Why housing in Brisbane matters to the region

A lot of attention has been focused recently on sleepy little Brisbane, San Francisco’s small neighbor (pop. 4,400) just to the south. If you haven’t been there before, it’s easy to miss because driving past it on Highway 101, most folks are probably looking at the beautiful views of the Bay instead. However, big plans are afoot there whose outcome could have impacts felt far outside of Brisbane for many years.

On Thursday night, the Brisbane City Council will vote on whether to approve a project on a 684-acre parcel of land called Brisbane Baylands that includes two million square feet of commercial and office space without a single unit of housing. This startling, regressive land use choice is made worse because there is a competing mixed-use development proposal before them that includes about 4,400 homes as well as retail, offices, parks and community space. Perhaps most notably, the mixed-use proposal includes a significant private investment that would make the little-used, adjacent Caltrain Baylands train station into a regional multimodal transit node.

By now, it’s not much surprise to anyone that, as the Bay Area’s economy grows and population increases, its awful housing affordability and traffic congestion continue to deteriorate. What is a surprise is that there are still Bay Area communities whose planning choices make these problems worse. In this case, Brisbane is ready to approve a project that creates space for a large number of new jobs, but ignores the issue of where its workers are supposed to live or how far they’ll need to drive to get to there. This is how land use planning was done in the 1970s, when gas was cheap and every problem had a solution that included automobiles. It’s a strikingly tone-deaf response to the chief civic challenges of our time: global climate change and income inequality.

When asked last week about where the housing necessary for the workers for Brisbane’s new project should be located, incredibly, their mayor volunteered San Francisco. Given the state of near-warfare in San Francisco’s limited-supply housing market, this seems almost like a hostile action — Brisbane saying, “We’ll take what we want, the new jobs. Whether this affects housing and traffic is not our problem.”

The Bay Area is experiencing a severe housing affordability and displacement crisis, because not enough communities have recognized how planning for the past instead of the future is harming us. Their choices are responsible for sprawl, longer commutes, environmental degradation and increasingly unaffordable housing.

The Brisbane City Council would do well to take another look at the alternative mixed-use proposal as something that would not only benefit the Bay Area’s future, but as an enormous opportunity to improve their own. Successful cities around the country are learning how important it is to increase housing density close to jobs and invest in transit. Finally, solving how to build the best development at the Brisbane Baylands potently illustrates the glaring need for effective regional coordination. There are currently about 101 individual jurisdictions around the Bay Area each separately working on housing, transportation and jobs policy. Under this approach, it should not be surprising that Brisbane could blithely make a land use choice of this importance that is so narrowly self-centered.

The San Francisco Housing Action Coalition has been leading an effort to encourage folks to contact the Brisbane City Council and ask them to consider options that would benefit the region as a whole. We’ll be at Brisbane City Hall on Thursday night to support housing. I hope you join us.

Tim Colen is executive director of the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition.

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