Cover Story: The helmsman

The redevelopment of Hunters Point Shipyard and Treasure Island is heavy with The City’s hopes and fears about its future. So heavy, in fact, that life must be perpetually breathed back into the projects, just to keep them from falling over dead of their own weight.

The man assigned to perform this special form of urban-planning necromancy is Michael Cohen, director of the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development.

His job title keeps his fingers in dozens of pies, but there’s no doubt what his primary task is: to finesse the two former Navy bases through the public approval process and political bickering.

In Cohen’s words, the redevelopment of the nearly 1,300 acres represents “the last, best chance to grow San Francisco in a really thoughtful and productive way.”

Combined, the projects would bring 16,000 homes to The City, at least as many jobs and hundreds of acres of parks.

To the 43-year-old Noe Valley resident, the opportunity for San Francisco is to transform Treasure Island into the most environmentally sustainable urban village in the nation. His separate vision for Hunters Point Shipyard is to create a vehicle for San Francisco’s shrinking middle class and people of color to stay in The City.

Given the magnitude of his assignment, it’s not surprising that Cohen’s position has made him a target for criticism from people who are skeptical of the projects and the politics behind them.

Cohen has been accused of going to bat for Lennar Corp., the company some say has been handed a blank check for the projects. He’s also battled questions over whether his plans for Hunters Point will result in the continued exodus of minorities from The City. It’s been widely rumored as well that he’s regularly toyed with the idea of jumping ship and joining the private sector.

On that last point, Cohen concedes the speculation is at least partly right. Cohen has been working on the projects for years, and took his current job in January — despite the nagging thought that accepting a job at a private company would leave him more hours each day with his daughters, 4 and 7.

“There’s a half-life in this kind of job — it has a high burnout rate,” he said. “But it’s the ultimate form of golden handcuffs: I have the opportunity to live a purposeful life, and a purposeful life is not something you exchange casually.”

That might be an ethos Cohen learned growing up in New Jersey from his mother, a woman Cohen describes as a legendary civil-rights activist who counseled prisoners and sheltered torture victims. His father, in contrast, was a corporate executive at the famously controversial Monsanto Chemical Co.

Perhaps a childhood in the midst of this philosophical discord gave Cohen the political acumen to finagle these projects into existence. If he succeeds, he said, he will feel as though he’s done right by the city he frequently says he loves “like a woman.”

“The potential of these projects is staggering,” he said. “Because, as Mark Twain put it — it’s land. They’re not making it any more.”

Who is Michael Cohen?

Influences: Louise Renne, longtime city attorney, who “taught me a lot about how to operate in the public realm as a strong advocate, but in a manner that was without reproach and with respect for other people.” Also, Mayor Gavin Newsom and former Mayor Willie Brown.

Preferred job if he couldn’t work for The City: Private-sector urban development

Preferred job if he couldn’t work in urban development: “Does opening a combined burrito-dive shop on the Caribbean coast of Mexico count?”

Average number of hours worked per week: About 60

Hobbies: “I love to scuba dive, but I only do it once a year. Hanging out with my kids, drinking wine with friends.”

Beverage of choice: Diet Coke. “I was notorious around City Hall for always having a Diet Coke in my hand. I probably drank 60 to 80 ounces a day, but now I’m trying to switch to vitamin water.”

Treasure Island transfer in the works

City leaders who have long dreamed of transforming Treasure Island into a halcyon village of urban sustainability have one minor detail to iron out: San Francisco does not yet own the island.

City negotiators have offered to buy the former Navy base from the federal government for the price of cleaning up the island — the equivalent of $40 million upfront — plus 50 percent of future profits from the land.

If the Navy’s calculations are correct, that 50 percent could be in the hundreds of millions, city Economic Director Michael Cohen said.

This latest round of negotiations on the price of the 450-acre lot in the middle of San Francisco Bay began about a year and a half ago, Cohen said. Though The City obtained the Hunters Point Shipyard for a single dollar thanks to special legislation, it has been understood since the Bush administration took power that the Navy would expect a much larger payment for Treasure Island. The Navy ceased operations there in 1997.

In its current offer, The City has agreed to take on the environmental cleanup of the island, which was contaminated by years of various military uses. That cleanup is estimated to cost about $40 million, a cost that would be passed on to the private developer of the island rather than San Francisco taxpayers.

The developer will receive fair market value for its work, but any residual profit on top of that would be split evenly between San Francisco and the Navy.

Cohen declined to say exactly how much The City expects the profits will be, but stated that it’s less than the amount projected by the Navy. He said “the beauty” of the proposed structure is it doesn’t depend on estimates.

“At the end of each major phase of development, we’ll look at actual revenues and actual costs, and the appropriate payments will go to the Navy,” he said.

If the Navy accepts the deal, it will be fully vetted through public hearings before it is finalized, Cohen said. — Katie Worth

Treasure Island Redevelopment Project

The project: The former naval base, which sits in the middle of the Bay, consists of 365 acres on Treasure Island and 90 acres on Yerba Buena Island. Plans include thousands of new homes, hotels, retail and parks. The development plan includes cutting-edge green building elements. Details about the project and Cohen’s thoughts about it:

Biggest achievement so far: “The development plan for Treasure Island is widely regarded as one of the greenest, most sustainable development plans in the country.”

Homes, hotels and entertainment: About 30 percent of the planned 6,000 new residential units would be offered at below-market rates. The project would also feature three hotels, as well as restaurants, retail and entertainment venues.

Open places: The plan calls for nearly 300 acres of parks and open space. The development is clustered around a new ferry terminal and would prioritize walking, biking and public transit. The project is projected to be the most environmentally sustainable large development project in U.S. history.

Biggest worry: “We’re creating this incredible open space in the middle of San Francisco Bay and it’s going to be challenging to put systems in place to make sure that it is well maintained for the next 100 years. We can build a wonderful park there, but I think keeping it maintained to a really high standard is going to be a challenge.”

Getting there and back: The development is clustered around a new ferry terminal and would prioritize walking, biking and public transit. A new 400-slip marina will also be built.

What’s next: The City is in negotiations with the Navy over the purchase price of the island. An environmental review process will continue for the next 12 to 18 months, and final project approval from The City is expected in 2009. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2010, and build-out is expected to take 10 to 15 years.

Hunters Point Shipyard-Candlestick Point Project

The project: The City’s largest development project would convert about 700 acres of former Navy property along the southeastern waterfront of San Francisco into housing, office and retail space. Details about the project and Cohen’s thoughts about it:

Biggest achievement so far: “The passage of Proposition G (the Bayview Jobs, Parks and Housing Initiative passed by voters in June authorizing the project) and the voter’s overwhelming support for our development plans for this site.”

New homes: Approximately 10,000 residential housing units, a mix of rental and for-sale units. About 32 percent will be affordable homes, and the Alice Griffith Public Housing Development will be rebuilt.

New offices and shops: Approximately 2 million square feet of green office space on the shipyard, intended for a major green-technology campus. About 800,000 square feet of retail. Also, a 150,000-square-foot hotel on Candlestick Point.

Biggest worry: “The biggest challenge here is to make sure the new development in Hunters Point Shipyard and Candlestick Point completely blends in to the rest of the surrounding Bayview community. If it ends up looking, feeling or functioning like a separate gated community, we will have failed.”

New park, stadium and performance venue: More than 300 acres of new and restored open space and recreation areas. The current design has set aside space for a 10,000-seat performance venue and for a 69,000-seat, world-class football stadium for the 49ers.

What’s next: The City must approve a “term sheet,” which will serve as the basis for negotiating an agreement with developer Lennar Corp. Meanwhile, an environmental impact review is taking place. The goal is to receive final project approvals from the Board of Supervisors by September 2009.

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