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San Francisco’s next treasure for Northern California

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POSTED August 19, 2010 2:04 a.m.
It was a heady time for Northern California.

War clouds were on the horizon in Europe and the economic suffering of The Great Depression still lingered.

Even so, 1939 and 1940 was a time of pride and anticipation of better days ahead for Northern California. San Francisco was playing host to the World’s Fair. The venue for the Golden Gate International Exposition was created from fill dredged from the bay that was named after Robert Louis Stevenson’s most famous novel.

Treasure Island was a beacon of hope.

Now some 70 years after the exhibition ended, Treasure Island is again posed to ignite the collective imagination of Northern Californians.

It is there at roughly the mid-point of the Bay Bridge that many experts thought was impossible to build back in 1936 that the most dynamic and unique neighborhood on the West Coast may one day rise.

The U.S. Navy and San Francisco signed a deal this week that ultimately will transfer the island to The City for $115 million. Treasure Island, by the way, is actually a small extension of Yerba Buena Island.

Private developers – working in concert with the city – want to build 8,000 homes, a 60-story skyscraper and three hotels while preserving 300 acres of open space.

It will be the ultimate non-California neighborhood in that the car not only wouldn’t be king but would virtually be non-existent. Shuttle buses and a new ferry terminal would connect the island to the rest of San Francisco. Anything else would be next to impossible given the short merges and the existing congestion on the Bay Bridge.

The project may snare energy from the wind, sun and possibly the tides.

The undertaking isn’t without challenges. The landfill island will need to be made safe from earthquakes plus have protection against any future rises in the sea level.

But those challenges aren’t any less daunting than what the proponents of the Bay Bridge faced.

The eight-mile bridge had issues of accessibility to bedrock, high wind issues, varying soils and water depths, turbulent waters, and a locale that was near two major quake faults.

It also was the direct result of a federal loan program created by President Herbert Hoover – and continued and expanded by President Franklin Roosevelt – in an attempt to break the grips of the Great Depression on the American economy.

The Reconstruction Finance Corporation used a then massive $2 billion in federal funds to back numerous state and local infrastructure projects as well as private sector ventures ranging from helping stabilize farm mortgages to assisting banks and railroads. The RFC bought the construction bonds that would be repaid with bridge tolls. Critics said it would be a big financial lemon. But like almost all RFC loans, it was repaid in full.

Now during a deep economic downturn that pales in comparison to the hardships of The Great Depression, San Francisco is getting ready to undertake another ambitious project. It is the latest in a series of urban renewals including the China Basin where the Giants baseball stadium is located along with biotech research campuses to the former Hunters Point Navy yard north of candlestick that is inching closer to development.

San Francisco – whether you love or loathe the politics – has been Northern California’s signature urban center since the day the first 49er set foot on its soil.

The City has turned conventional wisdom upside down on how an America city should be built just as its nemesis in the Southland – Los Angeles – did but in sprawl fashion.

Treasure Island has the potential to once again transform San Francisco in a way that it invigorates Northern Californians.

But instead of a world’s fair what will rise from Treasure Island is proof positive that California’s best days lay ahead.

Anything is possible in the land of soaring redwoods, rugged pristine coastlands, fertile valleys, and majestic “young” mountain ranges.
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