by Carol Harvey with research and wise counsel by Kathryn Lundgren and Liz Washington, who knows Chicago well
A “space mountain,” “a behemoth,” “a colossus,” “a palace for Jabba The Hut” and “a half-baked baked Alaska” – that’s how columnists have described George Lucas’ $400 million 300,000-square-foot Museum of Narrative Art, a collection of Americana and Hollywood memorabilia.
On May 16, 2016, San Francisco Supervisor, Aaron Peskin, said to be eyeing a mayoral run, appeared on CBS Bay Area talk show “Matier in the Morning,” where he reintroduced Treasure Island as a site for the project. This comes as Chicago’s Friends of the Parks for a second time successfully blocked construction of the museum on the Windy City’s lakefront property near Soldier Field.
Phil Matier speaks with San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin about a new deal to bring George Lucas’ proposed Museum of Narrative Art to Treasure Island. The video was published May 16, 2016.
New York, Cleveland, Los Angeles and San Francisco have been vying for the project.
In 2014 San Francisco considered Lucas’ museum for both Pier 30-33 and Crissy Field. The Presidio Trust blocked it because the architect’s modernistic design was incompatible with the Presidio’s historic setting.
This rejection angered Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who apologized to Lucas for the affront. For years, Feinstein and Nancy Pelosi, along with their real estate developer husbands, have been preparing decommissioned former Bay Area military bases – the Presidio, Hunters Point and Treasure Island – to rake in the vast redevelopment profits they represent.
Peskin told Matier, “I think … the Presidio Trust did the right thing for that national resource. But now we have an opportunity, and I think Treasure Island may be the right spot.”
“This (museum) would be attracting millions of people a year,” observed Matier. “How are they going to get on the island?”
Answered Peskin: “Treasure Island actually has been lacking a lot of what I call the special sauce … a ferry service. Remember it’s an island in the middle of the Bay. We’ve got a congested bridge.
“If we could actually have an attraction on Treasure Island, it might be able to sustain a ferry service. And, if we could sustain that, we could make the entire island work.”
The Treasure Island Development Authority (TIDA) and its Treasure Island Mobility Management Agency (TIMMA) both claim they have insufficient funds to sustain the island’s transportation infrastructure, including a ferry, long-term. TIMMA’s current plan to fund a ferry service is to charge double tolls to drivers entering and exiting Treasure Island – incoming tourists, San Franciscans and island residents alike.
Public trust and the commons
On June 26, 2014, former San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos told CBS reporter Linda Yee that despite his disappointment that the Presidio Trust rejected Lucas’ museum, “Too many decisions have been made by this City Hall that favor private developer dollars against the public trust – what the public wants.”
Former Mayor Art Agnos says projects fail here when residents do not get a say.
Linda Yee reminded readers that, to prevent developers from once again using public lands at taxpayer expense, the progressive former mayor stumped against the Embarcadero’s 8 Washington million-dollar condo project, which was voted out Nov. 5, 2013.
Standing on a balcony overlooking San Francisco Bay, Agnos warned, “Projects fail here when residents do not get a say.”
Space Mountain – not on public land!
Chicago’s Lakeshore Drive races past skyscrapers following a lengthy stretch of Lake Michigan parkland and beachfront. Friends of the Parks advocates there are attempting to defend the public trust, preserving the right of Chicagoans to enjoy its beautiful city green spaces and sandy beaches.
A former Chicago tech recruiter, Matt, now employed at the Letterman complex, once owned by Lucas, said: “I loved walking and jogging that stretch along the lake, and I think it would be horrible if it were privatized. I liked the fact that in a big city you can breathe with all kinds of nature around you, and it just feels like you can get away from the craziness of the city and your job for a while.”
Chicago’s Friends of the Parks President Cassandra Francis joked that a staffer walked into her office saying, “Mickey called. He wants Space Mountain back.”
The building’s size and appearance, however, was less important to the organization than its geographic location. Their main objection is that building the museum between McCormick Place and Soldier Field where a large parking lot now sits on public waterfront parkland would violate the Lakefront Protection Ordinance.
The mandate of this watchdog group, which works with Chicago’s park district, is to protect Chicago’s parks and hold lakefront land in trust for the people in accordance with public-trust laws that restrict development along the Lake Michigan shore by profit-seeking commercial entities, private companies and corporations.
“The lakefront has been protected for over a century. You can’t get the lakefront back once it’s gone,” warned Francis, saying her organization has been working “a long time “ with “a broad legal team” to shield these lands from invasion by what she called “shiny objects.”
Peskin undoubtedly learned of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s annoyance when Friends of the Parks filed a 7th Circuit Court of Appeals injunction, putting the brakes on the Lucas museum construction.
“It may be a very sad day for the city if, in fact, we saw this museum in Los Angeles or San Francisco rather than (in Chicago) where it belongs,” Emanuel said.
Chicago Mayor Emanuel and Lucas’ wife, Mellody Hobson, stump to keep Lucas museum in Chicago.
Sidestepping the point of the Friends of the Parks’ injunction to protect public land, his office requested that a federal judge be solicited to intervene and dismiss the Friends’ lawsuit on the basis that Lucas might pull out the proposal before it got to court.
Sure enough, Lucas’ wife, Mellody Hobson, a native Chicagoan elite, expressed anger at the Friends of the Parks’ injunction, saying the lakefront museum proposal had been “hijacked by a small special interest group.
“If the museum is forced to leave,” she said, “it will be because of the Friends of the Parks.”
“We are now seriously pursuing locations outside of Chicago,” she threatened.
Back in San Francisco, an internet techie who worked at Letterman in 2014 when the Presidio Trust rejected the first proposal, mused that Hobson’s ultimatum was a bargaining ploy to keep the museum in Chicago.
Do Ms. Hobson and Peskin notice loss of public rights and the obvious slippery slope? On Treasure Island as in Chicago, if privatization floodgates are opened to one commercial venture, the rest will come pouring in. Once the piles are sunk, public land will be forever lost, covered with highrises and convention centers.
Peskin watched as Emanuel created his Hail Mary Plan B – demolish McCormick Place East for the museum and, as an inducement, add 12 new acres of parkland.
Peskin saw an opening to put San Francisco back in the running when 7th District Judge John W. Darrah erected a second roadblock by green-lighting the suit.
Two differences between Chicago and San Francisco
Does Peskin realize that the developer chosen for Treasure Island, Lennar, not the people of San Francisco, the actual island owners, will be the direct financial beneficiary of a museum that, in addition, will draw tourists to a toxic site?
More important: Is Supervisor Peskin fully aware that the effect of toxicity on current and future residents is not being considered?
Da Mayor’s tight-fisted controls
Was Supervisor Peskin betraying his knowledge that, during Willie Brown’s administration, the man who called himself “Da Mayor” used his Sacramento connections to put Treasure Island under his sole control just for this kind of eventuality? The supervisor must know that, in line with this legacy and the fact that Brown still turns the key in the back of San Francisco politicians, Da Mayor and Ed Lee can do anything they want with Treasure Island.
Brown’s tweaked legislation extended an open invitation to every corporation and privatization project coming down the pike, including Lennar and its stakeholders, Feinstein, Pelosi and Brown himself, to slide past state and city monitoring groups onto an island where they can make a great deal of money.
Brown created the Treasure Island Development Authority (TIDA) to exercise total control of the island. If the Lucas museum captures millions of tourist dollars, therefore, it is doubtful that TIDA and TIMMA, a project of Lennar Urban officiated over by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, will feel pressured to drop their present strategy to cover their projected transportation budget by charging the low-income community two-way tolls to drive on and off the island.
Do either Supervisor Peskin or San Francisco voters, who are supposed to “own” Treasure Island realize that the Treasure Island Mobility Management Agency (TIMMA) is under the sole control of the mayor through island management, TIDA, and the Board of Supervisors, who will raise and lower the tolls. Rachel Hiatt states clearly that all parking fees, fares and double driver tolls will circulate directly back into the operation of TIMMA. TIDA Director Robert Beck states that most of the proceeds from the double tolls will go to fund the ferry service. Though island residents pay into TIMMA through double tolls charges, proceeds from these tolls are intended primarily to fund the ferry service with the intention of drawing tourists rather than benefiting island residents or the other citizens of San Francisco. Resident Paris Hayes remarks that these tolls seem intended to “weed out” poorer Treasure Island residents who will be financially burdened by these charges. All these statements are made in this video.
At a recent island community meeting, Treasure Island Development Authority’s Robert Beck verified that “the ferry is the primary service that will need subsidies (from the tolls).” At the same meeting, resident Paris Hayes remarked that these tolls seem intended to “weed out” poorer Treasure Island residents after more monied condo owners roll in to the redeveloped island.
He sardonically requested that, to make up for being forced to bear the infrastructure burden, islanders be given free passes to the Lucas museum. This wry aside, indicating he knew Treasure Islanders were being hosed, drew knowing laughter from his neighbors in attendance.
If TIDA and TIMMA also charge incoming and outgoing driving tolls to island employees, tourists and San Franciscans, does Peskin not see that people with lower incomes will be less able to visit Treasure Island?
Treasure Island resident Andre Patterson shows the tumors that have developed on his body since he came to the island. There is ample evidence to prove the City of San Francisco and other power brokers knew the Navy had saturated Treasure Island with radiation and chemicals. Now, political high-rollers plan on redeveloping the island with high-rent condos. The big question is: Where will they put the poor people of Treasure Island who were enticed out to the island and are sick from radiation and chemical exposure?
Does Peskin acknowledge that this city agent, TIDA, abrogates its responsibility toward residents presently living with lung diseases, cancers and tumors caused by island toxins? Resident Felita Sample, for just one example, lives 50 feet from Bigelow Court, a cleanup zone on which health physicist Don Wadsworth’s company, New World Environmental, discovered a cache of radiation a million times above human toleration.
Agonizing kidney pain gives Felita daily nausea and prevents her from keeping down food. She told me that, on one occasion, without her partner Andre Patterson’s help, she might have died of dehydration. Andre himself let me photograph and video two large lumps on his back and shoulder.
TIDA officials neither admit this violent human rights abuse nor offer these ailing citizens equivalent affordable housing in San Francisco or in another place of their choosing.
While Matier lobbed softball questions, Peskin waxed enthusiastic: “We would have a ferry that left the northern waterfront of San Francisco in the same way that millions of people go to Alcatraz every year. We could reduce congestion on the (Bay) bridge …”
Cautioned Matier, “Do you think there’ll be resistance, let’s say, from Bay Conservation or the BCDC or the State Lands or any of those things.”
Matier pointed out, “San Francisco is notorious for saying, ‘No,’ and, if we don’t say ‘No,’ then these various state commissions and such say no.
“What makes you think that … building a museum of this magnitude on Treasure Island is going to be any easier than anyplace else?”
To which Peskin replied brightly, “Well, if Ed Lee and Jane Kim and Aaron Peskin are on the same page, that’s a pretty good start!”
“Actually, Treasure Island is rather a unique … creature under the law. There is less state oversight over Treasure Island.”
“I think it could be done,” he added.
Peskin’s words, as well, amounted to a public admission that it is easy for a City legislator like himself to use “oversights” to sneak exceptions past monitoring agencies and obtain approval for private projects like the Lucas museum to be sold a home on Treasure Island.
Does Peskin see clearly that monitoring agencies exercise little oversight on Treasure Island? In the interest of privatization, federal, state and local agencies seem to have turned a blind eye to serious habitability infractions in both subsidized and market rate residences.
Treasure Island resident Kathryn Lundgren observed that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), the San Francisco Department of Public Health and the Mayor’s Office of Housing all know Treasure Island homes are not habitable and the water not completely potable, but they do nothing substantial to redress such problems. Nor do they move the residents into safer housing.
Special toxic sauce
Peskin repeated for Matier his catchy catch-phrase: The museum might just be the “special sauce” (like that dubious-tasting version of Russian dressing McDonald’s slathers onto their Big Macs) that will make it work.
Lundgren asserted: “I don’t eat at fast food chains BECAUSE their ‘special sauces’ sicken people.
“One chooses to eat at McDonald’s, but San Francisco citizens living within a toxic waste site were never afforded the luxury of transparency so they could make an informed choice,” she said.
Neither John Stewart’s moderate-income market rate renters nor poor Black and Brown residents signing leases on apartments subsidized by the Treasure Island Homeless Development initiative (TIHDI) were in the past – or are at present – told they would be co-existing with radiation and chemically-saturated soil, groundwater, constant windblown toxic dust or toxic, moldy homes.
Out of the list of major Treasure Island toxins – radiation, chemicals, lead, asbestos and mold – mold alone can cause permanent lung and brain damage.
Many island residents with respiratory problems note mold spreading across their walls. Persistent mold and sewage issues have made it impossible for Kathryn to sleep inside her residence, rendering her technically homeless.
Kathryn notes that the mayor and the Senate candidates, even as they are fully aware of the habitability issues she and her family face, have thus far refused to do anything to help her.
Does Peskin see that Treasure Island is an orphaned San Francisco neighborhood lacking protections other San Franciscans enjoy?
Willie Brown, for example, tweaked state legislation to bar the Treasure Island community from safeguards enjoyed by the rest of San Francisco, such as help at the Rent and Stabilization Board to resolve housing problems. Some think Brown was planning ahead for the inevitable health problems caused by contaminated land on which these former Navy townhouses sat.
Islanders lack union protections, noted Kathryn, unlike island firefighters who were relocated in 2014 and provided a brand new well-equipped state-of-the-art facility when their union complained their moldy fire station was giving them respiratory problems.
Ferry to the gates of radioactive hell
The Base Realignment and Closure Act, under which the Navy was responsible for cleaning up all the toxins at closing military bases, was written to benefit the people. But on Treasure Island, the Navy is cleaning the poisons to very low standards.
Again, does Supervisor Peskin know that many current residents, forced to live with the toxins during the Navy’s dubious cleanup, have cancers, tumors and respiratory diseases from radiation and chemical exposure? Is he considering the future risk to the wellbeing of visitors, island employees or condo-owners?
Lax rules are allowing the regulating agency or regulator who knows about it to simply look the other way.
In 2013, the California Department of Public Health commissioned environmental engineering company New World Environmental to conduct radiation scans. Technicians discovered a string of radioactive objects that the Navy had neglected to excavate strewn under homes and lawns up and down Gateview Avenue from old Westside Drive to Avenue B.
Is Peskin aware that thousands of former Navy families are sick from island toxins? As a pre-teen, Rachel lived at 1310 Gateview Ave. from 1991 to 1993. Two years after leaving the island, where she always felt strangely ill, she was struck by unexplained grand mal seizures. As an adult woman, she suffered two miscarriages. She happily gave birth to one daughter but has had ongoing difficulty getting pregnant.
I have personally spoken with current Gateview Avenue residents who know nothing about the contaminants buried directly beneath their feet. Since the CDPH is aware that its own study located these radioactive fragments hidden below yards and green spaces, why weren’t the people still living there informed of the presence of cancer-causing materials and helped to relocate to safer housing?
Does Peskin know that regulators for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Departments of Substance Control (DTSC) and Fish and Game attend bimonthly Restoration Advisory Board (RAB) meetings at which the Navy updates citizens on the progress of their environmental cleanup?
These state officials have been fully aware for years that Treasure Island’s soil and groundwater are saturated with radiation and chemicals, like arsenic, old petroleum, PCBs and PAHs. Yet they do nothing to protect people currently living on Treasure Island from these dust-blown contaminants as they dig them out of soil and groundwater.
In Peskin’s enthusiasm to use Lucas’ museum to solve Lennar’s financial problems with island transportation, does he not see that public trust and safety will be violated by an enormous mushroom cloud-shaped architectural wonder preparing to explode above the radioactive “wild lands” at the Golden Gate end of Treasure Island smack in the middle of land where housing will be demolished and cannot be rebuilt because the Navy saturated the soil with radioisotopes and chemicals.
“Interestingly,” noted Lundgren, “this is the site deemed incapable of ever being fully decontaminated. Though at present, remediators and the City allow people to rent homes there, they plan to cap and fill the land, restricting it to open space where people will never again live.”
As Supervisor Peskin correctly observed, “There’s little state oversight on Treasure Island.” Does he fully grasp that he appears to San Francisco citizens like Kathryn Lundgren to be “stumping to commercialize a piece of our land,”‘ colluding with Supervisor Kim and Mayor Lee to create what Lundgren calls “a special poisoned sauce to spread more sickness from Treasure Island to millions of future residents who will be invited to live on the still toxic redeveloped island.”
Public trust and heart?
Peskin suggested a Lucas museum would create a “heart” on Treasure Island. Did the supervisor mean “heart” in the sense of “center?” Or is he suggesting the social justice connotation of the word, where citizens share post offices, libraries and parks as part of the commons for the benefit of all the people?
“It breaks my heart,” Lundgren added, “to see some politically ambitious opportunists tear a formerly great city to shreds so much that the only heart left in this city is a cold, hard, empty shell.
“Chicago open space groups opposed and won their land back, but, in San Francisco, public trust is being used as a doormat,” she continued. “Treasure Island, while currently sickening thousands of people, is up for grabs.”
Carol Harvey is a San Francisco political journalist specializing in human rights and civil rights. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. She acknowledges and appreciates the research and wise counsel of Treasure Island residents Kathryn Lundgren and Liz Washington, who knows Chicago well.