Meet the people living on San Franciscos historically radioactive Treasure Island – Business Insider

  • San Francisco’s Treasure Island is not perfect.
  • The ground of the island has been found to be contaminated by Cold War-era US Navy operations, it’s sinking quickly as sea levels continue to rise, and it’s not easy to get to.
  • But the city needs housing, plain and simple, and the island has the space for it.
  • A full-scale development of Treasure Island has been in the works for 25 years. In the meantime, the island has been used to house the formerly homeless and others in need of supportive housing.
  • Some have made the peaceful landscape their home. But the $6 billion make-over is finally reaching its early stages, and luxury condos, upscale retailers, and thousands of high-earning workers are expected to move onto the island within the next decade.
  • We spoke to two residents who have lived on the island for years, one of whom says she and her family have been personally affected by the island’s radioactive leftovers.
  • Here’s what Treasure Island is all about — from its history to the present-day to its future — and how the two residents are grappling with the impending $6 billion change.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Treasure Island may be San Francisco’s most unlikely neighborhood.

First off, it’s an island, a small, man-made landmass that sits in the bay between San Francisco and Oakland, California. There are 2,000 residents, an overpriced grocery store, geese roaming sports fields, a few wineries, abandoned buildings, and not much else.

It’s also peaceful and removed from the hectic hustle-and-bustle of San Francisco, with stunning million-dollar views of the city and the Golden Gate Bridge.

“It was pretty — that was my first thought,” Trelease Miller, who moved onto the island permanently in 2008, told Business Insider.

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Treasure Island resident Trelease Miller looks at a building in her backyard, which she said even law enforcement officers are skittish to go near since it’s rumored to be radioactive.
Katie Canales/Business Insider


Treasure Island has had a few different lives in its 60 years, from the site of a World’s Fair to a US Navy base. It’s been given many names too, from Magic Isle to the Artificial Lily Pad.

Residents have lived here since the late 1990s, some of whom are low-income, formerly homeless, or in need of supportive housing. Some told us they’ve made a nice life for themselves on the beautiful and isolated island.

But a redevelopment plan that’s been a long time coming is poised to finally disrupt the natural rhythms of the island and its inhabitants. It’s already begun — construction crews at work on the island have resulted in the land looking even more like the setting of an apocalyptic movie.

“It’s ugly out there,” Mike Bartell, a formerly homeless war veteran and Treasure Island resident of three years, told Business Insider. “It looks like a war zone.”

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Bartell served in the Vietnam War from 1969 to 1972.
Katie Canales/Business Insider


Eventually, over 8,000 homes, 500 hotel rooms, upscale retailers, office space, 300 acres of parks, and a ferry terminal will be built on the island in the coming years.

The project’s developer also has had to shore up the island for seismic activity and for a rising sea level — the landmass was found to be sinking into the bay.

The majority of housing units will be priced at market rate, which by San Francisco standards is nowhere near affordable for the masses — meaning the island’s future residents will likely be wealthy workers in tech or finance.

Since this redevelopment has been planned for over two decades, there are fixed financing plans in place, Sherry Williams, Executive Director of One Treasure Island — a coalition of homeless service and housing advocacy groups for the island — told Business Insider. And while new living units can be a welcome feat in the crowded city, what is more sorely needed is affordable housing. Twenty-seven percent of the new housing that is planned on the island is slated to be affordable, or below-market-rate.

Williams told Business Insider that it’s not ideal, but it’ll have to do.

“Would we want more? Of course we would want more,” Williams said. “But is it realistic within the confines of what’s available for financing both the project and the affordable housing component? I think yes.”

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A rendering of the finalized Treasure Island project.
Treasure Island Community Development


Residents housed through One Treasure Island, like Bartell and Miller, are assured a home among the new units being built. But there are some residents living on the island in market-rate housing that are getting the boot, with only “advisory services” for relocating being offered to them.

Miller will go from a three-bedroom townhome with a back and front yard to a three-bedroom unit in a high-rise that has yet to be built. And Bartell will move into a one-bedroom unit in an apartment building.

“They’re going to put our ass off here just as soon as the last nail is put in the building,” Miller said.

Both of their homes will be knocked down, with the land at the north end of the island being turned into a park.

In 2019, the population was 2,000. By 2032, the population is expected to swell to 20,000.

And all of the island’s occupants — current and future — will be residing atop what was once, and could still be, radioactive waste and contaminants from a US Navy operation that shuttered decades ago.

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