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Brisbane lawmakers bristle, growl at Baylands housing

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“I feel like I’m living in an Upton Sinclair novel”

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

The Brisbane City Council decided Tuesday to study the possibility of giving the green light to much-needed housing in the Baylands, the huge, 684-acre vacant site south of San Francisco owned by developer Universal Paragon Corporation (UPC).

However, the city is only looking at the possibility of creating between 1,000 and 2,200 new Brisbane homes on the former rail yard and landfill, half of what UPC proposes and a fraction of what outside groups, like the environmentalist charity Bioregional, proposed last year.

The atmosphere at Tuesday’s special city council meeting was borderline despondent, as Brisbane lawmakers and residents remained largely against new housing but have come to believe that if they don’t build it, the state legislature will take it out of their hands.

“The rumored legislation [being considered in the state assembly] just took the UPC findings,” Tom McMorrow, the city’s chair of state policy practice, told the council, alleging that state lawmakers will push for the developer’s 4,400 unit option on the site.

“It will keep coming back,” warned McMorrow, noting that bills typically become law as long as the authors are patient.

“Whether we like it or not, what’s going on in Sacramento—I don’t like it all,” Brisbane Mayor Clarke Conway said, fuming. He went on to argue that he’d like “to see a much smaller scale than what UPC would propose.”

UPC plans for the Baylands.
Courtesy UPC

“What can we live with?” council member Terry O’Connell asked. After a roughly 80-minute meeting, the council voted to commission economic studies of the effects of housing on the Baylands site.

“I’d hope they look at no more than a 1,000 to...2,000, but let’s cut it half from what the developer is asking” to 2,200 homes, said O’Connell at meeting’s end.

Although much smaller than the developer’s proposal, 2,200 new homes would have a remarkable effect on Brisbane, a city that had fewer than 4,300 residents during the 2010 census.

Giving public comment, many Brisbane neighbors were both angry and gloomy.

“It’s sad that we’re at the end of the road,” said resident Tony Verreos. “People who said ‘Well, it’s inevitable’ are about to be proven right.”

“The city allowed UPC to study housing on the Baylands even though it wasn’t permitted,” said Barbara Ebel. (The Brisbane General Plan forbids housing on the Baylands on account of it hasn’t been decontaminated since its days as a dump.) “It was a mistake, because even the mere contemplation of housing has been twisted into a privilege. [...] I feel like I’m living in an Upton Sinclair novel.”

Ray Miller, former mayor of Brisbane, railed at Sacramento, saying, “I’m of the view that the SF legislature members are in UPC’s pocket and negotiations for a reasonable amount of housing was probably not realistic.”

Photo by Sharon Hahn Darlin

Miller went on to complain that Sacramento politicians “don’t care about [...] saving Brisbane as a viable, small community.”

Speaking in support of housing development, Corey Smith, of housing-friendly non-profit SFHAC, tried to frame the Baylands in the context of the larger housing crisis.

“Myself and my peers feel like we’ve been boxed out of the opportunity to ever, ever live here,” said Smith. “We’re scared for our future. [...] Not nearly enough housing [is] being built, and quite frankly it’s screwing over my generation.”

According to a press release the city issued Wednesday, the analysis will be completed in time for the meeting of the City Council on March 1.