Islais Creek Being Studied for Climate Change Resilience

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Enlarging Islais Creek by 300 acres, moving the Southeast Wastewater Treatment Plant to the waterfront, and turning Interstate-280 into a pedestrian sky park are among the ideas being considered by a team of urban planners, architects and ecologists studying ways to adjust to potentially rising sea levels.

Islais Creek is one of 10 Bay Area sites chosen to be part of the Resilient by Design Bay Area Challenge, an initiative primarily funded through a $4.6 million grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to develop creative and long-lasting solutions to the impacts of climate change on the shoreline. According to U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, sea levels in San Francisco Bay may rise by one foot by 2040 and 3.5 feet by 2080.

The team studying Islais Creek consists of two international urban design and architectural firms, Danish-based Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) and Netherlands-based One Architecture, as well as San Francisco’s Sherwood Design Engineers. The group started studying Islais Creek last September. The team’s proposal was chosen in January by Resilient as one of the finalists funded to create a design plan, which’ll be unveiled this May, just prior to Governor Jerry Brown hosting the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco.

Resilient received 51 applications in all, including five others focusing on San Francisco sites: Mission Creek, Fisherman’s Wharf, Crissy Field, Fort Baker and Treasure Island. Islais Creek was the only San Francisco location chosen.

According to Bry Sarte, a Sherwood engineer, Islais made the most sense to examine as a San Francisco site. “We identified Islais as a place where we can make a really positive impact. It seemed to be the most complex, interesting and regionally replicable,” he explained. “It also has been at the heart of environmental injustices, and a place that needs to be thoughtful to the community.”

Part of the Challenge’s charge is to look beyond coastline solutions and address where climate change intersects with social infrastructure issues, such as housing, transportation and income inequality. The Challenge is modeled after a similar effort undertaken in New York and New Jersey as part of the recovery from Hurricane Sandy in 2012. BIG was involved in that effort.

According to Jeremy Alain Siegel, a senior designer for BIG, one of the places his team used as a pilot was New York City’s Lower East Side, which has low elevation and 120,000 low income housing residents. “There is both a social and physical vulnerability there,” he said. “It involved looking at other aspects of the community and what the community would like to see and combine them into something larger. How coastal protection, improvement of infrastructure, improvement of open spaces, educational opportunities and commerce work together over time.”

One of the comparable aspects of Islais, said Bry, is that there’s an economically disenfranchised neighborhood to the south, Bayview, with a high concentration of poverty and public housing. “We would be remiss not to consider the Bayview community, particularly in that it hasn’t benefited from other upgrades and improvements to the City,” he said.

Over the next two months the team will work with community groups and municipal officials to determine how short-term fixes to erosion can be compatible with long-term desires, such as keeping jobs and improving public access to Islais Creek’s shoreline. Then the team will combine its own creative ideas with existing studies, including those conducted by San Francisco Planning Department, San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), Port of San Francisco and San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC).

There’s a high concentration of government-controlled property around Islais, including sites owned by SFPUC, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, Port and Caltrain. In its preliminary proposal, the team called for a strategy of protection and retreat. In terms of withdrawal, it advised returning 300 acres of filled-in marshland to the creek, mostly to the south and west, to “create green corridors that enhance biodiversity and improve water quality.”   Creek expansion would mean that I-280 would travel over water instead of serving as the creek’s eastern border.

The proposal acknowledged the Planning Department’s concept of turning the highway into a boulevard further north, and advised that, should that come to fruition, the highway platform traversing through Bayview could be turned into a skydeck for pedestrians and bicyclists heading downtown or to Caltrain.

Despite a loss of land caused by creek expansion, the team believes that private property owners in the area can be mollified by creating an additional five million square feet of industrial space along the northern edge, by consolidating existing industry through denser construction. Moving the treatment plant from Phelps Street to underutilized Piers 90-94 would also open space for housing and commercial development. Those two measures could address Bayview residents’ concerns about keeping jobs and eliminating polluting industry from what’s now a mixed-use neighborhood. The piers could house both the plant and a park that, connected to Heron’s Head Park to the south, could rival Golden Gate Park in terms of size.

Moving the plant is unlikely, at least before 2040, given that recent past efforts to do so have failed.  The facility, built in 1952, is slated for a $1.3 billion renovation.  Last month, SFPUC announced that “After years of input and involvement from Bayview residents like you, this year we will start major upgrades at the Southeast Treatment Plant.” Still, an in-depth study of Islais Creek conducted a decade ago by SPUR mentioned the piers as a possible relocation site for it. The area, known as the Backlands, is being evaluated by the Port as an eco-industrial park, potentially housing biodiesel and recycling businesses.

According to Derek Jansen, Resilient spokesperson, the Challenge studies reflect a collaborative effort with local officials, and that by bringing new expertise with fresh ideas to the issues the result should be an asset to the community.

The other areas chosen by Resilient for design plans include San Rafael; San Pablo Bay; Vallejo and Mare Island; North Richmond; San Leandro Bay; South San Francisco; Alameda Creek; East Palo Alto, Sunnyvale and Mountain View; and a regional resilience for all Bay Area counties.