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Brisbane ready to put Baylands housing to vote

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“The best four-letter word I have for it: It sucks”

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

The Brisbane City Council voted Thursday to begin preparing a November ballot measure asking residents whether or not to permit up to 2,200 homes and four million square feet of commercial development on the mostly vacant 684-acre Baylands site.

Despite conceding ground with the vote, councilpersons by and large continued to voice opposition to the idea of building on the Baylands, a course they suggest they’ve been railroaded into by Sacramento.

“We’re going to have to move forward, much as people don’t like it,” said Brisbane Mayor Clark Conway. “The only word I can use is that the state is now housing anal. [...] The best four-letter word I have for it, I call it five letters: It sucks.”

“The housing crisis is intense, it’s real, it’s overpowering the arguments we’re making. I hate it,” said Mayor Pro-Tempore Madison Davis before she too resigned herself to a yes vote on potential housing.

Developer Universal Paragon Corporation [UPC] wants to build more than 4,000 homes and seven million square feet of office and retail in the Baylands.

The proposal has been held up for years, partly over concerns about how such a large new development might change a town as small as Brisbane (population 4,700 or so) and partly over worries about whether the site, a former garbage dump, can be sufficiently decontaminated.

Although the city’s proposal is roughly half what UPC wants, it amounts to a big concession compared to past opposition.

“We started at ‘Why does there have to be development at all?’ That went over like a lead balloon,” said Tom McMorrow, the city’s chair of state policy practice.

UPC renderings for proposed Baylands development.
Courtesy UPC

McMorrow repeated his past warnings that Brisbane does not have the resources or stamina to hold out against development if lawmakers in Sacramento favor it.

“You can win the fight in 2017, but then it comes back. Issues don’t go away just because you’ve defeated them,” McMorrow said, arguing that only a compromise that includes some housing will stave off even larger development plans.

While some Brisbane residents spoke favorably of the idea of compromise, others despaired.

“I didn’t know we were in a compromise mode,” said Dana Dillworth. “I’m a little floored right now.”

Others argued that the Baylands is too toxic for habitation.

“We’ve come to the point as a society where we no longer care,” said resident Barbara Ebel. “There’s nowhere we will not build. We have no standards left. [...] As my community is on the auction block I ask, how can we salvage our humanity?”

Michele Salmon, a lifelong Brisbane inhabitant, also took up the question of habitability. “What else is under there? We don’t really know,” Salmon said of potentially toxic materials.

“It’s irresponsible for the state to bully us into building housing so it can look bright and shiny for housing advocates. It makes me sick,” Salmon added, also taking a swipe at the pro-housing lobbyist group SFHAC, which she called “a non-profit shill for developers.”

The meeting included a presentation on the city’s assessment of the potential financial fallout of development. According to a memo by City Manager Clay Holstine:

“Analysis estimates a $1.26 million fixed revenue loss for the city associated with any development of the Baylands. This revenue loss is based on current city revenues from business operations on the Baylands being lost to development of the site. KMA [fiscal consultants Keyser Marston Associates] also assumes the development would be predominantly rental over owner-occupied, with a higher marginal services cost to the city.”

However, Holstine says KMA also estimates that commercial development on the site can make up for losses from housing several times over, up to $4.04 million in revenue annually from a hypothetical six millions square foot commercial element.