Greening a city ... and pushing other colors out

  • The colorful old African American neighborhood of Bayview in the San Francisco fog.

    Patrick Boury
  • Mural in the Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood of San Francisco.

    EKAI/cc via flickr
  • Arc Ecology executive director Saul Bloom says the proposed redevelopment won't benefit the Bayview community.

    Peter DaSilva
  • Marie Harrison of Greenaction speaks at a 2006 rally calling for final closure of the PG&E Hunters Point power plant.

  • The Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, circa 1940s. A radiological testing lab and other industrial operations would later result in the site being added to the EPA's Superfund inventory.

    LOC, HAER CAL,38-SANFRA,195A-3
  • Artist’s renderings of the proposed development at the old Hunters Point site.

    Lennar Urban

San Francisco, California
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 artist's 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.

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.

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.

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."

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