The corporation that ate San Francisco - Page 2

Lennar's failures at Hunters Point Shipyard highlight the risk of putting the Bay Area's prime real estate into the hands of profit-driven developers

Ahimsa Porter Sumchai, a physician and a Sierra Club member, called the Lennar deal the "dirty transfer of the shipyard." She told us, "There is no reason why I'd trust Lennar more than I would the Navy and the federal regulators who have stringently worked on the cleanup of Hunters Point Shipyard, and yet it still remains toxic."

"This is just a play to get the shipyard," said Porter Sumchai, whose father was a longshore worker at the shipyard and died from asbestosis.

Part of the problem is systemic: the Redevelopment Agency hands over these giant projects to master, for-profit developers — who can then change the plans based on financial considerations, not community needs. And while Lennar likes to tell decision makers of its massive size and resources, the actual work at these bases has been delegated to limited-liability subsidiaries with far fewer available assets.

In this case, Lennar experienced a 3 percent drop in sales last year, a 29 percent increase in cancellation rates on homes, and a 15 percent dip in its fourth quarter profits. The downturn prompted Lennar's president and CEO, Stuart Miller, to identify ways to improve what he described in the annual report as the company's "margin of improvement" in 2007. These included "reducing construction costs by negotiating lower prices, redesigning products to meet today's market demand and building on land at current market prices."

A Lennar spokesperson, Sam Singer, issued a statement to us saying that "Lennar BVHP is committed to operating responsibly, continually incorporating best community and environmental practices into our everyday business decisions."

But for a look at how Lennar's model clashes with community interests, you need go no further than the edge of the site where Lennar has been digging up asbestos-laden rock.


The Muhammed University of Islam is a small private school that occupies a modest flat-roofed hilltop building on Kiska Road with a bird's-eye view of the abandoned Hunters Point Shipyard. This year-round K–12 school is affiliated with the Nation of Islam and attracts mostly African American students but also brings in Latino, Asian, and Pacific Islander children, many of whom have had problems in the public school system and whose parents can't cover the cost of a private school.

"We find a way," the school's mustachioed and nattily dressed minister, Christopher Muhammed, recently told the Redevelopment Agency in a veiled allusion to the financial nexus between the MUI and the Nation of Islam's mosque and bakery on Third Street. "Many students aren't members of our tradition but live across the street, down the street, or come from Oakland and Vallejo."

The minister is asking the Redevelopment Agency, the agency that selected Lennar and oversees the project, to permanently relocate the school. The school's classrooms and basketball courts sit on the other side of a chain-link fence from Parcel A, which is the first and only plot of land that the Navy has certified at the shipyard as clean and ready for development.

Standing on these courts, the children have been able to watch heavy machinery digging up and moving huge amounts of earth in preparation for the 1,600 condos and town houses that Lennar wants to build on this sunny hillside, which has views of the bay and the rest of the shipyard.

The shipyard's other five parcels are still part of a federal Superfund site, despite having undergone years of decontamination. Black tarps cover piles of soil that have been tagged as contaminated, and recently, radiological deposits were found in the sewers and soil.