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.”
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.
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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