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Residents of Yerba Buena Island Stuck Between a Rock and a Hard Place 

Wednesday, Jul 1 2015
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We're driving around the residential streets of Treasure Island when Todd Brennan stops his car in the middle of a road. "Feel that?" he asks. "You are now sitting on top of a heavy metal arsenic plume." A sensation I can only describe as my ovaries screaming ripples through my abdomen.

Brennan, a 47-year-old crisis counselor for the Department of Health, is giving me a tour of San Francisco's vestigial organ — the 535 acres of artificial island that dangle off the Bay Bridge-anchoring bedrock of Yerba Buena Island. In the back seat are Belen Jimenez-Aguayo, her husband, Geoff Rayner, and their 6-year-old son, Quique. All four are longtime residents of YBI, where they rent two- and three-bedroom units from the John Stewart Company.

On June 9, 10 days after the U.S. Navy transferred ownership of 290 acres of the two islands to the city of San Francisco, Brennan, the Rayners, and 38 other Yerba Buena Island households received eviction notices. Their portion of the island is included in the first phase of the massive project whereby developers Lennar and Wilson Meany Sullivan plan to build 8,000 units of housing on the two islands over the next decade. The Treasure Island Development Authority, the agency overseeing the project, plans to relocate YBI's current residents to vacant housing units on Treasure Island, where about 2,500 people have lived since the naval base was deactivated in 1997. Those who don't want to move to Treasure Island are entitled to $5,500 in relocation assistance.

Brennan starts the car again and we drive through a maze of fenced-off areas ("Area under environmental investigation for hazardous substances. Unauthorized persons keep out!" the signs read), to 1420b Gateview Court, the future home of the Rayner family. Through the windows of the tired-looking blue duplex, we can see a large crack running across the concrete floor of the living room.

That's what happens to slab foundations when the land sinks, Brennan explains when we get back in the car. Jiminez-Aguayo buries her face in her hands. "You're told not to plant anything, not to dig in the dirt," she says. "But then they say it's safe. How do you stop kids from digging in the dirt?"

To Bay Area residents who've never had a reason to take the Treasure Island exit off the Bay Bridge, the distinction between Yerba Buena and Treasure islands is purely abstract. But to the residents of YBI, Treasure Island is a different world. Yerba Buena Island rises sharply out of the bay. Around every corner is a different breathtaking view. The streets and paths are shaded by giant eucalyptus trees.

Treasure Island is flat and exposed. Trees are few and far between. The only variations in the elevation are the giant piles of dirt behind chain-link fences, part of the ongoing environmental remediation necessary after years of radiological and chemical contamination from the Navy.

It's the ongoing nature of that cleanup that most concerns residents of YBI. According to Sandy Nax of the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, "The contaminants found at the housing area at TI include lead, PAHs, PCBs, dioxins, TPH, Radium-226." Nax says the cleanup is projected to be complete by 2021, but insists there is no "immediate health risk to residents" of Treasure Island in the meantime.

Robert Beck, the director of TIDA, agrees that Treasure Island is safe to live on. "Absolutely," he says, before admitting he doesn't live there himself. As for the prohibition on tenants digging in the dirt: "It's not a matter that it's unsafe to dig into the soil," he says. "It's that you need to review who and where digging occurs to make sure no one is exposed to potential contaminants in the soil."

That's cold comfort for Belen Jimenez-Aguayo. Most days, she and her four children (ages 7 months to 7 years) walk down a path to a little cove her children call "the pirate beach." The kids run freely in and out of their current unit on YBI. That kind of lifestyle will end when they move to Treasure Island.

"When I see kids playing around here, I get sick to my stomach," Jimenez-Aguayo says. "I think you have to be a mother to know what that feels like."

Not all residents of YBI intend to move to Treasure Island. Sherry and Daniel Silberschmidt's two daughters were born on Yerba Buena Island, and Daniel's business is on Treasure Island. They pay $2,200 a month for their apartment — about average for the YBI units — and they know they won't be able to afford anything in San Francisco, where their daughters go to school. But their fear of Treasure Island's toxicity puts relocating there out of the question.

"We're hoping for a miracle," Sherry says.

Barring divine intervention, the residents have formed the Yerba Buena Island Residents Mutual Benefits Corporation, a 501(c)4 organization to which they've donated money for a lawyer. Geoff Rayner is the president, and they're considering various legal strategies. They're also considering the quintessential San Francisco tactic — getting something (it's not clear what) on the ballot in the hopes of putting a stop to the takeover of YBI.

The residents are keenly aware of the disparity between YBI and Treasure Island. And they're pretty sure Lennar and Wilson Meany Sullivan are aware of it too. While the overall Treasure Island project will be 25-percent affordable housing, of the 300 units planned for YBI, just 5 percent will be below-market rentals. The rest will be condominiums. Brennan and Rayner are deeply suspicious of Lennar, and of the phasing of the project. They worry the developers will decamp after cashing in on the lucrative YBI units, perhaps before the environmental remediation on Treasure Island is even complete.

"It doesn't make sense that city-owned property should be 95 percent luxury housing," says Geoff Rayner, who wants the option for his family to return to YBI. "Half the places will probably be bought by people who won't even live here. This will be millionaire's island."


About The Author

Julia Carrie Wong

Julia Carrie Wong's work has appeared in numerous local and national titles including 48hills, Salon, In These Times, The Nation, and The New Yorker.

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