The TIDA board plunges into redevelopment, burying Yerba Buena and Treasure Islanders’ concerns: A tragedy in three parts – Part One

by Carol Harvey

Part One: You don’t listen

Treasure Island: Your Contamination Destination – Photo: Carol Harvey
Treasure Island: Your Contamination Destination – Photo: Tom

Is the Treasure Island Development Authority board hearing San Franciscans’ concerns about radiation and chemical contamination, earthquake liquefaction risks and displaced persons’ relocation rights? Actually, no!

On top of the world

May 31, 2014, almost exactly a year ago on a startlingly sunny Saturday, I was socked in like a little China Clipper surrounded by humid human fog inside the Treasure Island Bar and Grill. In this Star Wars-style Cantina on the Marina near the Yacht Club and Sailing Center where not-so-elite or discrete Treasure Islanders mingle and meet, I found myself slam-dancing between the tight-packed bodies of friends, tourists, boaters, Navy personnel and island flea shoppers.

In the next instant, fueled by a small glass of Cab Sav and the slightly dazed neighborliness of a fellow traveler, I was magically transported to the top of Yerba Buena Island where he lived. I teetered on the dizzying heights of a veritable Mount Olympus.

This spot on Yerba Buena island above the Bay Bridge offers sweeping views of San Francisco. – Photo: Carol Harvey

Everyone on both islands knows the spot. I was shaded by an understory of live oaks as I perched precariously over the tunnel bore through the middle of this 150-acre natural island.

Slender eucalyptus trunks shot above my head. Bay Bridge cables and streams of cars swept beneath my feet. Pink-orange butterflies floated lazily over scrub-covered slopes that soared 338 feet above mean sea level and plunged down precipitous 75 percent drops. I surveyed a sweeping southeast view of the City – one of the highest and loveliest views of San Francisco Bay I had ever seen.

Pretty woods on Yerba Buena Island – Photo: Carol Harvey
Pretty woods on Yerba Buena Island – Photo: Carol Harvey

As my host led me back down a road curving through a small clutch of neat sunlit homes, he described the unique close-knit character of the tiny community in which he lived. Below in San Francisco, where security systems guard against home invasions, and whole neighborhoods fund the ever-watchful corner security van, people don’t know who lives next door. The situation is completely reversed on this diminutive mountain.

Yerba Buena Island community – Photo: Carol Harvey
Yerba Buena Island community – Photo: Carol Harvey

The hill is so steep, who will bother to climb it? Perhaps there are rare visits by a few desperate homeless people foraging for a brushy place to sleep or videographers searching to film the “Great White” mansions.

As a result, the relative protection of private homes frees the residents for constant visits. Neighbors move easily back and forth through each other’s doors. It’s almost one family. My friend confessed, when his roommates are on holiday, he feels free to walk around nude. But, of course, he’s careful about it because of the children.

Plunging ahead

The sinister specter of displacement into possible radiation and chemical contamination on Treasure Island loomed over Yerba Buena families present at the Casa De La Vista Conference Room on Wednesday, April 8, 2015, during the Treasure Island Development Authority board’s annual on-island meeting.

With Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Congressperson Nancy Pelosi and former Mayor Willie Brown at their back solidly pushing for redevelopment, the Navy is frenetically fast-forwarding its radiation and chemical cleanup to catapult San Francisco’s state and city agency, the Treasure Island Development Authority board (TIDA) and its developer, Lennar, into Phase One of the Yerba Buena and Treasure Island build-out.

The formidable TIDA board is plowing ahead with Redevelopment.

Following the annual presentations of TIHDI (Treasure Island Homeless Development Initiative) and Job Corps successes and the obligatory self-congratulations at the April 8 meeting, Robert Beck, director of island operations and development, announced that on Saturday, April 19, the SF PUC (San Francisco Public Utilities Commission) would be embedding new infrastructure on Treasure Island.

The normally unpredictable phone service was immediately impacted. At least, this time islanders were forewarned. Phones were down twice, from roughly 8:00 to 9:00 a.m. and 3:00 to 4:00 p.m. Since that day, service interruptions that were an intermittent bother have become an only slightly more irritating commonplace.

TIDA Director Robert Beck announces power outages on Treasure Island.

As TIDA barrels ahead, a new sad chapter is being written in the lives of Yerba Buena islanders. For the first time since the early 1870s when the Army Post Camp and lighthouse were built there – through the 1940s to 1960s when Navy commanders like Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz luxuriated in the “Great White” mansions – no tenant will inhabit this mountain or its summit. Unconfirmed rumors, however, have it that John Stewart’s property manager, Dan Stone, will be allowed to stay.

Under the auspices of its board and TIDA Director Robert Beck, redevelopment is about to yank from the safety of their quiet aerie and their cherished community closeness the few households remaining at the pinnacle of the Bay. TIDA will summarily induct the former Goat Island’s residents into an ever-expanding, but not necessarily exclusive, Bay Area “club”: The Evicted. More accurately, Yerba Buena Island residents will become displaced persons.

The “Great White” mansion on Yerba Buena Island where Navy Admiral Nimitz lived
The “Great White” mansion on Yerba Buena Island where Navy Admiral Nimitz lived

After years of painful negotiations with TIDA and John Stewart Co. realtors during which Yerba Buenans have publicly stated they felt unheard, these families have thinned to fewer than 40.

Like everyone in the Bay Area, indeed in the state – and most notably the largely impoverished Treasure Islanders trapped far below in subsidized housing – the few families remaining who have lived on Yerba Buena Island for many years are locked in place by out-of-control San Francisco rents. That means their only feasible move is into Treasure Island housing.

As TIDA barrels ahead, a new sad chapter is being written in the lives of Yerba Buena islanders.

At this writing, the John Stewart Co. and YBI residents are negotiating the terms of leases in alternative Treasure Island townhouses on the contaminated flats below. True, most of these lucky – or unlucky – folks have enjoyed stunning Bay views, not unreasonable rents, and relative protection from radiation and chemicals. To say that, in their new homes, they fear reduction in quality of life and safety is putting it mildly. But, the loss of the closeness of their community seems to have devastated them the most.

Fear

All humans, but especially U.S. citizens, are motivated by fear. San Francisco Bay was conceived in fear and dedicated to the proposition that all nations will invade us. Since 1846, the Bay Area has been a military defense hub protecting the entire Pacific Coast of our “homeland” from “the enemy.”

In that year, the U.S. military took the Presidio from equally fearful Spanish soldiers. In 1868, Yerba Buena Island was established as a defense post. In 1941, when the U.S. entered World War II, Treasure Island was taken from San Francisco by court order to be the Navy’s central command.

The Navy left a lot to fear on Treasure Island. A large number of Treasure Islanders have diseases attributable to contact with radiation and chemical contaminants pouring off the place after the Navy established academies to train sailors in instruments of nuclear war.

This Treasure Island woman suffers a painful deformity – swollen legs – with no medical explanation.
This Treasure Island woman suffers a painful deformity – swollen legs – with no medical explanation.

A personal note: As a student teacher staggering on sea legs before a surging ocean of teenagers, I noticed my stomach had bounced off the inside of my skull. Later, I discovered my terror was caused by a lot more than 25 snarling little demons who were clearly out for my blood. (I learned to love them later).

I happened upon a stressor chart that explained what people fear most. The top three human fears according to this research were 1) public speaking, 2) moving, 3) death, in that order, all three of which predominate in the lives of residents of both islands.

I was surprised that topping the list, ahead of death itself, is public speaking. The instinctual fear of pairs of eyes staring you down evokes evolutionary memories of the kill-or-be-killed animal hunt – in which you must prevail over your bestial enemy before it tears you apart. Fear of moving and death will be covered in future articles.

The top three human fears according to this research were 1) public speaking, 2) moving, 3) death, in that order, all three of which predominate in the lives of residents of both islands.

This primal terror of public speaking certainly lurked in the adult brains of the Yerba-Buenans who stood up to question the TIDA board on their immanent change of address. They had daunting barriers to battle through.

I can’t hear you!

Employing blocking techniques that capitalize on the fear of speaking in public, the formidable TIDA board is plowing ahead with Redevelopment, insisting on – while resisting – public input.

The April 8, 2015, TIDA board appeared to try to ignore questions, both implied and direct, but failed because the Yerba Buenans were pervasive and persistent: How will The City fund redevelopment? Are you forcing us onto a contaminated island? Will we end up in less desirable housing? Is there danger from earthquakes and liquefaction?

Forewarned is forearmed: Go and find out what they are doing with your money

The full TIDA board convenes on the second Wednesday of each month at 1:30 p.m. in Room 400 in San Francisco City Hall, except when it doesn’t. The schedule and meeting room tend to vary, so if you plan to attend – and I strongly urge you to do so – for dates and times call the office at 415-274-0660, but be prepared for a voicemail.

A word of caution about phoning the TIDA office for information: It has been the consistent experience of people who approach the board in any capacity – in person, by mail or phone, if you manage to slip past voicemail to a live human – that you receive the briefest, least informative answer possible. Islanders say that urgent correspondence often evokes nothing by return mail.

I have found the most accessible location for meeting times is TIDA’s website: http://sftreasureisland.org/board-directors/meetings.

TIDA meetings I have attended are equally user-unfriendly. Kate Austin, Island Director Robert Beck’s assistant, opens the meeting with a roll call of the board’s seven members: President V. Fei Tsen, Vice-President Larry Mazzola Jr., Secretary Jean-Paul Samaha, Yerba Buena Island resident Chief Financial Officer Mark Dunlop, Jeff Kositsky and recent past president Linda Fadeke Richardson.

TIDA Director’s Assistant Kate Austin – Photo: Carol Harvey
TIDA Director’s Assistant Kate Austin – Photo: Carol Harvey
TIDA President V. Fei Tsen – Photo: Carol Harvey
TIDA President V. Fei Tsen – Photo: Carol Harvey

 

TIDA Vice-President Larry Mazzola Jr. – Photo: Carol Harvey
TIDA Vice-President Larry Mazzola Jr. – Photo: Carol Harvey
TIDA Secretary Jean-Paul Samaha – Photo: Carol Harvey
TIDA Secretary Jean-Paul Samaha

 

Yerba Buena Island resident TIDA Chief Financial Officer Mark Dunlop – Photo: Carol Harvey
Yerba Buena Island resident TIDA Chief Financial Officer Mark Dunlop – Photo: Carol Harvey
TIDA board member Jeff Kositsky – Photo: Carol Harvey
TIDA board member Jeff Kositsky – Photo: Carol Harvey
Past TIDA President Linda Fadeke Richardson – Photo: Carol Harvey
Past TIDA President Linda Fadeke Richardson – Photo: Carol Harvey

District 6 Supervisor, Jane Kim, an ex-officio member, rarely attends. Islanders remark on Kim’s apparent lack of interest. Though many residents have approached her about radiation, chemicals, asbestos, lead and mold toxicity concerns, she remains mostly in absentia.

Typically, the developer Lennar’s representatives present detailed, drawn-out proposals for the board’s approval. Board members then raise a lengthy series of questions about the feasibility of various permutations in geotechnical and streetscape projections.

By contrast, the time slot in which the public can speak is abbreviated. A bell truncates comments at three minutes. If your explanation involves crucial detail and outruns the time, a startling ding throws you off point. If you continue speaking, the response is anything but gracious. You must batter your way through a wall of interruptions and discourteous attempts to force you to stop clarifying your point and sit down.

The three-minute time slot would be understandable at a full Board of Supervisors’ meeting where public comment lines reach down the center aisle. But, with a typical attendance at the TIDA board meetings of only two or three community members, the comment period should be much longer.

The public’s questions are answered with generalizations – perfunctorily, partially or not at all.

Your past experience with this brisk movement through public comment tends to evoke the fear – no, the certainty – that you will, indeed, not be heard, or you will probably be blocked. You are aware in advance that, if you stand to speak, you risk opening yourself to people who simply will brush off or minimize your questions, suggest you haven’t paid attention to them or the experts they’ve consulted and paraded in front of you, or that you are guilty of missing information they covered in past meetings.

One board member literally appears to be looking down his/her nose. (But maybe that’s just me.) Despite your own busy schedule, you are expected to attend all monthly three-to-four hour weekday afternoon sessions or be considered uninformed. Such disincentives work together to discourage public attendance which is – not surprisingly – sparse.

The public’s questions are answered with generalizations – perfunctorily, partially or not at all.

One Yerba Buena speaker had the temerity to confront the board about its unwelcoming nonverbal cues. “The public comes out and tries to have their voice heard,” he stated. “You lay out that you’ve done so much work, and you’ve relied on experts. (We)’re always met with: Oh, we’ve been talking about this forever. What’s the point (of our participating)? What’s the point?”

To this, Commissioner Linda Richardson remonstrated that the board encourages attendance.

“You encourage,” the man continued, “but you’re not open. You don’t listen.”

TIDA board, “You don’t listen!”

In this way, the general public’s attendance is discouraged, and the board can proceed with its plans unencumbered. Without a monitoring entity such as the press or on-going, determined Bay Area community involvement, decisions deeply affecting the health, lives and pocketbooks of all San Franciscans are finalized without public knowledge, participation or consent.

Carol Harvey is a San Francisco political journalist specializing in human rights and civil rights. She can be reached at carolharvey1111@gmail.com.

Please go to Part Two.