A rendering of the Brisbane Baylands development.

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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(8) comments


Austin Walsh - Your article is a disservice because:

a) It doesn't include any direct comment from SAC legislators who either support of oppose the proposed land grab legislation that succeeded in cowering the whole Brisbane City Council into capitulation. When Senator Jerry Hill wrote his proposed bill he claims he was unaware of at least a couple of "intriguing" options I brought to his attention. That's very hard to accept, but maybe our State is being run by people who are hammers who only see nails. Living in the heart of the tech world, we would think that creative solutions would be fully explored rather than dismissed as they have been. Why don’t you explore that?

b) When this matter got hot in 2016-2017, the anti local legislation had not yet passed. Brisbane had not reached out for allies, and had none. Since then, the political landscape has changed. The whole State is now aware of that SAC has no respect for local controls, and they are beginning to push back. Brisbane is no longer the lone target. We who say NO do not to ignore the State's threats, nor under estimate their will to carry them out. We do think they may listen to reason, when we offer them what they want = more housing, an improvement in the jobs to housing imbalance that exists (instead of a worsening of it), and just because it is not on this particular site, should not matter.

 c) Brisbane Measure J J is essentially the developers plan. It opens the door as Mayor Conway said to housing on the badly polluted earthquake unstable bay fill of the Brisbane Baylands old rail yards. By insisting on more commercial to generate revenues for the City, this drives the jobs to housing imbalance farther out of balance which is exactly what Senator Jerry Hill has said SAC does not want to see happen. So who's lying?

 d) Any who are suggesting that Brisbane residents are "at each others throats" is just exaggerating in the extreme. We are getting along just fine, though we have had some disagreements about whether the City understands the U.S. Constitution's protections of free speech on political issues in the public square.

e) You wrote that this question has been passionately, and occasionally contentiously debated. I wish it had been. Fact is we have had NO public debates going back to last year's election, and NO Town Hall meetings. We have been restricted to brief public comments at Planning or City Council meetings, writing to City Council our opinions, and sharing in discussions on social media - primarily FB where the vast majority of people do not engage.

The biggest problem so far is this total lack of transparency in the process to evaluate options for the long term future growth of Brisbane. And the mischaracterization by Brisbane City Council that this is an either or dead end. You cut your own throat, or we'll cut it for you. We do not accept that narrative. We do not accept stalling tactics either - we need changes, but we need to make them wise.

f) Brisbane has already grown far fastest and by a bigger percentage than most S.F. Bay Area cities. Our last major expansion of housing in @ 1996 was the North East Ridge of San Bruno Mountain. That added three new neighborhoods with a combined total of @ 500 homes. It was not welcome then by most, but it turned out OK, largely because of location, road access, and it's relatively smaller size. The idea of 4,400 homes added to a town of 1,850 homes was not realistic. Any who are familiar with basic negotiations who suggest the developer chose that number as a multiple of what they may have actually hoped to have it reduced from too would probably agree they never expected to get more than 500 or so homes approved.  Landing on 50% may be seen to some as    "a fair compromise," but to many of us, even if there were no other way, that number is outrageously too big by 400%.


g) Last - in a small town there is valid concern that adding large numbers of new voters may lead to an erosion of support for controlled growth long term. If that happens, the town is eventually swallowed up like all the others before it have been. A simple fix for that is to make a cooperative deal with our other San Mateo Co. neighbor = Daly City, and let them have enough land to build the homes which would no longer be in Brisbane.  Another option is swapping with the State land in Daly City, so a new version of the Cow Palace would be built in Brisbane, and the homes desired could then be built on the current State owned Cow Palace property in Daly City.

It's not rocket science, and both of these options are superior to the developer's stagnant decidedly not visionary plans for transformation.

We are opposing Brisbane's JJ because it fails terribly to do what it promises. Measure JJ is a Trojan Horse delivering Pandora's Box-x-x to Brisbane. We can do far better. And if JJ crashes and burns on NOV 6, we will stand ready to take up the cause of putting together those better choices.

We think the State will always prefer better to less good.

And  oh by the way - unless CAL High Speed Rail actually dies, we understand they will want the old train yards for a new maintenance facility. Would the State prefer to pay the developer 2X,3X,4X more for that land due to the passage of JJ?  Approving housing matters.

(Edited by staff.)

Christopher Conway

I hope the good voters of Brisbane can completely shut off any pressure they are getting from politicians and special interests groups that are outside your city. It is for you to decide and you alone, not anyone else in the region, state or country. You owe no one an explanation on how you vote but if I may, can I give you some advice. If you vote yes on this you will have unleashed the worst of what California has to offer onto your little hamlet. Keep local control. A no vote doesn’t mean things can’t someday be built. It just means that you retain the ability to say yes or no and retain the power on what does or doesn’t happen in your city. Good luck, we will be watching your vote very closely.


Christopher Conway - Thank you! Clarke says the State will kick our door down if we don't open it and invite them in. We say NO JJ.. Let's talk better ideas, and different places. And let's SAVE Brisbane!


This issue affects the entire Bay Area, not just the few thousand people who live in Brisbane. Office buildings without housing means that thousands of employees who work in those building will be clogging the already congested freeways to travel long distances to work. If Brisbane won't approve at least a couple of thousand units of housing then the state should intervene and require it.


Hikertom - The whole S.F. Bay Area worked itself into this housing crisis by approving more and more commercial and retail construction. Why? Many point to Prop 13, unfair taxation that lets business off the hook, and the way residential property taxes are distributed by the state or county. In San Francisco it doesn't matter because it is all in one City & County. San Francisco is responsible for the tremendous growth of most of the S.F. Bay Area due to its self imposed height and density restrictions covering most of the City. They still refuse to change that! Yet everyone wants to force small towns to become a part of their urban amoeba of sprawl. That's not American! And we don't elect regional governments do we?

You want housing - so do most people. Then first figure out the best places to put it.
That is NOT on toxic land which is also bay fill. Then plan for long term sustainability. That is NOT on the Brisbane Baylands. Then maybe get creative about creating smaller units both for rent and to own. Developers only cry about the cost to build, while building luxury condos to maximize profits. Their excuses are dishonest.

Christopher Conway

Comrade- your ultimatum sounds like tactics straight out those used by both Russia and China. Call in state officials to make them do what you want. Привет, товарищ


"...he fears such an argument will not satisfy legislators dead set on building housing at the site." Fear of Sacramento legislators is not a reasonable reason to proceed with building on former toxic landfill. When we have come to fear retribution of our elected officials' top-down planning, something has gone seriously astray.


KDM - Indeed something had gone seriously wrong.

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