Consider the plight of Brisbane, San Francisco’s small neighbor just across the San Mateo County line. It’s unlikely many city residents have ever visited this little suburb. Its tiny downtown and population of 4,400 are scarcely visible, even when driving along adjacent Highway 101. Yet, Brisbane has become the topic of an increasingly high stakes regional land use debate, something its residents and town council probably wish they could avoid.
The source of their discomfort is having to determine a politically and environmentally defensible use of 680 acres of vacant former industrial land adjacent to a key transit corridor. It appears that what makes sense to satisfy regional challenges is difficult to sell to the local residents. A series of public hearings held by the city council have only hardened positions, even as awareness of the issues attracts increasing attention around the Bay Area. These monthly meetings have begun to attract concerned citizens, environmental groups and affordable housing advocates from outside Brisbane. Recently, a couple dozen San Mateo County trade union members showed up to voice their opinions.
The crux of the debate is this: Which land use proposal should the Brisbane City Council bless — the “local solution” that the city council and most Brisbane residents prefer, or the “regional solution” proposed by a developer and supported by a growing Bay Area constituency? How much consideration should be given to local preferences on an important land use question that has profound regional implications?
The 680-acre parcel, called Brisbane Baylands, is controlled by Universal Paragon Corporation, a large residential developer. UPC’s plan is to convert the vacant land into a mixed-use development that includes more than 4,000 new homes, retail and office, with community-serving and open space. Crucially, it includes a large investment in improving the adjacent Caltrain station that would be made into a regional transit node that would serve the new residents. Putting an undeveloped parcel of this size and location back into productive use is an extremely rare opportunity and must not be squandered. The San Francisco Housing Action Coalition, a 17-year-old advocacy nonprofit I represent, strongly supports the Brisbane Baylands proposal.
The city’s preferred alternative is to allow two million square feet commercial and office development with zero housing and no investment in transit. Not surprisingly, their alternative would cause about double the amount of auto traffic compared to UPC’s. Much worse, the Brisbane-preferred alternative would pass the responsibility for housing the thousands of new workers to other cities. In an unguarded moment, Brisbane’s former mayor Cliff Lentz in fact volunteered San Francisco to provide the needed housing. Housing activists from San Francisco, which already has the scarcest and most expensive housing the United States, were not amused.
From a regional land use perspective, the Brisbane-preferred version doesn’t make a particle of sense. It’s exactly the opposite of what the Bay Area desperately needs, which is a dramatic increase in housing production close to jobs and transit, especially for the middle-class and workforce. It strangely ignores its impact on our super-congested roadways in favor of car-centered urban planning concepts that were popular in the 1950s and ’60s, and it does not invest in transit.
The council’s attempts to sell their antiquated plan explains why increasing numbers of outsiders are showing up at their meetings to oppose it. And yet, the council is responding to the strong preferences of many of its citizens. What responsibility does the Brisbane council have to help address the Bay Area’s crushing housing and transit challenges when a prime parcel of land becomes available?
In fairness to the council, smart-growth and housing activists are demanding approval of a project that would triple the town’s population over its 20-year build-out. There’s no question that, while the proposed 4,000 new homes and other features would not all be built at the same time, they would eventually significantly change the town’s character. Many of the local residents, mostly homeowners themselves, are aghast that their city elected leaders could be so irresponsible as to contemplate something so harmful to their strongly held vision of a desirable community.
The Brisbane council is sitting on the hot seat, to put it mildly, and is trying to buy time before having to take an excruciating vote. It’s hard to imagine that the council members are unaware of the Bay Area’s environmental challenges and rapidly worsening housing crisis. It’s also unlikely that their children could afford to buy a home locally.
So, should they vote to support UPC’s Brisbane Baylands project, which is by far the most logical land use choice, but at the risk of losing their next election? Or should they save their jobs and stand with their outraged citizens in support of a silly proposal that might later be blocked by state legislators who are required to take a larger view of these issues?
While it’s easy to argue about the best land use outcome, we should perhaps be sympathetic to the difficult quandary facing the Brisbane City Council.
Tim Colen is the senior advisor to the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition, an 18-year-old nonprofit that advocates for housing affordability.