Feature: The Storied History of Hunters Point

This post first appeared in the June edition of: Cirios Trends: In Search of Real Estate Opportunities

Over the past several years, precious few shovels have broken ground in San Francisco. The credit crisis and economic slump have caused developers and investors to pull back, as builders have focused on surviving, rather than thriving. But despite the slowdown, Lennar Corp., a Florida-based developer, has been moving steadily forward with plans to redevelop large portions of the San Francisco neighborhood known as Hunters Point.

In 1999, San Francisco awarded Lennar with a contract to redevelop Hunters Point. A decade later, Lennar is making strides to move forward with its ambitious plans, despite myriad setbacks and opposition from local community groups. Last week, the San Francisco supervisors overwhelmingly approved Phase II of a project to transform the abandoned Hunters Point Naval Shipyard into a new waterfront community of homes, businesses and green technology. Major Gavin Newsom called the Shipyard project a key to the city’s future.

The development is massive in size, covering over 702 acres at Hunters Point. Plans include building 10,500 residential units, creating 320 acres of parks and open spaces including the planting of over 10,000 new trees. The project will include waterfront retail and entertainment facilities, commercial space designed for green businesses and a bridge across Yosemite Slough, connecting the Shipyard with Candlestick Point. Plans also include a new 49ers stadium, which are, however, likely to be scuttled thanks to Santa Clara voters’ decision to approve the team’s to move to Silicon Valley.

In order to understand the scope of what is being planned at Hunters Point, one must appreciate the history of the area and the community that has grown up around the former Navy shipyard there.

Hunters Point Shipyard is located in the Bayview neighborhood in southern San Francisco. Established around 1870, the Shipyard was the first dry dock on the West Coast. It was also well known for its butcheries.

From World War II to 1974, the Navy managed the Shipyard, employing tens of thousands of people, while massive developments built up around the site in support of the industry that the Navy provided. Unfortunately for the residents of Hunters Point, the Navy’s activities at the Shipyard contributed to massive pollution in the area.

The Hunters Point Shipyard has been plagued with both chemical and radiological contamination, which the Navy believes was primarily the result of efforts to decontaminate ships that participated in atomic weapons testing in the Pacific Ocean.

In 1989, the US Environmental Protection Agency listed the Hunters Point Shipyard and other nearby areas on its Superfund National Priorities List and closed the base in 1991. Under Superfund law, the Navy became responsible cleaning up the area. Over two controversial and litigation-filled decades, the Navy and other groups have been busy with the required environmental cleanup of the surrounding areas. In November 2000, San Francisco voters passed Proposition P, which required that the Navy clean the Shipyard site to the “highest practical standards.”

With cleanup in certain areas of Hunters Point now meeting San Francisco’s strict standards, development plans are moving forward. On June 3, 2010 the San Francisco Planning Commission narrowly approved the Environmental Impact for Lennar’s Hunters Point development. Despite this big step forward for Lennar, future lawsuits by local groups and environmentalists could arise due to disputes over the environmental impact of the proposed bridge over Yosemite Slough.

In addition to environmental concerns, the social impacts of the project are troubling for the local community. A 2000 study found that 50% of current households in Bayview could not afford even Lennar’s proposed “very low income” units. Despite the likely social impact on local residents, the San Francisco supervisors rejected adding a provision that would require Lennar to make over 50% of residential units “affordable” housing units.

And so, with the project on track to move forward, Cirios is monitoring the progress and impacts of the Hunters Point development, which will be ongoing for the next decade, and beyond. The impact on real estate in the city will be, to say the least, significant.

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