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Baylands housing could take ten years

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“It was always my hope we’d never put housing out there,” says mayor

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

As expected, the Brisbane City Council voted last week to put a ballot measure before voters in November to amend the city’s general plan and allow the construction of thousands of new homes on the Baylands site.

But even if Brisbane approves the change at the ballot box, it could be up to ten years before the developer breaks ground.

The Baylands is a mostly vacant 660-plus acre site (estimates vary) immediately south of San Francisco. A former rail yard and garbage dump, Brisbane’s general plan presently prohibits housing there; except for a few industrial uses, there’s not much happening in the Baylands as of now.

Developer Universal Paragon Corporation (UPC) owns the Baylands site and has campaigned for more than a decade to create an enormous mixed-use development, including thousands of new homes.

The housing crisis has turned up the heat on longstanding local arguments about the property. In 2017, Sacramento lawmakers debated promoting UPC’s development plans as part of a larger statewide housing package; in 2016, San Francisco lawmakers briefly threatened to annex the site if Brisbane failed to consider housing development there.

Thursday’s resolution paves the way to potentially create 7 million square feet of commercial space and up to 2,200 new Baylands homes—roughly half of what UPC once hoped for, but still enough to double the town’s population.

But as the San Jose Mercury News notes, Brisbane City Manager Clay Holstine estimates that it could be a decade before UPC gets to begin construction.

“UPC has estimated that the time frame for them to implement the [site cleanup plan...], which will involve moving thousands of tons of clean dirt on to the site and other remediation practices, will take three years,” Holstine tells Curbed SF via email. Then tack another year onto that for UPC to even finalize those plans now.

“After that I anticipate based on past practices on another remediation site in Brisbane [...] a year and half for horizontal work (water, sewers, roads, etc) and a year and half for vertical construction of buildings. All of this gets you to seven years.

“As we know, nothing ever goes as fast as we might like so seven to ten years seems reasonable time frame.”

That’s all assuming, of course, that Brisbane residents vote in favor of building at all.

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

Thursday’s meeting featured more comments supporting Baylands housing than usual.

Resident Nancy Lacsamana, for example, told the council, “We can use the Baylands to take care of a lot of things that Brisbane would like to do.”

Recent transplant to Brisbane Kyle Corbitt noted the high cost of renting in the area and told council members, “We want to stay here; the sooner these things get built, the more possible that’ll be.”

However, many residents still favor a zero-tolerance attitude.

“This is a sad situation,” said area resident Tom Heinz, alleging, “You’re willing to change this for foreign investors who don’t live here, who don’t work here, who most likely don’t even know that they’re investing in toxic land—sad.”

City Council meetings regular Barbara Ebel called the ballot measure “an amoral decision” and predicted disaster for the city if it moves forward.

Brisbane lawmakers themselves seem less than sanguine about the whole thing in spite of their favorable votes. “I think this is the best thing for us, [but] I know that it’s a bitter pill for many,” said Councilperson Terry O’Connell.

Mayor Clarke Conway acknowledged, “It was always my hope we’d never put housing out there,” but ceded that circumstances had forced the city’s hand.

Councilmembers briefly discussed the possibility of de-annexing the land in the event that no compromise is reached between voters, developers, and lawmakers, although this would mean forgoing $5 million worth of annual revenue from industrial contracts.

If voters approve the change in November, UPC will have to craft a new development proposal that fits Brisbane’s altered general plan.

Under the present ordinance, at least 15 percent of eventual Baylands homes must be priced at below market rates, and at least 25 percent of the area must remain open space.