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Brisbane faces ballot vote on Baylands housing

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Up to 2,200 new homes south of San Francisco potentially riding on November initiative

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

We’re more than halfway through 2018 and Brisbane is still debating what to do with the Baylands.

At a Thursday city council meeting, Brisbane lawmakers and residents jousted over a proposed amendment to the city’s general plan that might allow for up to 2,200 homes in the 660- to 716-acre (counts vary) Baylands site.

But Brisbane residents must approve the change in a November vote. The proposed amendment reads:

Shall Brisbane’s general plan be amended to permit within the Baylands a range of between 1,800 and 2,200 residences north of an extension of Main Street and up to seven million square feet of new commercial development, subject to these restrictions to protect Brisbane: Land for housing must be declared safe for ground-level use, landfill must be permanently, safely capped, and development must [...] produce net positive revenues?

City council members tried to abate criticism on Thursday by arguing that the language puts the burden on developer Universal Paragon Corporation (UPC), which owns the entire Baylands site and has been petitioning for over a decade to build there, to create a plan that would meet the city’s criteria.

The Baylands site is a huge swath of undeveloped territory immediately bounding San Francisco. But it’s also a former rail yard and onetime garbage dump that would require a long and potentially expensive cleanup in order to be fit for long-term human habitation.

The proposed 2,200 homes is half what UPC once hoped to build. But it’s still more than some Brisbane residents may want to brook, and Thursday’s public comment session resembled a Talking Heads concert for as many times as the phrase, “How did we get here?” appeared.

One by one, Brisbane neighbors questioned why the amendment was to be put before them:

  • “Why do we need to get this amendment done right now? To me it looks like we have the potential to build something here that looks like SoMa. I lived 38 years in the Mission District, I observed development and saw how my neighborhood was severely impacted. Why are we rushing this through?” —Peter Sutherland
  • “You’ve come up with a plan out of fear, but what are the alternatives? I propose we double the housing allowed in Brisbane allowed on land, not on [land]fill, so everything in Brisbane doubles. So everybody gets the exact same benefit across the board. Why not 2,200 units at the marina? There are solutions!” —Dina Dilworth
  • “The entire site is landfill. I liken [the cleanup plan] to pilling something on the floor, throwing a towel on it, standing on a chair, and calling it clean. It’s never going to be clean.” —Barbara Ebel
  • “The residents of Brisbane don’t really trust our developer. When I hear UPC speaking, I hear them wanting more. How did we even get here? Now we’re going to let the horse out of the stables, open Pandora’s box. We want to keep housing in one little area, but it seems to be spreading.” —Deb Horn
A rendering of new buildings in the Brisbane Baylands.
Some of UPC’s plans for the Baylands, if they ever come to pass.
Courtesy UPC

Tom McMorrow, the city’s chair of state policy practice, told critics that the amendment was an attempt to scale back UPC’s plans and to persuade Sacramento lawmakers not to mandate more development, as McMorrow contends almost happened in 2017.

“Those discussions were not easy,” said McMorrow. “What we came up with was what if we put a plan before the voters that locks us into nothing but shows good faith and moves the ball? It was to avoid a Sacramento-dictated approval.”

The city council will meet again on July 19 to vote on whether to put the ballot initiative forward.

If voters decline to vote for the change in November, that probably won’t scuttle development plans for the site. But it would upset and potentially ruin the current compromise between Brisbane City Hall, the state legislature, and the developer.

Some commentators on Thursday supported the housing proposal, including former Mayor of Brisbane Michael Barnes, who said that the development “will serve Brisbane” and called it “very generous of Brisbane to consider doubling its size.”

Mina Richardson, a South San Francisco resident, thanked the city council for considering development, saying “We’re building like nuts and [South San Francisco] residents are getting a little fatigued,” adding that she’s “afraid to go out for the traffic” these days.