A ballot initiative standing to essentially double the size of Brisbane is splitting the small community in half, as residents and officials passionately grapple with a transformative proposal along the Baylands.
Voters will have the ultimate say on Election Day over the fate of Measure JJ, a general plan amendment which would allow for construction of up to 2,200 residential units and 7 million square feet of commercial space on the 684-acre landfill abutting the Bayshore.
Critics claim the site is too toxic and dangerous to accommodate housing while initiative advocates suggest the development is a fair compromise under mounting pressure to build new homes at the county’s border to San Francisco.
Brisbane native Michele Salmon, who is leading the charge in opposition, claims flatly the area is too contaminated to be considered safe for residential development.
“We are talking about putting housing on toxic land,” she said. “That is a big no for me.”
Meanwhile Mayor William Clark Conway believes remediation is possible to standards beyond state safety thresholds for livability. But even if such a level of cleanup isn’t possible, he fears such an argument will not satisfy legislators dead set on building housing at the site.
“Either it’s going to happen with us approving it in the general plan and controlling the process, or the state is going to do it,” said Conway, regarding housing development. “So pick your poison.”
His argument is built on draft legislation floated last year as part of the housing law package threatening to compel development at the site. In response to the bill crafted by state Sen. Jerry Hill, D- San Mateo, Conway and his colleagues on the Brisbane City Council approved floating a scaled down development proposal to voters in the upcoming election. He noted the ballot measure is a general plan amendment which would loosen development regulations to allow housing construction, but not guarantee the entire scope of the project would be built.
An argument citing pressure from state legislators seeking to combat the housing crisis held little weight with Salmon, who suggested the spotlight trained on the Baylands was directed by the developer in an effort to catalyze construction.
“The landowner has done a very thorough job of lobbying for what they want,” said Salmon.
Universal Paragon Corporation has been pushing for years to get a project approved on the Baylands. The 2,200 units in development allowed under the ballot initiative is half of the amount sought earlier this year, following extensive deliberations by city officials.
In the wake of the passionate and occasionally contentious debate, Conway said he feels reasonably comfortable with a project proposal that can still be managed by officials after the election.
Should voters shoot down Measure JJ though, Conway said he is convinced state legislators will resurrect their proposed legislation which would strip Brisbane’s local control and make way for an even larger project.
“If we don’t open the door to something happening, the state is going to kick it down,” he said.
Salmon meanwhile criticized such an argument, noting that allowing a development which would construct about twice as many homes and jobs as the amount currently in Brisbane by nature contradicts the city’s ability to chart its own future.
“Ten million square feet of development is more than everything that already exists,” she said. “What kind of local control is that?”
Furthermore, she suggested the project as proposed would do little to ameliorate the imbalance of available homes and local jobs, due to the significant amount of commercial development proposed.
Yet despite the detailed elements of her opposition, Salmon characterized the essence of her argument as a humanitarian one.
“I don’t want to put people at risk in my front yard,” she said.
For his part, Conway acknowledged the frustrations held by those who oppose the initiative. But he balanced that perspective against a belief that passing the measure would offer residents and officials the most authority in shaping the future of Brisbane.
“I understand how people feel. I really do. And I understand what the reality is of what we have to do. And that’s how we crafted this,” he said.
And regardless of how the election turns out, both Conway and Salmon expressed a desire for the those on either sides of the issue to be able to again unify and work together as a community.
“If it goes yes, or if it goes no, we are going to have to move on in some fashion and not be at each other’s throats,” said Conway.
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