clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Can Developers Turn a Neglected SF Neighborhood Into an Innovation Hub?

Apparently, radiation and crime can scare developers away for only so long.

Lennar Urban

Just six miles from San Francisco’s increasingly expensive downtown is Hunters Point, a historically blue-collar neighborhood southeast of the city, which has been neglected since the shipyards closed in 1974 amid radiation contamination so bad it was declared a Superfund site. Today, 30 percent of the area’s residents earn less than $10,000 a year.

“This is the San Francisco America pretends does not exist,” author James Baldwin wrote in 1963.

And this has remained the case for years, until very recently. As a housing crisis grips San Francisco and there is nowhere left to expand but south, it has begun to change. Because radiation and crime can apparently only scare developers away for so long.

 The Shipyard
The Shipyard
Lennar Urban

In one of the largest real estate development projects in the U.S., Lennar Urban, part of the Miami based Lennar Corporation, is investing $8 billion to build “The Shipyard”: 12,000 homes for up to 20,000 people, 3.2 million square feet of office space, 800,000 square feet of retail and 300 acres of parks. Home prices range from $450,000 to $900,000. And Lennar’s leaders are positing Hunters Point as an “innovation district,” a high-density, tech-centric space for startups and tech workers.

The other day, I went for a tour of the construction site with about a dozen project representatives, including Roberta Achtenberg, a politician turned policy adviser for Lennar, and Bruce Katz, a VP at the Brookings Institution, where he focuses on smart cities.

Katz, who cites The Shipyard as an example of the rise of innovation districts around the world, said he had been struck by the scale of the project when he first saw the plans: “Something of this scale is really more often seen in Asia or Latin America,” he said. “Maybe Hudson Yards is comparable, maybe, but there’s really nothing else like this in the U.S.”

The Shipyard

“We’ve got the young tech and the old hipsters,” said our tour guide, Kofi Bonner, president of Lennar Urban, jokingly describing the target demographic (the guy who sells the condos chimed in to say he is actually noticing a very mixed population, since homes start at around $450,000, less than half the average home price in San Francisco). “This is not a typical development, because we’re adding the innovation element,” Bonner said. “If you’re purposeful and intentional, and create the spaces they like — throw in a couple Starbucks and some Wi-Fi.”

“Starbucks?” Achtenberg asked, raising her eyebrows at the non-hipster example.

Philz, I suggested. But we all got the point.

 Block 51, which will be called “Merchant”
Block 51, which will be called “Merchant”
Lennar Urban

Katz started to talk about the benefits of the current tech boom, and how strange and anti-progress all the anti-tech protests have seemed.

Bonner, in a blue paisley tie and suede loafers, agreed: “San Francisco struggles with change. They don’t know how to manage prosperity. The just try to stifle it.”

Katz talked about a new model for tech offices and urban planning — moving away from the suburban model of cloistered office parks and toward inclusion in cities.

“The old model was hide your office, keep your secrets,” he said. “The new model is for collaborative spaces, open networks.”

An assistant cued up a promotional video called “I See You,” and described it as “more of a mood piece.” It included well-known young street musician Master Blaster G, the late street performer Bushman scaring tourists at Fisherman’s Wharf, babies, 1960’s protests and Willie Brown, who comes on to say: “I see you, SF. This is who you are.”

We walked outside to survey the site and the view of the San Francisco Bay. When Lennar representatives lead tours for buyers, they bring along wine and cheese and have a jazz band come out to play.

 Interior shot of a typical Shipyard condo
Interior shot of a typical Shipyard condo
Lennar Urban

It’s not too far from San Francisco, really (about a six-mile bike ride to the Financial District). Bonner said Lennar had tried to work with public transportation (the current route is two buses, which takes about an hour), but found it too annoying, so the developers are thinking about a private ferry operation and a private shuttle system. One major advantage is that the development is closer to Silicon Valley, so daily commuters in tech shuttles won’t have to cut through San Francisco.

Bonner pointed across the water to Candlestick Park, a now-defunct baseball and football stadium built in 1958 — the site of the Beatle’s last live concert in 1966 — and said that it will be a retail center in the new Shipyard.

“We’ll blow up Candlestick,” he said. “It’ll be a good party.”

“Oh, it will. Nothing like a good implosion,” Achtenberg agreed.

This article originally appeared on

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.