Hunters Point Naval shipyardAt its peak in the 1940s, the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard employed up to 17,000 people.Photo: LOC, HAER CAL,38-SANFRA,195A-3

The Hunters Point Naval Shipyard covers 500 acres on San Francisco’s southeastern flank, jutting out into the bay like the fletching of a giant arrow. Acquired by the U.S. Navy in 1940, it was once one of the West Coast’s largest shipyards, at its World War II peak employing up to 17,000 people, many of them African Americans who settled nearby. The Navy ended its work at the Shipyard in 1974, devastating the local economy, and it was eventually listed for cleanup as a Superfund-equivalent site. These days, it’s a rusting city unto itself, its drydock and warehouses abandoned. For a long time, its only tenants were the city’s crime lab and artists drawn by the cheap space and haunting surroundings: a boarded-up diner, its Pepsi sign intact; the giant crane where the Navy once tested rockets; deserted labs that hosted radiological experiments.

As one of the largest chunks of vacant land left in San Francisco — which has some of the highest land values and housing costs in the country — the shipyard represents an immense opportunity. And so last summer, after decades of wrangling and neglect, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved an ambitious redevelopment plan for the site. If completed, it will be one of the largest developments here since the creation of Golden Gate Park — and perhaps the most contentious.

The city has hired Florida-based Lennar Corp., a major housing developer, to transform the site. Lennar’s plan calls for 10,500 new housing units, and space for retail and artists’ studios. It’s chock-full of green goodies: parks, mass transit upgrades, and a “green tech” campus. Thirty-two percent of the housing will be sold at prices well below the city’s sky-high market rates. It’s the kind of mixed-use, mixed-income development that sprawl-weary environmentalists have cheered from Denver to Portland — dense, transit-oriented, and built on reclaimed brownfields near the city center.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

But many locals have received the plan with deep ambivalence. “The project is flawed from stem to stern,” says Saul Bloom, executive director of Arc Ecology. The local nonprofit has advocated for the Shipyard’s cleanup and redevelopment since 1984, but contends that the current plan won’t benefit the community.

Bayview Hunters Point, which wraps around the Shipyard, is the last of San Francisco’s historically black neighborhoods. Rows of modest, pastel-colored houses march up its hills, with breathtaking views of the bay. But it is among the city’s poorest communities. Before the recession, the unemployment rate reached 10 percent. Activists and city officials estimate it could now be as high as 30 percent, compared to 9.1 percent citywide. The neighborhood hosts a panoply of polluting industries besides the shipyard. An aging sewage treatment plant processes two thirds of the peninsula’s waste on a residential street, and a dense commercial district houses everything from plastics manufacturers to commercial drycleaners. Until 2006, when local pressure shut it down, one of California’s oldest power plants sat at Bayview’s edge. All this has contributed to some alarming health statistics: More than 15 percent of the community’s kids have asthma, compared to 5.6 percent of Americans nationally. Hospitalization rates for chronic illness are three times the state average, and breast and cervical cancer rates high.

But the industries that have so burdened the neighborhood have also, to some extent, sheltered it, keeping housing relatively affordable as rising prices forced low-income residents out of other neighborhoods. For decades, activists urged the city to redevelop the shipyard, hoping it could revive the neighborhood’s economy. Now that redevelopment is finally under way, though, many worry that it’s come at too high a cost.

BayviewHousing is still relatively affordable in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood.Photo: Simon Tunbridge

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

If the typical environmental justice story involves a poor community of color living in the shadow of toxic industry, Bayview is the next chapter. What happens after the mess is cleaned up? From New York City to Denver to Seattle, sustainable redevelopment projects promise to address festering issues of environmental injustice. But instead of delivering economic lifelines to struggling communities, they often threaten to displace the very residents who for years endured the burdens of pollution and fought to relieve it.

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free.

In recent years, a growing number of cities have adopted “smart growth” policies aimed at encouraging infill — the development of unused space within city limits. And in 2009, the Obama administration announced a major shift in federal policy — which it dubbed the Partnership for Sustainable Communities — to push more cities to adopt such codes. For the first time, the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Transportation, and Department of Housing and Urban Development will work in tandem to direct federal money to projects that curb sprawl and are close to mass transit.

In booming cities, old industrial sites, railyards, shipyards, and decommissioned military bases are frequently among the last large empty spaces ripe for infill. The communities near these sites are often low-income. Like Bayview, many have weathered the economic and environmental blows of declining industries and their toxic legacies. Now, they find themselves caught between hope for much-needed investment and fear of the change it might bring.

“One of the complaints about the (smart growth) movement has been, ‘It’s always upscale, it’s expensive, it drives people out,'” says John Frece, the director of the EPA’s Office of Sustainable Communities. To prevent displacement, federal funding for smart-growth projects through the Partnership includes requirements for affordable housing, job-training programs, and community engagement in the planning process. The administration’s goal, Frece says, is to make sure communities aren’t “penalized just because their environmental problems get cleaned up.”

Accomplishing that, though, isn’t easy. Says Malo Hutson, assistant professor of city and regional planning at UC Berkeley, “You would get the Nobel Prize in Economics — or Peace — if you could figure out a way to keep the community that existed before the redevelopment project came along.”

Design plan for new developmentThe project would bring much-needed amenities to the area, but some residents say the plans are unrealistic for their neighborhood.Image: Lennar Urban

In Bayview, the debate over redevelopment has been heated. After 30 years of neglect, many residents welcome the project, with its promise of jobs and amenities in a neighborhood with few stores, no major supermarket, struggling schools, and limited access to public transit. But others say the job projections are unrealistic, the plan doesn’t include enough affordable housing, and most of what it does include is still too pricey for the average resident.

“If I see one more report on
how sustainable our developments are, the top of my head’s going to come off,” says Arc Ecology’s Bloom. A New York native with a grizzled ponytail, Bloom organized against the Vietnam War, in the labor movement, and once tried to fly a hot air balloon into the Nevada Test Site to stop a bomb test. Now, he’s among the leading critics of the city and Lennar Corp. “I support development on the site. There’s no question about it: This community needs development,” he says. “But we’re talking about smart development.”

Compounding the economic worries, some doubt that the Shipyard will be fully cleaned up and fear that the construction itself could put local residents at risk. (The EPA insists that it will not.) The Shipyard houses the typical detritus of heavy industry — plumes of solvents in groundwater, PCBs, lead, and chromium from metalwork — as well as more bizarre souvenirs of its days as one of the Navy’s radiological testing laboratories. Ships exposed to radiation during nuclear tests in the Pacific were towed to Hunters Point for study, and animals as large as cows were irradiated to observe the effects of fallout.

The Navy is responsible for cleanup, under the oversight of the EPA and the state of California. Parts of the Shipyard will be cleaned to residential standards; one of the most contaminated sections, a former landfill along the waterfront, will be partially excavated, and then capped and topped with a park. In 2004, the Navy handed over the first parcel of land to the city; the full cleanup is set to be completed by 2018 — 29 years after it was listed for cleanup.

Lennar, meanwhile, has not endeared itself to the neighborhood. Starting in 2008, a subcontractor for the company did heavy grading that kicked up clouds of dust, including puffs of pulverized serpentine, which contains naturally occurring asbestos. Local activists maintain that the dust caused nosebleeds and rashes. And assurances from the EPA, San Francisco Department of Public Health, and Bay Area Air Quality Management District that it did not pose a health risk have done little to alleviate their concerns. In the San Francisco Bay View, a local paper that calls itself “the voice of Black Liberation,” Bayview resident and physician Ahimsa Sumchai wrote that the development would have such significant health impacts and displace so many black residents that it “meets the UN standard definition of genocide.”

This kind of hyperbole and caustic distrust has its own backstory. In the 1940s, African Americans began moving to San Francisco as part of the Great Migration from the South. The Shipyard was a major employer, and one of the few in the area that hired black workers. Even after World War II, it continued to employ some 7,000 workers, and Bayview developed into a solid blue-collar black neighborhood. By the 1960s, it had one of the highest rates of homeownership in the city, a distinction it retains. Many of the city’s neighborhoods had property covenants barring minority buyers or renters; Bayview was one of the only ones that welcomed African Americans.

Malcolm X graffitiA mural in the Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood speaks to its significance as one of San Francisco’s historically black neighborhoods. Photo: Eddie Codel

“There were areas in San Francisco when we moved here that the only black person’s face that you saw were the ones working in the houses, doing childcare or housecleaning or cooking,” says Marie Harrison, a 44-year resident of Bayview, and a community organizer with the environmental justice group Greenaction who helped spearhead the campaign that led to the decommissioning of PG&E’s local power plant in 2006. “The only place for us to live was in the Fillmore or in the Bayview.”

Talk to anyone about the new development in Bayview, and pretty soon they will mention the Fillmore. Known as the “Harlem of the West” for its bustling black-owned business district and burgeoning jazz scene, the neighborhood was razed in the ’60s as part of San Francisco’s “urban renewal” campaign. It was one of many anti-blight drives that swept through cities at the time, earning the bitter nickname “black people removal.” The land sat vacant for years, and many Fillmore residents moved to Bayview. The Fillmore leveling was among the first projects of the nascent San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, now tasked with redeveloping the Shipyard.

The agency has come a long way since then. In an interview at its office downtown, Thor Kaslofsky and Wells Lawson, the city’s two point men on the project, listed Bayview’s environmental justice issues and discussed San Francisco’s history of African-American flight as well as any activist. They say the city has bent over backwards to ensure that Bayview residents have a voice in the development — and a chance to benefit from it.

“Gentrification issues are really a significant concern for the city,” says Lawson, who coordinates the project for the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development. “(But) we do want the land values to increase in this area. That’s the premise of redevelopment, fundamentally: to take what’s blighted and use public investment to increase the land value. The question then is, how do you maintain neighborhood stability?”

The city is attacking the problem with a suite of programs designed to prepare local residents, homeowners, and businesses to, as Lawson puts it, “ride the wave” of rising costs of living. The hope is that the jobs the build-out generates, primarily in construction, will raise local incomes alongside property values. The project includes a program to help local developers get contracts at the site, and requires outside contractors to make a “good faith effort” to hire locals.

Additionally, the city and Lennar have assembled an $83 million “community benefits agreement.” It includes $20 million to help homeowners retain and upgrade their homes and $9 million in job training programs to help locals get jobs during the build-out and afterwards, in the businesses the city hopes will follow. There’s also money for pediatric health programs and college scholarships. Perhaps most importantly, 32 percent of the housing units built will be sold below market rate. (The proportion was raised from 21 percent after local activists put up a fierce fight.) In fact, San Francisco has already put in place many of the measures pushed by the Obama administration’s Partnership for Sustainable Communities.

Marie Harrison at rallyMarie Harrison speaks at a 2006 rally calling for closure of the PG&E Hunters Point power plant.Photo: Greenaction

Despite all this, Marie Harrison remains deeply skeptical. “(They) promise these young folks: ‘This time, we’re gonna give you jobs, we’re gonna train you, and you’re gonna be able to buy these houses.'” But, she says, many Bayview residents simply lack the necessary skills or education to take the jobs that will be available. And similar promises have gone unfulfilled in the past. In 2004, the city began construction of a light-rail line down Third Street, the neighborhood’s main commercial corridor. Construction was supposed to create jobs and reinvigorate the struggling business strip. But almost no local residents were hired. Only after activists, including Harrison, raised a fuss, were some locals hired to handle traffic signs for short stints. The experience embittered many. “I cry when I
hear my folks going through this,” Harrison says. “It is just miserable for them.”

Bayview has seen intense gentrification in the past 10 years. This is consistent with national trends — more affluent Americans are increasingly returning to city cores — and is, in part, a result of land speculation in anticipation of the redevelopment. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the median price of a single-family home in Bayview rose from $129,000 in 1996 to $570,000 in 2008, a faster increase than any other neighborhood in the city; some houses on the new light-rail line jumped from $200,000 to $800,000 over the same of the period. (The housing bust erased some of those gains.) Activists like Harrison see these figures as harbingers of what future development will bring. They agree that, in the long term, the project will help revitalize the community — but what community will be there then?

Despite their determination to maintain neighborhood stability, Kaslofsky and Lawson acknowledge that change is coming. Bayview will not be the same place 20 years from now, they say — and they insist that’s a good thing.

“From my personal perspective,” Lawson says, “the real community champions in this neighborhood are the ones who basically focus on, ‘I want to be able to raise my kid in this area, and I don’t care what has to change to make that happen, I don’t want it to stay the way it is.'”

“Invasion and succession — in planning speak — is a very natural urban ecological thing.”

Of course, how natural it feels depends on which side of the invasion you’re on.

Displacement in Bayview today happens in a different way than in the days of the Fillmore. Many Bayview residents live in subsidized housing or own their own homes, so they’re not at risk from rising rents. Instead, say Bloom and Harrison, the younger generation is moving out because they can’t afford to buy homes. And some longtime homeowners, who waited decades to see their homes appreciate, are now selling. But because what they sell for isn’t enough to buy a house elsewhere in San Francisco, they are leaving the city. Only the more affluent can afford to buy in.

Marie Harrison’s family is Exhibit A. She owns her home and has raised three children, seven grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren in the neighborhood. But when her son and his wife wanted to buy a house, they couldn’t afford anything in Bayview. They moved 80 miles away to Stockton, Calif., instead.

In 2000, Bayview was about 48 percent black — down from 65 percent in 1990. That figure has continued to decline. In 2010, the city as a whole was only 6 percent black, down from 13 percent in 1970. San Francisco lost 10,000 black residents in the last decade; Antioch, an hour inland, gained nearly that many, a 114 percent increase. Many of the Bay Area’s outer-ring communities have grown rapidly, attracting lower-income black and Latino residents, who move where their money buys more space while continuing to work in the city. San Francisco isn’t alone in this trend. You can find lower-income exurbs growing, says Berkeley professor Hutson, “from Seattle to San Diego.”

Rendering of proposed developmentAn artist’s rendering of the proposed Hunters Point development.Image: Lennar Urban

Many Bayview residents do support the development. “If they are able to do just what they say, I’d be pretty pleased,” says Angelo King, a resident for 13 years. King chairs the Project Area Committee, a volunteer citizens’ advisory board to the Redevelopment Agency. He believes the project could revitalize a stagnating economy while locking in middle-class housing in a city that sorely needs it.

The current situation is untenable, King says: Already-high property values will continue to rise, with or without redevelopment. The demand for housing in San Francisco is simply too great for Bayview to remain unaffected. Meanwhile, those who can afford to leave have been doing so for years, frustrated by the neighborhood’s struggling schools, isolation, and lack of amenities.

“We don’t have a problem with subsidized housing — we have more than any other ZIP Code in the damn city. We have a problem with middle-class housing,” King says, noting that he can’t afford to buy in. “There is housing for people who have not and who have. But if you live with your wife and you make $110,000, you don’t have a place in Bayview. You don’t have a place in the whole city.”

And Fred Blackwell, chief of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, says the city’s plan is the only viable option. “There are a lot of novel ideas out there. (But) I haven’t seen another one that works from a financial point of view.” San Francisco lacks the funds to develop the site on its own, he says. Redevelopment projects like the Shipyard require a developer with the ability to invest a lot of money up front. And it’s the massive amount of market-rate housing which subsidizes the cheaper units. The Shipyard needs basic infrastructure — grading, roads, sewers, streetlights — which Lennar will have to pay for before it turns a profit. Once the infrastructure is built and property values start to rise, the money the city collects in increased property taxes will be directed to the Redevelopment Agency to fund further investments — that’s where the funding for most of the affordable housing comes from, as well as for community benefits like job training.

Arc Ecology, however, remains steadfast in its disapproval of the city’s plan. Bloom argues that the city chose a conventional developer, endorsed its “off-the-shelf” plan, and then tacked on benefits to mitigate its impacts. He sees it as a missed opportunity to think more creatively about how to build a more sustainable — and fair — community. During the planning process, Arc Ecology proposed a “green maritime” industrial and research center to take advantage of local job skills and one of the country’s great deepwater ports, and return the shipyard to its role as the area’s economic engine. And Bloom suggested the city pay homeowners to turn single-family houses into multiple units, which he argues would increase density and local incomes, and generate the same amount of housing faster and more cheaply.

It’s admittedly unclear that such a plan could materialize. But the same could be said of the city’s plan for a green tech center, its major hope for generating jobs. So far, the proposal has no definite takers.

The Board of Supervisors voted to approve the current plan in August 2010, but Bloom and Harrison still hope to amend it. Harrison’s Greenaction has sued the city, arguing that the environmental impact report approved by the Board does not adequately address possible harm to local residents during cleanup and construction at the site. Bloom hopes that with the upcoming mayoral election, the political winds could shift, or that economic factors could persuade the city to consider changes. “If there’s anything true about development, it’s that what you see on paper isn’t what gets built,” he says. “Things change, markets change, opportunities change.”

For the moment, construction at the site is stalled, tied up by lawsuits and the unfavorable economy.

Bike PathResidents fear that the bike lane and green space in the new development would not be accessible to everyone in the neighborhood.Image: Lennar Urban“You’re walking through housing right now,” says Bloom. In fact, we are walking through Candlestick Point State Park, the only major green space near Bayview. The park
, which sits on a spit of land just south of the shipyard, wraps around the 49ers football stadium, hugging the shoreline. Under the city’s plan, housing will replace the stadium and part of the park. The city argues that the additional land is needed to make the development financially viable. Besides, the park is hardly untouched wilderness, project supporters say.

But, says Bloom, spreading his arms, “In this part of town, this is the best you get.” And it’s a surprisingly tranquil place. Birds chatter in the manzanita and Monterey pines. The bay itself stretches splendidly away, and, to the south, fog hugs the hills.

Bloom worries that the plan will effectively turn the remaining park from the area’s only real open space into a private park for the residents of the new condominiums. To him, it’s indicative of the problem at the heart of the whole project. “It’s not oriented towards this community,” he says. “It’s a completely different community that they plan to build.”

This article originally appeared in the May 31, 2011 issue of High Country News.