will be built to look similar.
Thor Kaslofsky is the Project Manager for the Hunters Point Shipyard for the San Francisco Office of Community, Investment and Infrastructure. He admits that it is a long title for the former redevelopment agency. According to Kaslofsky, they changed the name to dissociate the agency from the failures of the past.
The new name is supposed to signal that this time, both current residents and developers will work together.
“I think it all stems from the most intensive participatory planning process that I’ve seen in my 20 years that I’ve been doing this work," Kaslofsky says.
“We have almost 300 acres of parks here, tons of housing," says Kaslofsky, and the community participated in all the planning and design details. “All that laid down to create a 'design for development document'. It's a planning document that replaces the zoning code for this area. It sets the height limits and the kinds of buildings that should be around here and the form. That’s one level and that took years”.
Another reason for the delay? The Navy legacy lurking underneath the surface of the soil. Kaslofsky says the Navy left behind an EPA Superfund here, with abandoned hazardous waste the federal government has singled out for cleanup.
“The Navy’s cleanup program and transfer program, it’s subject to Federal funding" Kaslofsky says. "So the Navy can clean up as fast as they get funding for. Since 1992 they have spend 850 million dollars."
Between 1992 until 2012, only 30% of the site was cleaned up, and much less transfered to the city. Kaslofsky says that the last parcel of land will be transferred in 2021 – nearly half a century after the closure of the shipyard.
The place of politics
Across town at San Francisco's City Hall, Bayview Hunters Point Supervisor Malia Cohen says what has been happening with redevelopment at the Shipyard has been very deliberate.
“There is a contract, an official contract, signed between the developer and city. And there is a social contract that has also been signed. There are a lot of people that are watching this project," Cohen says.
Lennar Urban, the development company, said they will get this redevelopment of the shipyard right. They have promised to clean up toxic waste, protect current residents from displacement, and provide affordable housing. And, they say, the project will create thousands of new jobs.
“I’m committed to ensure that people are treated with respect, with dignity, and certainly are not been displaced," Cohen says. "As long as I’m in the office these promises will be kept."
Back at St John’s Missionary Church, resident Oscar James is showing me photographs of the people who have fought through the years to make the neighborhood healthy and vital again.
“Well, I believe that they are keeping the majority of the promises that we demanded," says James. "We didn’t ask for them, we demand.
“We made them do a different job. We told them they are not doing what they did in Western Addition. People in Western Addition were not together," James says. But this time, he adds, they are united.
Their future, though depends on the extent to which the City of San Francisco and Lennar keep their promises.
Now the residents wait to see if they are given a real opportunity to stay and be a part of the new Hunters Point Shipyard that they’ve waited for, for so long.
This is the first story in a four part series exploring redevelopment in Bayview Hunter's Point.
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