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Brisbane lawmakers finally consider fate of Baylands—again

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“A once-in-a-generation opportunity to move the needle on San Mateo County’s jobs-housing imbalance”

The city of Brisbane, seen from a hill.
Franco Folini

In summer of 2017, the Brisbane City Council deferred a decision regarding what to build on the Baylands, a vacant, 684-acre site just south of San Francisco that developer Universal Paragon Corporation (UPC) wants to turn into a 12-million-square-foot mixed use development.

That was five months ago. Now city lawmakers will revisit the matter at a special meeting of the Brisbane City Council Tuesday night, which might finally resolve the question of what, if any, housing the future Baylands development will include.

At contention is UPC’s desire to build up to 4,400 new homes on the land. That’s enough to potentially triple the population of the tiny town, a prospect that makes many longtime Brisbaners queasy.

The competing possibility that the city may instead authorize a huge new commercial development without any housing earned criticism from the likes of late San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and supervisors Aaron Peskin and Jane Kim, the latter of whom prepped to annex the Baylands for San Francisco in 2016.

Critics of the no-housing option claim that creating thousands of new jobs on the Peninsula without new housing pushes workers into already expensive neighboring cities, like San Francisco and Oakland, and that Brisbane would be ducking its responsibility to address the housing crisis.

“Cities both large and small can no longer ignore their role in our regional need for more housing,” reads to an August 2017 letter sent to the City Council and signed by State Senator Scott Wiener and Assemblymember David Chiu, among others.

“Approving a plan with thousands of homes accessible to public transit would show the kind of local leadership we need if we are going to pull ourselves out of this housing crisis,” the message adds.

Later the same month, a letter signed by Salesforce CEO Mark Benioff, Y Combinator partner Jared Friedman, and Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman, among other business and tech figures, urged the San Mateo Board of Supervisors to negotiate for more housing on the site, calling the Baylands “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to move the needle on San Mateo County’s jobs-housing imbalance.”

UPC plans for the Baylands, now more than a decade in the making.
Courtesy UPC

But the agenda for tonight’s meeting alleges that out-of-towners don’t have sufficient perspective on the site or the project:

[Media reports] highlighted the Baylands as the last large undeveloped parcel in San Mateo County, its convenience to San Francisco, Silicon Valley , and mass transportation , suggested it was the City of Brisbane standing in the way of building new homes on the tract. Few such reports , however, detailed the factors that complicate any consideration of residential development on the Baylands.

Via email, Brisbane City Manager Clay Holstine says that the Baylands, a former garbage dump, can’t host housing in its current condition—which is why the site is not presently zoned for residential development—and accuses UPC of not sufficiently committing to the clean-up or the project:

“UPC has yet to fulfill any steps required to make the Baylands ready for development, such as site contamination cleanup, securing water resources or demonstrating how it will finance this proposed $1 billion development.

Overpromising and underdelivering are par for the course with UPC. [...] We understand the desire of many to alleviate California’s housing crisis. The Baylands looks like an easy solution, but upon inspection, it isn’t.

A UPC spokesperson was not immediately available for comment.

Tonight’s agenda also alleges that lawmakers in Sacramento are plotting to snatch control of the Baylands away from Brisbane itself and just mandate housing if the city doesn’t play ball:

The City became aware of an effort by a group of policy makers. [...] As we understand it, the proposal essentially was for the Legislature to approve the developer’s land use plan for the Baylands and limit City authority over implementing the plan.

[...] It is clear that our State legislators believe a 2017 bill requiring that housing be built on the Baylands consistent with the developer’s current proposal would have passed the Legislature last September and been signed into law by Governor Brown absent Brisbane’ s educational efforts.

The city’s state representatives anticipate the Legislature will enact such a bill in 2018 if the city does not take action.

The Brisbane City Council will meet Tuesday at 8 p.m. (after a 6:30 p.m. closed session) to debate the Baylands’ future at Brisbane City Hall, 50 Park Place, Brisbane.

Aerial photo of the Baylands in Brisbane.
The Baylands.
Photo by Sharon Hahn Darlin