Fantasy Island

By Emily Landes

A view above Yerba Buena Island, which is being developed — and positioned — as an upscale new neighborhood in the Bay. “There’s something very calming about watching the boats and the ferries,” says Gray Davis of boutique design firm Meyer Davis. “Your blood pressure just drops when you’re there.”

Inquiring minds want to know: What’s going on with Yerba Buena? Its passionate developers tell all. 

Although they are conjoined in the center of the Bay, Treasure Island and Yerba Buena Island are actually a study in contrasts. Think of them like the Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito characters from the late ’80s classic Twins. Treasure Island, like Schwarzenegger’s character, is a man-made feat of engineering that has received considerable attention over the years. Yerba Buena Island is like DeVito’s character — full of personality, but often overlooked, even by lifelong San Franciscans.

Yet, just as in the film, each “twin” needs the other in order to form a more perfect whole. “It is not a case of, ‘Oh, what is Yerba Buena Island like? What is Treasure Island like?’” says developer Chris Meany. “It is more like saying, ‘Within a section of The City, like Nob Hill or North Beach, what are different districts within that greater neighborhood?’”

Meany has been thinking about the islands’ relationship to each other and to the rest of The City since the development company he co-founded, Wilson Meany, took on the historic renovation of the San Francisco Ferry Building in the late ’90s. “We had our trailers on the platform behind the Ferry Building and so I couldn’t escape it,” he says. “My view was of Treasure Island each day.”

“He’s like a Medici in the Renaissance,” says architect Tim Slattery of Chris Meany (pictured here), who’s developing Yerba Buena Island. “He has this gift for commanding a room and a vision.” But Meany says the pressures of his work give him “stomacheaches” and he “won’t be happy until the whole thing is done.” (Peter Prato)

Soon after the Ferry Building was completed, the City approached Wilson Meany and financial backers Stockbridge Capital Group about partnering on the TI/YBI development. Wilson Meany was awarded the contract by the City in 2006, and in the intervening decade or so there have been thousands of pages of environmental impact reports, over 500 community meetings and a near-constant dialogue with San Francisco. What came out of those years of discussion and planning, Meany says, were two clear mandates: to build 8,000 new for-sale and rental homes at an array of various sizes and price points, while also making the biggest contribution to the San Francisco public park system since Golden Gate Park.

Treasure Island’s flat, man-made terrain will shoulder the vast majority of the 8,000 homes and apartment buildings, as well as shops, restaurants and a much-anticipated new ferry terminal. Yerba Buena, its hilly, all-natural fraternal twin, will have just 266 for-sale homes and no rentals within 72 acres of open space. The aptly named Hilltop Park will crown the island’s peak and was designed by landscape and public artist Walter Hood, a 2019 recipient of the MacArthur Genius Grant. There are also 5 miles of wooded, winding dirt and gravel hiking trails, as well as a wind-protected sandy beach called Clipper Cove.

From almost every foot of this outdoor experience, from all of the 72 acres, you have some of the best views that exist in the world of downtown San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz and Angel Island and the East Bay,” says Meany. “When we designed this whole master plan for Treasure Island and created a vision for what some of the neighborhoods would look like, Yerba Buena Island was always one of the jewels.”

The Long View

Making the most out of the gorgeous panoramic views from YBI’s rocky vantage was one of the top tenets in the “Bible-sized book of guidelines” that were already part of the master plan when architecture, design and planning firm Hart Howerton came on board to do a feasibility study a few years back, according to firm co-founder Tim Slattery. “There was this notion that every unit should have a view, so that was a huge piece of testing and studying,” Slattery says. “Our quick realization was that it was way more complicated than we initially thought just because of the terrain and all the logistics.”

What was initially billed as a one-month study ended up taking over a year, but after it was done the firm “interviewed just like everyone else” for a larger role in the “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he adds. Of course, the fact that Hart Howerton was already familiar with the difficult site and the copious guidelines certainly helped secure its spot. “We could hit the ground running,” Slattery recalls.

Hart Howerton ended up acting as one of the master architects and planners for the site, with other designers brought into work on individual projects. “We hold the game board together,” Slattery says. For example, Hood designed Hilltop Park and CMG Landscape Architects created the miles of walking trails, but Hart Howerton conceived of the streetscapes, courtyards, entry and roof gardens that connect the privately owned properties to the open space. “The landscaping is the zipper that ties the man-made and the natural architecture together,” Slattery explains. “Every front door is like a trailhead to get to the natural park system.”

Some of the new units will have more private outdoor space than others, particularly the courtyard townhomes dubbed the Skyline Residences. Slattery says this site has arguably the best views on an island full of them. The townhome interiors, as well as the single-story “flats” located in two other spots on the island, were designed by Meyer Davis. The New York- and LA-based firm is known for creating luxury vacation destinations and fine dining restaurants around the world. (San Francisco–based Edmonds + Lee Architects took on The Bristol, an amphitheater-shaped five-story condo building.)

The Yerba Buena Island townhomes’ interiors designed by Meyer Davis.

Meyer Davis co-founder Gray Davis remembers his first visit to YBI and how it immediately felt like stepping onto an island resort. The exterior finishes his firm chose were meant to add to that feeling of natural serenity as well as weather beautifully in the salty sea air: woods that will fade to silver over time, oil-rubbed bronze door fixtures that will get brighter in the spots that get more use, even stucco that will earn a deeper mottled hue in the years ahead. “We don’t want things to always feel brand-new,” he said. “We want it to have that beautiful patina to it, which I think is key.”

The other key to the design, says Meyer Davis Associate Director Zoe Pinfold, was keeping the views the top priority. “We can’t count how many times we’ve been looking at a space and the Hart Howerton team will come back and say, ‘You’re pushing into the view cone. You’ve got to pull this space back,’” she says . “What that ended up doing in a lot of the townhomes was creating these sizable additional outdoor terraces. The building really has to nestle into the topography so everyone surrounding still has their view.” Maximizing views was top of mind when designing everything from floor-plans to furniture placement and, as a result, there are “wow” moments everywhere from the town houses’ foyers to the master bedroom showers. These scenic vistas are not just eye candy, insists Davis, but an integral part of an overall wellness directive. “There’s something very calming about watching the boats and the ferries. Your blood pressure just drops when you’re there,” he says.

Awakening the Senses

If Joshua Aidlin ever wanted to moonlight from his day job as an award-winning designer and founding partner of Aidlin Darling Design, he could have a second career guiding people through their mindfulness app meditations. With a speaking voice that is somehow both calming and compelling, it’s no surprise that Aidlin says many of his commissions “revolve around contemplation.”

So, when his firm was selected to create Yerba Buena Island’s 14,000-square-foot amenity space, the Island Club, Aidlin says they thought very seriously about how to create a rejuvenating space. Natural elements were used to spark all five senses, from the smell of the wood-on-wood-on-wood arrangement in the third-floor lounge to the feel of the highly texturized, board-formed concrete walls closer to the lap pool one floor down.

“Biophilia, which is the integration of nature into architecture and design, is paramount to mental and psychological health,” Aidlin argues. Indoor-outdoor amenities are a guiding principle at the Island Club. Even in the lower-level spa and locker room area, the designers created an open-air “grotto” with a tree that will extend from this below-grade space, pass by the yoga studio window in the fitness center on the second floor and culminate in the tree-house- inspired top floor.

Because this floor will act as the entertainment hub of the island (with a lounge in addition to a library, game room and private dining room), the designers spent a lot of time thinking about that other important sense: sound. “You want to have a certain amount of reverberation because people will instinctively quiet themselves because they don’t want to bother their neighbor,” Aidlin says. “It’s kind of like going to a cathedral and instinctively you don’t shout because the acoustics are so live in a cathedral.”

Much like that spiritual environment, Aidlin hopes that the Island Club evokes a sense of awe, but at a quiet, more organic level befitting the rugged natural environment on YBI. Unlike many other San Franciscans, he was very familiar with the magic of the island well before the development began and contends that it has the best beach in the Bay Area.

“I was very protective because there’s an incredible beauty to that island, and obviously you don’t want to see it destroyed or compromised,” Aidlin says.“But most of the team has been involved much longer than we have, so it was very reassuring to see how they were nurturing and very thoughtfully respecting the existing conditions.”

Let’s Sale Away

The natural conditions of YBI are likely to be one of its great selling points, says Andy Ardila, managing director of The Agency, the boutique luxury real estate company handling market-rate sales for the island. (Of the 266 units on YBI, 14 are designated below-market rate, compared with 2,000 affordable units on Treasure Island.) “It represents an opportunity that will never again exist in San Francisco,” Ardila adds. “There are many luxury condominiums going up, but I can’t say there are many more islands being developed.”

Yet because it is such a unique offering, Ardila says coming up with pricing for the various unit types was “not an easy exercise.” The firm looked at a variety of newly built condos, town-homes and single-families in the City to come up with a range of prices that would be comparable to those high-end options, while also factoring in the extra elbow room allowed by the low density on Yerba Buena. Ardila could not reveal specific pricing but says, “We definitely are not a discounted offering.”

Nor does it sound like any discounts are likely to be necessary. The sales office hasn’t even launched yet — it is due to open across from The Battery in early 2020 — and already Ardila has received considerable interest from Bay Area buyers and agents. Plus, there are only 266 units to sell. “We think we’re going to be positioned very well for success,” he says.

After a visit to the sales office, serious buyers will be taken over for site tours of YBI, where construction broke ground last summer. The Treasure Island Ferry Terminal is similarly underway and Ardila expects it will be completed, with daily service in place, by the time the first YBI homeowners move in in 2021.

For many developers, the prospect of breaking ground and launching sales would mark a culmination in the years and years of entitlement work. But not so for Meany, whom everyone involved in the YBI development identified as the driving force behind the entire endeavor. “He’s like a Medici in the Renaissance,” says Hart Howerton’s Slattery. “He has this gift for commanding a room and a vision. As a designer you get inspired by how he feels so passionately about the city of San Francisco and this project. … Chris is not a flashy guy or anything. He’s just very thoughtful. We’re just trying to be the pen to design what he has in mind.”

And in Meany’s mind, YBI and TI cannot be separated. And therefore he cannot be satisfied until the entire project is completed — somewhere around 2030 or so. “This is my life’s work, right? To do this kind of work in a place like San Francisco, which is both the most beautiful place on earth and uniquely challenging,” he says. “So, every day my life is filled with two things. It’s filled with stomachaches about the unbelievable challenges placed in front of us each day. And it’s filled with the ultimate optimism about how blessed every one of us is who lives here. So every day is a lot. And, you know, I look forward to in 15 years walking down through the streets and through the parks there, but I won’t be happy until the whole thing is done.”

Then and Now

Yerba Buena Island was once a fishing station for a Native American tribe known as the Tuchayunes.

Centuries ago, a Native American tribe known as the Tuchayunes are believed to have occupied the island as a fishing station. Ruins from a village, cremated remains and ornamental shells were discovered in the 1800s, as well as a graveyard with the occupants buried in a seated position, their knees bent up near their chins. Further Native American skeletons were unearthed during the building of the Bay Bridge in the 1930s.

1800s: Around the turn of the 19th Century, the island is granted to a son or grandson of Joaquin Isidro de Castro, a prominent former soldier from Mexico who settled in the Bay Area in 1776. In Spanish, “yerba buena” means “good herb” and is a common term for any number of fragrant herbal plants. The island is likely named after a spearmintlike plant that was found growing all around it.

1830s: The island developed a reputation as a smuggler’s cove, and tales of hidden wealth flourish. Everything from opium tins to sunken treasure are reportedly found in or around Yerba Buena. During the prospecting period in the late 1840s, “clairvoyants” in The City even claim to have insight into large caches of buried gold and silver, though they rarely make good on their claims.

1850s: Also known to locals as Wood Island and Seabird Island over the years, it is officially dubbed Yerba Buena Island by the newly instated California Legislature.

1870s: Though the idea for a military presence on the island was floated as early as the Civil War, an Army post is not completed until this decade, along with a fog signal and lighthouse called Yerba Buena Light that exists to this day.

1886: San Franciscans celebrate California’s first Arbor Day by planting cedar and pine seedlings around the island. In 1904, U.S. Navy records will show that some 6,000 new trees were planted there, including Monterey pines, Monterey cypress and eucalyptus.

1895: The U.S. Geographic Board renames the island as Goat Island after its many hoofed residents. In 1931, however, it will reverse that decision because people keep calling it by the old Spanish name regardless of the board’s rechristening.

1899: The first U.S. Naval Training Station on the Pacific Coast is created on the northeast side of the island. It closes after WWI, though the Navy will maintain a stationary receiving ship in the harbor through WWII.

Treasure Island, created just north of Yerba Buena, was once intended as an airport, but would become naval headquarters.

1939: Treasure Island is created just north of Yerba Buena Island as part of the Golden Gate International Exhibition. Though intended as an airport, it will later become a naval headquarters.

1997: Both islands are decommissioned and former military homes turned into rentals. In 2010, the Navy agrees to transfer TI and its part of YBI to the City for $55 million, with additional payments owed if developers make a profit. The Navy is also responsible for handling considerable environmental cleanup activities on both islands.

On its current schedule, the first new residents should be able to move into Yerba Buena Island in 2021.

2006: Wilson Meany is awarded the unentitled TI/YBI redevelopment project. It will take until 2011 for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to approve a final plan, but subsequent legal wrangling more or less puts this plan on hold until 2014. The first infrastructure improvements begin in 2016.

2019: A groundbreaking ceremony is held on Yerba Buena Island. Sales are set to begin in earnest in early 2020. On its current schedule, the first new residents should be able to move in in 2021.

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