Bayview-Hunters Point

Sustainabilities: Justice-oriented | Market-oriented

The driving question of this project—what is to be sustained?—burns deep in the landscape of Bayview-Hunters Point, in the southeast corner of San Francisco. Since the founding of San Francisco in the 1840s, southeast San Francisco has been a site of contestation and struggle, a place in which competing ideas of belonging, citizenship, and environmental consciousness have been at the fore. Who and what belongs in this place, claimed both by capital and the working class? Long ignored by the central political establishment of the city, the area is now the focal point for a major redevelopment project that seeks to integrate Bayview into the rest of the city even as it defines it, once again, as a place apart.1

Competing epistemologies mark the debate over development. On the one hand, the developer seeks to create a project viewed as “green,” including smart-growth strategies and open space resurrection. Still, this green vision is strongly centered within notions of market-sustainabilities. The project must generate a 25 percent profit margin to move forward, and this pressure has already been the source of renegotiations on development promises. On the other hand, the project continues to face challenges and critiques from those interested in creating justice-oriented sustainabilities. That is, there is an effort to make the project sustainable for existing residents in terms of economics, health and broader social justice. These efforts inevitably cut in to the potential for large profits.

Lennar redevelopment plan cover

Lennar's vision of the redeveloped Hunters Point as a "new dawn" for the city. (Lennar Urban, 2008)

The redevelopment zone was initiated around the reuse of the decommissioned Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, which was an important military node from WWII through much of the Cold War. It remains a shifting and growing site that now extends from the shipyard through a range of residential and industrial landscapes to the south. The most recent addition was the crumbling Candlestick Ball Park (the 'Stick). The Lennar Corporation, a national housing builder, is the lead developer on the project, which was initiated through the now-defunct county redevelopment agency.

Lennar has also won rights to lead the reconstruction of Treasure Island, another former naval site. Bayview and Treasure Island have much in common, including still-unanswered questions about the toxicity of the Navy’s landfills, and safety for residential development. Winning the two was a major coup for the developer, which essentially has monopoly rights over “vacant” land in the tight Bay Area development market. Of course, it’s not that simple, as these sites are complicated landscapes with toxic legacies left by largely unmonitored military waste burial.

Bayview’s redevelopment has been slowed by several challenges including the housing crash, waves of opposition from community members concerned about displacement and environmental justice, and problems with financing. The negotiations have been fraught with tensions that grow out of the particularities of local history. Responding to fears of an urban renewal redux, the redevelopment agency has staked out a clear position that supports keeping residents in the community and avoiding residential demolitions.2 Meanwhile, San Francisco’s uniquely difficult housing market has worked its way through the community, playing a central role in pressuring families out. Housing-bubble mortgages pulled some to the far-flung suburbs, while the squeeze of gentrification, foreclosures and police-gang violence pushed others away. These forces have inspired a steady wave of black flight from the district, complicating rhetoric about who is represented by the term “community.”

Environmental health has been another driver of black flight, as residents raised concerns about the health risks posed by the industrial history of the southeast. The area under redevelopment has housed two freeways, two power plants, the shipyard itself, and dozens of micro-industries like dry cleaners and auto repair shops that are believed to contribute to residents high rates of childhood asthma, breast cancer, and other life-threatening illnesses.

The advent of black flight has forced a continual re-examination of the Lennar-led project, which claims to be designed with ethnic and social sustainability in mind, and which has a set of social and environmental promises—negotiated after years of community pressure—that have earned the effort plaudits for its forward-thinking “community benefits.”3 Critics worry that the new development will be inhabited by the agents of the internet generation who have so ably taken over the Mission District and other parts of the city. What’s more likely is that the 10,000 proposed new housing units—if indeed they are built—will be largely occupied by new immigrants from China, lured by the EB-5 visa program.

In April Mayor Ed Lee visited China to finalize a $1.7 billion agreement with Chinese Development Bank that may finance Lennar’s twin development projects. This unusual move comes as the state’s redevelopment agencies have been shuttered, leaving communities to search for development funds elsewhere. Will the CDB honor the community agreements that have been worked out to date? Will the bank insist on the maximum level of cleanup at the shipyard (part of which was long-ago designated as a federal superfund site)? Will immigrants taking advantage of the EB-5 program be fully informed when their new homes are built on capped superfund landscapes?

What is to be sustained in the Bayview-Hunters Point District, as the redevelopment process moves forward? It remains an open question whether market- and justice-oriented sustainabilities can coexist in southeast San Francisco.

Rachel Brahinsky

Published June 1, 2015

1. Rachel Brahinsky, “The Making and Unmaking of Southeast San Francisco” (PhD diss., UC Berkeley, 2012).
2. Rachel Brahinsky, “‘Hush Puppies,’ Communalist Politics, and Demolition Governance: The Rise and Fall of the Black Fillmore,” in Ten Years That Shook the City: San Francisco 1968–1978, ed. Chris Carlsson (San Francsico: City Lights, 2011), 141–153.
3. Ken Jacobs, “Raising the Bar: The Hunter’s Point Shipyard and Candlestick Point Development Community Benefits Agreement,” UC Berkeley Center For Labor Research and Education, May 2010.