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Dispute over Brisbane Baylands development will bleed into next year

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Bay Area officials have embarked upon a lengthy process to determine the future of the 684-Brisbane Baylands site. (Courtesy Universal Paragon Corp.)

Brisbane city officials have kicked off a months-long process to determine what type of development to support at the controversial Brisbane Baylands.

At a crowded City Council meeting Thursday night where some 200 attendees weighed in on the issue, Mayor Cliff Lentz explained city leaders will hold a series of meetings until May 2017 to consider the best use for the land.

Housing activists, the California Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Association of Bay Area Governments are among those who support including more than 4,000 homes as part of the proposed office, retail and industrial development.

But community organizers and some Brisbane residents worry that adding new homes would more than double the town’s population and that toxins at the proposed development site could make it unsafe for habitation.

As of the 2010 U.S. Census, there were 4,282 residents in Brisbane.

Brisbane’s existing homes are nestled in a picturesque enclave among the hills at the northeast section of San Bruno Mountain. The 684-acre development site is isolated from the rest of the town by Bayshore Boulevard and an open space area known as Ice House Hill.

Under the Plan Bay Area initiative, MTC and ABAG have twice suggested building more than 4,000 homes on the Brisbane Baylands site, and developer Universal Paragon Corporation’s preferred alternative proposes a total of 4,434 dwellings.

MTC Planning Director Ken Kirkey did not respond to a request for comment.

Universal Paragon Corporation, which owns the site, originally proposed the development in 2005.

An alternative favored by community organizers allows no housing on the site; instead, it places a large solar panel or wind turbine farm next to the project’s office buildings and retail spaces.

Tim Colen, executive director of the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition, denounced the no-housing alternative in a recent letter to Lentz .

“It is frustrating that local municipalities throughout the region continue to approve large commercial or office complexes that create thousands of new jobs, while neglecting to add any housing to accommodate the influx of new workers for which they are designed,” Colen wrote. “These choices result in sprawl, longer commutes, environmental degradation and increasingly unaffordable housing.”

The mayor, however, lacks authority to approve a housing component for the Baylands project. The town’s general plan prohibits building homes on the site, and that restriction could only be lifted with the approval of Brisbane voters.

Speaking with the San Francisco Examiner prior to Thursday’s meeting, Lentz said he cannot take a public position on an alternative on which he might be expected to vote, but he noted that he helped craft the town’s sustainability framework, which would guide future decisions about the project.

“The [City] Council will use the sustainability framework as a tool to guide us in the planning process,” Lentz said.

Ray Miller, a planning commissioner and former Brisbane mayor, rejected the claim that Brisbane residents oppose housing at the site because they don’t want the town’s demographics and voter population to dramatically change.

The real concern, Miller said, is environmental safety.

“What none of the single-minded housing advocates have even mentioned is that most residents don’t believe it’s safe to have people living there,” Miller said.

Those safety concerns stem from the fact that the site includes a former railyard, as well as landfill covering a former municipal dump. Opponents of the housing alternative say toxic gases from decades of decaying household and industrial waste could pose a hazard for families living in the development.

Universal Paragon Corporation spokesperson Jonathan Scharfman noted the project has undergone more than 10 years of environmental review, and cannot move forward without meeting stringent state remediation standards.

And because the proposed housing would be adjacent to Caltrain’s Bayshore Station, Scharfman said the project could reduce, rather than increase, individual car trips.

“Brisbane’s resistance to having a housing development next to transit represents a fundamental disconnect between state and regional priorities and local ones,” Scharfman said.

Colen further emphasized the need for more homes in the Bay Area, which has seen a skyrocketing cost of living amid a regional housing crisis in recent years.

“To build two million square feet of commercial office space with zero housing — that’s almost a hostile act to the surrounding communities,” Colen said.

But Miller said building a solar panel farm instead of housing would yield a considerable public benefit in the form of greenhouse gas reductions.

Most Brisbane residents at Thursday’s meeting spoke against the current addition of housing. Anthony Verreos told the Examiner he would support housing on the site in the form of a Dubai-style tower, but not in the “sprawling” form currently proposed.

“Brisbane is a super great place, and we don’t want to wreck it,” Verreos said.

Not all Brisbane residents oppose housing at the Baylands. Michael Barnes noted San Francisco’s Mission Bay neighborhood is also comprised of a former railyard and dump, yet appears to be free of toxic hazards.

“Many of my San Francisco colleagues [who live in Mission Bay] have sold their cars,” Barnes said, claiming the Baylands’ proximity to Caltrain and Muni could enable future residents to similarly live without cars.

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