Hunters Point Shipyard

The Hunters Point Naval Shipyard is the largest piece of unused land in San Francisco. Since the navy left in 1974, the shipyard has remained mostly intact due to its status as a Superfund site. Some of the buildings are more than 150 years old, and the facility covers an area roughly the size of Golden Gate Park. Aside from the artist studios near the entrance, the base sees very little activity and has been largely forgotten by the rest of the city.

Four miles of waterfront property sitting vacant within a 10-minute drive of SOMA sounds unbelievable in this time of rampant real estate development. To understand why it’s been sitting unused for so long requires an understanding of the depth of the navy’s cleanup operations. Aside from the volatile chemicals that were spilled during standard ship maintenance, the EPA discovered a number of radioactive contaminants throughout the shipyard. Many of these contaminants are byproducts of research performed at the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory.

The last parcel of land is expected to receive its EPA stamp of approval and be handed over to the city by 2020. Then it’s up to the city to decide what to do with the enormous warehouses and other structures scattered around the shipyard. The historical significance of these buildings is not widely advertised, and few people will be able to see them up close before they’re gone. Some of the structures that were built in the 1800s could qualify for historical preservation, while others will likely be torn down. The iconic crane visible from as far as the Bay Bridge and SFO is big enough to fit City Hall underneath it, with room to spare. The fate of these structures is up in the air, and there are as many different proposals for what to do with the land as there are buildings in the way.

The first parcel has already been turned over to the city and has been under construction since 2013. The condos are currently selling from the high $400,000s and will be ready for move-ins by the winter of 2014. This most recent conversion of heavy industrial land to residential property could be seen as a good or bad thing, depending on your perspective. For example, residents in the nearby Bayview Hunters Point neighborhoods have long been subjected to industrial pollutants and real estate development has catalyzed the base’s remediation. On the other hand, the same residents once made up the largest portion of blue collar workers at the shipyard. The loss of heavy industrial jobs and the base closing years ago has played a significant role in the economic hardships still facing the area.

The shipyard exists in a weird limbo between opportunity and misfortune. What was once a symbol of American productivity is now, in many ways, a hard lesson learned. It has the potential to become the most sought-after new neighborhood in San Francisco, but what effect will that affluence have on longtime locals and their current way of life? My hope is that these photos and the brief history that goes along with them will be useful in years to come when people wonder what was there before their high-rise condominium.

When the dry docks that once held battleships and aircraft carriers are turned into quaint marinas, I wonder how much thought will be given to the history of the place. When signs are posted on the perimeter of an open stretch of grass warning people not to disturb the soil, I wonder how many people will remember that it’s because of the decaying radium that was buried and sealed in for the remainder of its 1,600 year half-life.