Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

The other Treasure Island

Yesterday we took a little drive to Treasure Island, which is a strange little man-made island that’s between the two sections of the Bay Bridge.  (I say “the other” because I’ve taken a few trips to Treasure Island, Florida, so it was interesting to see the west coast one.) The two sections of the bridge actually hit at Yerba Buena island, which is a natural island, a hilly little stump of a place that’s owned by the Coast Guard. They dredged and built Treasure Island in the 30s for this big expo, and used it as a seaplane base.  There were plans to put the San Francisco airport there, but they got Mills Field instead, which is where the current SFO stands.  TI was used as an army and a navy base since WW2, but that all got closed down in the nineties, and now you have about a square mile of antiques and weirdness.

First, it’s odd that this whole thing did not get carved up into McMansions and giant condos. You have the perfect view of SF and the water, nice weather from the breeze off the bay, and a horizon that extends from the Bay Bridge to the city to the Golden Gate and Alcatraz. But the island has this weird Chernobyl-like desolation to it, with a bunch of government-issue buildings boarded up and surrounded by rings of barbed wire.  If you’ve been to any other decommissioned base, you know the architecture type I mean – identical brick shitbox buildings thrown up by the lowest bidder, with institutional features, stenciled government signs, and the strange anonymity that means the building could be a warehouse for unused cots from World War I, or a stash of refined plutonium, and you can never tell what it is.

We parked in front of the Admin building, which was used as the Berlin airport in an Indiana Jones movie.  The island has a few weird showbiz connections, probably because of the large amount of abandoned warehouse space.  All of the Battlebots shows were taped here, and the bullettime fx for the Matrix movies happened in one of the warehouses, too. I don’t see how the logistics of filming a production would work, on an island with no gas station, no restaurants, and probably limited electrical production. But maybe if you need a big open space and you don’t want to pay a million dollars a second to rent the Moscone Center, there you go.

We walked along the water a bit, and then went to this weird set of buildings that looked like they used to be dorms of some sort.  They were all boarded up and completely abandoned, with broken windows and graffiti, but otherwise looking like they’d sat since 1963.  I think the military used to have some training there, like radio operators or something, and they did nothing with those buildings since the place shuttered.  It was so odd, because we live in a city where a square meter of real estate costs six figures, but here were acres and acres with old-growth trees and what used to be landscaped paths and water views, and it all sat completely abandoned.

They did still run some of the dorms, as some kind of job training school, where you could go to get your GED and take culinary training, or learn to be a plumber, or something like that.  The open buildings looked entirely institutional, like a military school, and we saw pretty much nobody there.  We also cruised around a bit more, and found a bunch of what used to be family housing, which you can now rent.  There are still people living there – I guess it’s fairly cheap, and you can get like a three bedroom/two bath with a garage for like $1700/month.  Sounds like a lot in rural Indiana, but this is on an island overlooking a huge city where that wouldn’t get you a studio apartment.  Driving through the streets (all named B Lane, C Lane, and so on) reminded me of all of the times we visited my dad’s Air Force buddy when they had on-base housing, because the buildings look identical everywhere, the way they were laid out, the construction, the look.  If you’ve spent any time on a base, someone could show you a picture of the same 1972 row house of four apartments with a carport, and if it was Anchorage or Grand Forks or Tacoma or Tampa or anywhere else, you would instantly recognize it.

And some of the houses were boarded off.  I guess they are not taking new leases in some places, probably to level the buildings.  And one group of houses were completely fenced off with radiation signs on the chain link.  Another huge problem, as with any other decommissioned base, is there are huge contamination issues all over the island.  I mean, you’ve got the standard lead paint and asbestos issues, but there’s also radium and plutonium contamination in places, which involves a bit more than some fresh paint and removing some fill dirt. Passing by entire rows of houses boarded over, with broken out windows and abandoned playgrounds and landscapes really emphasized the Chernobyl feel.  So did the radiation warning signs.

We circled around and saw the yacht club, one of the only things actively running on the island.  There was also a big hanger, and inside it looked like they were building some kind of amusement part floats or rides or something.  And a group of doofuses on segways circled around the giant asphalt parking lots, too.  We cruised from there to Yerba Buena, which is nothing but incredibly steep, curvy, and narrow rows cutting through old growth forest.  We saw a few Coast Guard officer’s quarters buildings, the kind of shacks built in maybe the 40s, all abandoned, some boarded off, some just empty.  There was also what looked like an old restaurant tucked into a hill, and the whole thing made me wonder if they would ever sell or develop the land there.

Turns out there’s no private housing on the island, and there are huge arguments going on about the city buying the land from the Navy, and what will happen.  Pelosi and crew want the Navy to hand over the land so it can be turned into some kind of low-income housing.  I’m sure others would like to turn it into super high end real estate.  I don’t know that much will happen in a place where you have to pay a bridge toll and drive 20 minutes to go to a Safeway or fill your car up with gas.  And let’s not forget that this is all artificially built on ten feet of compacted garbage, so when the big one hits, the entire mess goes straight into the bay.  I don’t foresee anything happening for decades.  Until then, it’s a strange little place to visit and look at some peeling and abandoned work by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Anyway, go to flickr or click here for the pix.

[2020 update: they are building a bunch of high-end housing here now. The big barracks dorm building is torn down, and bulldozers are everywhere. Stay tuned, I guess.]