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Hunters Point Shipyard artists were promised a new building. They got a pile of dirt instead

From a second-story fire escape in Building 101, Marti McKee trains her eyes on the massive pile of dirt and debris looming over the gaping hole in the ground. The mound, which is surrounded by a chain-link fence and adjacent to a puddle of stagnant water, is both a familiar and unwelcome sight. McKee and the rest of the 173 tenants in Building 101—who together comprise the bulk of the Hunters Point Shipyard Artists creative community—have been confronted by the eyesore for nearly four years.

Since first moving into a cluster of buildings on this site in the early 1980s, the Shipyard Artists have gotten used to a certain amount of neglect; rundown warehouses and drafty lofts are de rigueur for working creatives, after all. Still, McKee and her peers say the weed-choked berm and pool of “green slime” are daily reminders of a promise that has gone unfulfilled for 13 years.

The artists thought they had carried the day back in 2010, when a community benefit agreement between the San Francisco Office of Community Investment and Infrastructure (OCII) and developer Five Point Holdings LLC was finalized. The deal was part of a massive plan to turn the decommissioned Naval Shipyard and some surrounding land into thousands of homes and commercial space.

FivePoint promised a brand new building of art studios, a lot for the construction of an art center where the Shipyard Artists might host exhibitions and performances, and various other upgrades to the artists’ facilities.

“It seemed like a huge victory,” Barbara Ockel, who joined the Shipyard Artists community in 1984, said. “That cemented the artists’ existence out here, which up to that point had been in question.”

But as the years dragged on and the first cluster of 88 condos on the hill overlooking Building 101 were completed and sold in 2014, the artists didn’t see much movement on their promised slice of the development. Now, with the entire project mostly stalled due to a botched clean-up of radioactive waste, they are still waiting.

“I think that we’ve been very patient,” said McKee.

A stagnant pool filled with 'green slime,' crooked fences obstructing access to Building 101 and a large mound of dirt are among the complaints of artists who work in the Hunters Point shipyard studios. | Photo by Camille Cohen

Some of the promised upgrades have been made and others are underway, but the most crucial part of the project—the new studios building—is on hold indefinitely as the developer and government agencies wrangle with lawsuits and the challenge of ensuring the site is clean. No one—from FivePoint, to OCII, to the Navy—seems to be able to tell the artists when work might resume.

The pile and the fence have made Building 101 cumbersome to access for both the artists and their would-be customers. Musicians with heavy gear and painters with massive canvases often have no easy path when moving things from their studios to their vehicles.

And then there’s the dust. “When the wind blows, dirt and dust blow right into artists’ studios,” Ockel said. “Artists cannot open their windows for fresh air or ventilation.”

Ockel, who currently serves as board president for Shipyard Trust for the Arts—or STAR, which advocates for Hunters Point Shipyard Artists and supports other community causes—has been working to get the pile of debris moved since 2019. She says she’s been shrugged off by city officials and that her letters to FivePoint have garnered little more than buck-passing responses. FivePoint declined to comment on this story.

Sally Oerth, interim executive director of the Office of Community Investment and Infrastructure—the successor agency to the former San Francisco Redevelopment Agency—said she understands Ockel and McKee’s vexation.

“All parties are frustrated,” Oerth said, before placing the blame for all the delays squarely on the Navy and Tetra Tech EC—the contractor hired by the Navy to clean up the Hunters Point Shipyard. In 2017, a whistleblower report revealed that Tetra Tech EC employees had falsified reports and doctored dirt samples. “All development is going to be paused until the Navy testing can be completed,” she said.

Derek Robinson, the Navy's environmental coordinator for Hunters Point, said in a statement that the land underneath Building 101 and the dirt pile are clean.

A Creative Community Disrupted

For the Hunters Point Shipyard Artists, the site has been a communal hub, home office and storefront for going on 40 years.

Originally built by the Hunters family in 1870, the shipyard was acquired by the Navy in 1941 and served as an active base until Congress ordered it decommissioned in 1974. The Navy then leased the property to a commercial ship repair company, which in turn subleased a warehouse space to an artist named Jacques Terzian. In the early ’80s, the late Terzian began subleasing his own space to other artists, and the site has remained an affordable haven for creatives ever since. According to the Shipyard Artists’ website, the community has around 300 members and is the largest of its kind in the country.

But the shipyard, and nearby Candlestick Point, also represent a final frontier of sorts for San Francisco real estate. It is one of the few places in the city with enough open land for a massive development, and San Francisco politicians, urbanists and developers have been eyeing the area since the ’90s.

The first phase of the development—helmed by FivePoint sibling company the Lennar Corporation—kicked off in 2005. FivePoint has been in charge of the second phase of the project, which began in earnest around 2010. Upon completion, the two phases promise to bring thousands of new homes and hundreds of thousands of square feet of commercial space to the south-eastern corner of San Francisco.

Though they’ve grown increasingly upset with the way they’ve been treated during the planning and development, Ockel and McKee said they do not see the Hunters Point development as incompatible with their community. 

Not all the artists agree. Jack Hain, a lawyer now living in Santa Cruz and a member of the Shipyard Artists from about 2008 to 2014, said he never believed FivePoint had the best interests of the artists in mind. By way of example, Hain recalled, the cluster of buildings where he worked had no heat or running water for the entirety of his tenure at the shipyard. According to Ockel and McKee, those buildings are still without both basic amenities.

No Accountability

In the wake of the Tetra Tech scandal, the shipyard development came to a halt in June of 2018. Construction crews walked away from the giant pile of dirt out front of Building 101, which they had created just two months prior while carving out a footprint for the promised new studio building.

The building is intended to accommodate a group of Shipyard Artists currently working out of a dilapidated set of structures on a plot of land known as “Parcel B,” located about half a mile northwest of Building 101. That’s where Hain worked during his time with the Shipyard Artists and where McKee currently rents her space.

In the limited correspondence that Ockel and McKee have had with representatives from FivePoint, the developer has frequently blamed the Navy and the botched Tetra Tech cleanup for delays. At one point, FivePoint even suggested that it couldn’t move the dirt out front of Building 101 because it was potentially contaminated with radioactive material.

“We were quite alarmed to learn that, because if the dirt was contaminated and blowing dirt into artists’ windows, well that’s just not good,” Ockel said.

A large mound of dirt at the entrance of Building 101 of the Hunters Point Shipyard Artists community. | Photo by Camille Cohen

Robinson, the Navy spokesman, said in a statement that the Navy will only transfer ownership of a parcel of land to the city when it has been deemed safe and both Parcel A—where Building 101 is located—and Parcel B have been handed off to the city. “The Navy cannot comment on non-Navy activities,” he said.

Ockel and McKee say they take the Navy at its word.

“FivePoint really has no excuse to not move the dirt or not construct the new artist building,” Ockel said.

In February of 2021, building resumed on a cluster of condos on the hill overlooking Building 101, part of the first phase of the project. The dirt outside of Building 101, though, is part of the second phase of the project, and there’s no set date for that to resume. Oerth said the dirt pile, in a way, is proof that the artists will eventually get what they have been promised. After all, she noted, it was created carving out a footprint for the new studio building, and other upgrades at Building 101 have been completed or are underway.

“We did listen to the artists,” Oerth said. “We worked really hard to understand their concerns.

But for McKee and Ockel, after years of delays and setbacks, the reassurances don’t go far.

“No one will assume responsibility and do something about it,” Ockel said of the mess out front of Building 101. “You feel this active neglect from the Navy, the city and FivePoint. And in the meantime, you’re sitting on a pile of dirt.”

A previous version of this story stated that Marti McKee keeps a space in Building 101. She actually rents a studio in Building 116, which is located on Parcel B.

Meaghan Mitchell ( contributed to this story.