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As Brisbane votes on Baylands, outside groups urge more housing

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Even 4,400 new homes may not be enough

UPC rendering of the future Baylands.

Brisbane’s City Council will meet Monday, August 7 to decide whether or not future development of the town’s vacant 684 acre area known as the Baylands will include new housing.

If the schedule voted through on Monday contains a housing element, another meeting on August 17 will determine how many units the city wishes to approve.

But it’s still possible that Brisbane may opt for a large-scale development without any new homes at all.

Developer Universal Paragon Corporation wants to turn the Baylands, a former garbage dump, into a 12-million square foot mixed-use commercial hub.

The potential incorporation of up to 4,400 new units of housing—more homes than Brisbane had residents in the 2010 census—has proved a bone of contention, as some Brisbane locals blanch while a chorus of out-of-towners insist on the necessity of residential build-up

A letter sent to the Brisbane City Council on July 24— signed by former San Francisco mayors Willie Brown and Art Agnos, former San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales, and Daly City Mayor Glenn Sylvester among more than a dozen other signatories—pressed the regional case for more housing, reading in part:

We know Brisbane alone didn’t create the regional housing crisis. [...But] saying yes to new jobs without new housing is a mistake for our region that is beginning to cost us dearly with long commutes, clogged freeways, staggering housing prices, [and] a volatile economic base, because we are not adequately housing our region’s workers and increasing pressure for sprawl development leading to tremendous loss of natural and agricultural lands.

Courtesy UPC

The Baylands, the letter reminds Brisbane legislators, is one of the largest undeveloped plots left in the Bay Area, “and it holds the distinction of being served by Samtrans, Caltrain and Muni, with close proximity to BART.”

The pro-development non-profit SF Housing Action Coalition signed onto that letter too. “The Baylands is a giant pile of dirt, we’re not displacing anyone here,” SFHAC organizer Corey Smith tells Curbed SF, framing the Baylands as the ideal housing opportunity.

“I do feel for Brisbane,” Smith concedes. “We’re talking about tripling the size of the city.” But when it comes to the housing crisis, Smith argues that the needs of the many come first. “Not all decisions have winners from every angle.”

In June, the Council of Community Housing Organizations, a San Francisco affordable housing non-profit, declared on Medium “it’s a no-brainer that the Baylands site should include housing.”

In fact, CCHO alleges that even the most ambitious current plans fall short of the real need. “The 15,000 total jobs created [...] would demand about 9,500 new homes be built to achieve a 1:1 jobs-housing ratio,” well more than even developer UPC proposes.

Back on July 11, UPC lodged another letter with the City Council citing a study by the environmentalist charity Bioregional, which says that the more housing Brisbane creates near its transit and commercial hub, the better it will be for the environment.

Bioregional actually suggests that as many as 13,000 new jobs and 7,000 new homes may be the optimal use for the land, figures likely to make Baylands holdouts feel faint.

Despite all of these pleas, some in Brisbane itself still prefer a future in which the Baylands has little or no housing. And all of this attention is just making them circle the wagons says the LA Times:

For their part, some Brisbane residents feel besieged by pressure from housing activists, business groups, state lawmakers, San Francisco politicians, newspaper editorials and others beyond the city’s boundaries.

[...] “We’re a small town,” City Councilman W. Clarke Conway said at a meeting on the project last fall, “and we’re a small town by choice.”

None of the city’s present lawmakers have responded to Curbed SF’s requests for comment.

Via email, former City Councilperson Ray Miller told Curbed SF, “I stand by what is reported in the Examiner,” referring to a 2016 story in which Miller insisted that thanks to its contaminated state, the Baylands simply isn’t safe for residential development.

Miller accuses media outlets of downplaying the health concerns and paying too little attention to the history of the site. “‘No housing in the Baylands’ is in the 1994 General Plan, which in turn was based on a full citizen survey,” he adds.

The special meeting of the Brisbane City Council is set for Monday at Brisbane City Halll, 50 Park Place, at 7:30 p.m.

The Baylands as seen from the air, a long, flat, grassy brown area next to the bay.
The Baylands in 2006.
Photo courtesy of SFHAC