Public art stands to play a vital placemaking role in the $5 billion redevelopment of San Francisco’s Treasure Island.

One man’s trash, runs the old saw, is another’s treasure. In the case of San Francisco’s Treasure Island, the “trash” consisted of some 500 acres’ worth of gravel and dredged sand dumped on a dangerous reef to create a site for the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition. And the treasure? After decades of inaction, it appears to be on the horizon at last, in the form of an art-focused new neighborhood.

When the exposition closed down, the island became first a U.S. military base and then a thorn in the side of city officials who tangled over what, if anything, should be done with this prime real estate just off the Bay Bridge. (Among the suggestions: a gambling casino and a mansion for the flamboyant then-mayor Willie Brown.) The military, which vacated it in 1997, left behind toxic and irradiated dirt, and not much else. Mold-plagued market-rate housing shared the land with the occasional movie crew.

Today, after nearly two decades, the island is on its way to redevelopment—and public art plays a key role. San Francisco’s percent-for-art scheme means that a massive $50 million must be set aside for public artworks.

The redevelopment plan actually dates back to 2011, when San Francisco’s board of supervisors voted unanimously in favor of a plan to build an entire neighborhood, complete with retail, parks, and high-rise housing for nearly 20,000 people (in spite of opposition from environmental groups and some who claim that not enough low-income housing is included in the plan).

The first phase of the project began fall 2015, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, and with it, the first installment of the $50 million earmarked for artworks.

Coming at a time when creative placemaking is a lively focus of the public art world, the development of an entire artful neighborhood is bound to be a proving ground. “It’s an unprecedented opportunity,” says Jill Manton, the director of the San Francisco Arts Commission’s Public Art Trust. “It is unique because we are developing a vision for an island-wide program as opposed to focusing on a specific building, park, or transit system.”

It’s also a complicated picture. Led by the development corporation Lennar Urban, the Treasure Island Development Authority, and CMG Landscape Architecture, the project will ultimately include dozens of design teams and contractors. A September, 2015 visioning session brought together about 30 representatives from these groups, and public meetings followed.

The first phases of the development include demolishing existing structures and other preparatory steps, and Manton says some of the art budget will be used on what she calls “art activation” projects.

“We see this transition period between the existing and the new as a time for bold, risk-taking and experimental artworks,” Manton says. Specific projects, she adds, will emerge from the public meeting process and be vetted and approved by the various stakeholders, but early concepts that she and her colleagues have tossed about include “an island-wide treasure hunt, a monumental temporary sculpture display, floatable artworks, photo documentation of the island through the lens of the artists currently living and working on the island, murals to be painted on buildings that are slated for future demolition, and artist-designed billboards leading up to the Bay Bridge.”

Joe Hart has been a senior editor of Public Art Review, and is a writer, editor, and musician living in rural Wisconsin.

Featured in Public Art Review #53.