Treasure Island has nearly every necessary feature to make it the most exciting new residential development in San Francisco. This 403-acre island between San Francisco and Berkeley has superb views of downtown San Francisco, Alcatraz and Angel islands, and the Bay Area’s ridgelines. It has dozens of acres of green fields and an environmentally sensitive coastline, to make it a regional eco-attraction. And Treasure Island and its 125-acre companion, Yerba Buena Island, are large enough to become a self-contained community while still enjoying close proximity to the city.

What could be lacking? Only design.

For some reason, the developers are proposing something that looks like a suburban office park. Among the housing choices are four high-rise residential towers, which seem absurd on this small island, more than half of which is to be protected coastline and open space. The plan has an orderly grid, but the residential streets have a casual zig-zag look that is at odds with the developers’ avowals to emulate the streetscape of San Francisco. There is a 20-acre farm smack dab in the middle of the island, which is to be a demonstration farm for city folks who have never seen a real, live farm before. The developers plan to spend $20 million to build a new ferry terminal, only to greet visitors with a conventional shopping center.

Living close to nature has its costs, apparently.

Treasure Island is an odd place. Built by the city during the late 1930s to accommodate the Golden Gate International Exposition of 1939, the man-made island was converted to military use during World War II. The island has been the object of discussion among local planners and city officials since 1997, when the Pentagon gave the rectangular island back to San Francisco. On-site conditions include a smattering of ex-military buildings and about 900 houses and rental units. Water-borne wind and fog are downsides of the site. The most difficult issue, however, is access. Treasure Island is accessible to cars only by a hair-pin exit from the Bay Bridge. (Muni buses do serve the area.)

In a city in perpetual need of new housing, Treasure Island joins Mission Bay as one of San Francisco’s two largest home-building opportunities. A specially created agency, the Treasure Island Redevelopment Authority, is overseeing a group of developers selected by former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown to build on the island. The developers include Kenwood Investments (which includes political lobbyist and Democratic Party fundraiser Darius Anderson) and Lennar Corporation, the giant homebuilder that is already involved in the redevelopment of three other former bases: Hunter’s Point in San Francisco, Mare Island in Vallejo and El Toro in Orange County. The newest partner is Wilson Meany Sullivan, which led the restoration of the ferry building in downtown San Francisco.

After a dozen years of planning and public discussion, the goals for Treasure Island are clear: a community that is compact, environmentally respectful and easily accessible to the mainland. Many of these basic assumptions behind Treasure Island are rational. To maximize solar gain, planners have created a grid that maximizes the exposure of rooftops to the sun. To minimize the breezes, planners have proposed a “staggered” grid, where buildings block open pathways that could otherwise become wind tunnels. Plentiful tree-planting would provide a natural wind-screen. To make the island accessible to San Francisco, the developers want to build an entirely new ferry terminal on the southern tip of the island, which is a 10-minute boat ride to the city.

The developers are planning between 3,500 and 5,500 units – depending on the final height of the apartment buildings – with a density somewhere between 90 and 110 units per acre. The housing would take the form of low-rise, mid-rise and several high-rise towers. Each housing cluster would have its own small park.

In the name of creating a “self-sustaining community,” the developers propose 200,000 square feet of retail space, or enough stores to make it unnecessary to leave the island to buy anything smaller than a pickup truck. There is also a 400-slip marina and 600 hotel rooms.

What is lacking here is any sense of urban organization. While it is commendable that the developers want to build compactly, the plan is not orderly. Visitors and returning commuters to Treasure Island are met with a hotel and a conventional, open-air shopping center, not by a coastline and spectacular views of the city. Disembarking ferry riders need an open space to orient themselves once they reach the island. An old-fashioned public square with civic buildings like post offices and satellite city offices would be in order, along with some smaller retail buildings. The proposed “grand plaza,” surrounded by retail, is overscaled and lacks the sight lines needed for visitors to get a sense of their location.

Another factor that is disconcerting here is the presence of tall buildings – we still do not know how tall – in the casually planned residential streets. These residential swards (one can’t really call them blocks) could be likened to fields of grass (the low rise buildings) upon which grow some hedges (the mid-rise buildings) and occasional tall oaks (the high rises). Mixing density and height is good, but neither Feng Shui nor the Kabbalah can explain why the high-rise buildings poke out of the earth where they do on this plan. Moreover, I don't think tall buildings are appropriate on a site that has no other tall structures to provide context. I appreciate the need to keep the development compact, and the high-rises may be unavoidable if we are to achieve these ambitious densities. But they could make the island look overloaded, like a bunch of Gullivers strolling around a tropical atoll.

High-density housing raises, at least for me, another issue, which is usable open space. In my view, high-density housing represents a loss – a loss in personal outdoor space, the direct relationship with both the soil and the street – that must be compensated for. In a mature city, those compensations could be stimulating street life, delis and bakeries, coffee houses, bars and museums. Equally important for high-density urban dwellers is active open space suitable for impromptu soccer matches, picnics, birthday barbeques and Fourth of July parties.

Treasure Island has ample open space. The trails that circle the island and connect to Yerba Buena would probably be great for walking and bicycling. But the lack of active open space — the fields for softball and soccer — is the greatest failing of this plan. And even if Treasure Island contains adequate open space, the current plan suggests that high-rise dwellers would have to walk a considerable distance to get to a park. Ideally, open space — not only retail stores — should be literally at residents’ feet.

The hierarchy of open spaces begins with one’s own yard, and then moves up in scale to neighborhood courtyards or mini-parks, then to civic parks and regional parks. The proposed farm occupies exactly the place where a large, urban park should exist..

It is fine that the developers of Treasure Island have adopted the right set of environmental values. Now they must rethink their plan to make a place that would be worth living in.