A rendering of the Brisbane Baylands development.

The moment of truth arrives for a transformative development proposed along the Baylands, as Brisbane officials will weigh floating a ballot measure allowing voters to decide the massive mixed-use project’s fate.

The Brisbane City Council is expected Thursday, July 19, to consider certifying the final environmental review and general plan amendment clearing the way for the project, while also calling an election this fall.

But as the pivotal choice approaches after years of deliberation, there remains no consensus over Universal Paragon Corporation’s interest in building as much as 7 million square feet of commercial space and up to 2,200 residential units in the northwestern corner of the 684-acre area along the Bayshore.

Housing advocates claim the project is a prime opportunity to combat the regional affordability crisis while many Brisbane residents harbor deep concerns regarding the impacts and health hazards presented by building on a former landfill.

“The bottom line is for general residents, we have this sense of who we are as a town of Brisbane and that we really care about our citizens and our neighbors. We look out for each other,” said Beth Grossman. “And we don’t feel any housing out on that extraordinarily toxic land is a place we would invite our neighbors to live.”

Grossman and other critics believe more study is needed to assure the project has been entirely vetted, while suggesting a variety of unanswered questions continue to linger.

Uncertainties over toxic soil remediation, strain on the city’s budget, sea level rise, affordable housing, traffic congestion, noise and planning alignment with a proposal to build a high-speed rail stop at the site are among the issues yet to be resolved.

“Those questions remain unanswered,” said Grossman. “And they are pretty fundamental.”

Regarding foundational concerns with the project, resident Vicky Graham said she believes many feel development along the Baylands would only accelerate the trend of building locally without regard for the repercussions.

“Just the cramped idea of no space, it makes most people want to see that left open,” she said. “It’s a rest from all the sprawl.”

Resident Barbara Neuhauser agreed the project would forever alter the community’s charm.

“One of the nice things about Brisbane is that it didn’t have traffic congestion and it had that small town feel to it,” she said. “Those things are going to be gone.”

Others disregard with such perspective, under the belief that Brisbane shares an obligation with other cities throughout San Mateo County to build the amount of housing commensurate with the number of jobs created locally.

‘Poster child of dysfunction’

Matt Regan, of economic advocacy group Bay Area Council, said he believes the fight to stall development at the Baylands is a case study in ways to compound a housing crisis.

“This is the poster child of the dysfunction of our region for meeting housing needs and regional planning,” he said.

Regan’s organization and other like it have carried the torch for allowing homes at the site, claiming residential development would help bring down area housing prices while clearing traffic congestion and helping the environment in the process.

“We remain committed to this site as one of the biggest opportunity sites in the Bay Area to address these problems, particularly traffic and housing affordability,” he said. “Unless we start waking up to the reality that we have to build homes in the urban core, we are only going to see these problems get worse.”

As it relates to quality of life issues, building housing at the site near the Bayshore Caltrain station could also help reduce traffic congestion, noted Evelyn Stivers, executive director of the county’s Housing Leadership Council.

Stivers recognized community reticence to endorse the project, but suggested it could ultimately benefit the growth of Brisbane and the Peninsula.

“We understand the City Council is concerned about changing the demographics of the city and the balance of power of the City Council, but the city’s plan of only approving commercial development would cause terrible traffic and make our housing shortage even worse,” Stivers said in an email. “We are thrilled that the City Council now recognizes the need to include housing and are hopeful that the scaled-back plan secures voter approval.”

Local control

The plan for an entirely commercial development to which Stivers refers is a previous iteration that included no housing. But after pressure was applied to allow homes at the site, the proposal morphed. It has since been refined again to beef up the commercial space and reduce the amount of units.

The most recent iteration still stands to double the population of Brisbane, a proposal so significant that councilmembers agreed voters should have the authority.

At the upcoming meeting, officials are expected to examine the ballot language defining the project likely going before voters in the November election.

Many residents question whether there is sufficient support to pass any ballot measure including residential development, which some believe will invite additional pressure from state legislators.

Regan pointed to draft legislation previously crafted by state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, as evidence of a willingness from local lawmakers to intervene, should Brisbane block housing at the site.

The legislation has also been identified by councilmembers in their reluctant arguments to move the issue to the ballot, suggesting their hands on the matter are forced.

Grossman though questioned whether the threat is as real as its being perceived.

“It feels not that compelling,” she said, questioning whether the purported legislation was introduced to insulate councilmembers from criticism for advancing the housing proposal.

‘Fiercely independent’

Meanwhile, Regan warned about the danger invited through dismissing the state’s commitment to building more housing, pointing to the utilization of Senate Bill 35 to streamline developments elsewhere in the Bay Area.

“If the good folks of Brisbane think local control is ultimate and sacrosanct, and they continue to refuse housing at that site, I would ask them to call up some friends in Berkeley and Cupertino and see how that went,” he said, identifying two communities where SB 35 was applied.

Recognizing the myriad outside forces squeezing Brisbane to build homes at the Baylands, Regan encouraged residents to accept what he considers the community’s fair share of the need for new homes.

“This is what comes with desiring economic growth — it means you also have to have a desire to accommodate the workforce,” he said.

For her part though, Grossman expressed doubt that such a perspective would be sufficient to garner voter support.

“A lot of it will depend on who will make a better argument. But my biggest fear is that people will use fear as a way to convince people in terms of us losing our autonomy,” she said. “Because Brisbane is fiercely independent.”

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(6) comments


What to do on the Brisbane Baylands is complicated due to competing visions, demands caused by the housing crisis, private property rights, and a city's right to control it's organic growth avoiding becoming part of the urban amoeba.

Facts: most of the site is land fill from 1906 bay fill: why the road is called Bayshore!, to the old San Francisco garbage dumps between the CalTrain tracks and Hwy101, and down on Sierra Point. The toxic pollution is real. Would it make anyone sick? Are there any reports of a single employee getting sick from being out there? I think not. Would I eat the dirt or grow a vegetable garden there, no - but above ground would be fine. And now we know of hydroponics, and aquaponics. The real fears are serious, and associated with earthquake caused liqifaction, ans sea level rise. I'm sure both can be engineered, like most things - its a matter of determination and tons of money. A good point. This developer has been primarily a landlord for about thirty years. They've made money collecting rents, and also from building mountains of recycled concrete and asphalt, and dirt. Millions is the guess. And they've partnered in that venture with the City of Brisbane who earned millions from it while doing little testing, if any, to assure residents that no contaminated materials have been imported to Brisbane from Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in S.F. The City has not worked to cause any core samples to be taken of the old dump, or the new Mount Brisbane of dirt covering it, so no one really knows if all of that soil is really uncontaminated or not. Now, due to pressure from residents, the City has hired an expert consultant who suggested they test that dirt before it gets moved again. Many of us are not satisfied with that approach. We'd like to know that we have not been poisoned over the past 20 years from particulate matter carried by the strong winds that swirl in this area whether the source may be the Brisbane Baylands or the Brisbane rock quarry.

Its my understanding that State legislators are primarily concerned about working to change the glacial pace of housing approvals, and work to prevent locals from opting for more commercial revenues without adequate housing in the face of an obvious housing crisis. That sound logical. And it almost sounds noble, but it's not. If what I read is true - 87% of San Francisco is zoned for 1-2 units only, that my friends is THE problem. Plenty of under utilized land. Huge demand to own, or rent. Relatively adequate public transit, and every possible service a person could ask for.

Why is there a commute nightmare in the S.F. Bay Area? Simply because giant corporations who can afford the best in technology refuse to use is wisely, and instead insist on forcing their many thousands of hard working employees into commuter slavery each work day. Change that one thing, and our roads would be adequate again.

You have to love the total nonsense that passes like unpleasant gas emissions as developer, construction, and union mouth pieces like Matt Regan of BAC, and Evelyn Stivers of HLC criticize a small town like Brisbane - which has already doubled in size while few others like it have - for not wanting to grow even more, and even faster. The old saying is if you are a hammer, everything you see is a nail. Brisbane does not want to be San Francisco, Daly City, or South San Francisco. We like it small, relatively quite at times, and almost always very safe. It is just an unfortunate reality that the more people are jammed into a space together, the higher the likelihood there will be more problems.

There are many better options that have been raised by residents, unfortunately, the Brisbane City Council has not chosen to debate them all, or even share their own internal reviews which are held in private Executive Sessions (like all Cities do). Yes this is a super big deal. And a small town staff, and great people who have no experience dealing with anything of this type and size really puts them in water over their heads.

Could it be Golden Gate Park South East? Heck yes! That's part of my plan. The SF Bay Area has over 7.5M people already, and they need more great parks to escape to. If Brisbane were to find a way to may the Brisbane Baylands be that place to fill that need, residents would never regret doing it. If all we do is cave in to the bullying of housing advocates, most of them in it for personal gain whether they work for non profits or developers etc., we will likely regret voting away out right to one of the best quality of life little towns you could find.

These choices are hard, because the City is not Beverly Hills, or Palo alto, and there are many competing visions. Few people have the capacity that San Francisco and New York City planners had over 100 years ago to prepare for a long term future. Brisbane can afford to hire that type of help, and it can get many of those great ideas from existing residents, but there is a barrier standing between the City Council and our future - it is a wall of FEAR. Will they over come it? No signs of that happening at present.

Christopher Conway

Brisbane for Brisbanians


Or Brisbane for Brisbaniacs as I like to call us. Everyone is welcome here, just not all at once!


Actually agree with Hikertom. Future generations will thank us for leaving open space, especially as they confront sea level rise. And nobody should be living on a toxic dump.


If that site really is a "toxic dump" then nobody should be working or living there. It might make a nice intertidal salt marsh.


If a significant amount of housing isn't going to be built on that site then nothing should be built there. The entire 684 acres should be turned into a park, or returned to salt marsh. If only office buildings are built there will be a big increase in congestion on Highway 101 during commute hours. The thousands of people who would work in those buildings have to live somewhere. This issue affects everyone who lives on the Peninsula, not just the few thousand people who live in Brisbane.

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