Housing Debate Looms Over Brisbane Local Elections
The city of Brisbane, estimated population of 4,700 in 2016, has faced major growth and housing challenges because of its proximity to job centers in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. (Johnny Miller/African Drone)
Editors note: This audio has been updated to clarify that a high speed rail maintenance facility is being considered in Brisbane, not a rail stop. We regret this error.
Brisbane voters on Tuesday elected three City Council members at a time when a debate has taken center stage among residents over a proposed development to add thousands of housing units that could help make a dent in the Bay Area's housing crunch and transform the city.
The 684-acre Baylands housing project would add a high school, pharmacy, park space and about 4,400 units to the city’s northeast waterfront, effectively tripling Brisbane’s estimated population of 4,700 people.
“It would totally change the place,” said longtime Brisbane resident Ray Miller.
Miller was elected to the Brisbane City Council in 1984 and later served as mayor. He and his wife, Anja Miller, who also served on the council in 1973 and is a former mayor of Brisbane, have lived in the same yellow home on the hill in Brisbane for about 50 years.
“This was meant to be our starter house,” said Anja Miller. “My ambition was to move down the Peninsula farther to have a bigger yard, but we got involved in the community and that became more important.”
Since then, the Millers have been fighting to maintain the Brisbane they know -- the city that twinkles on the mountain during the holidays with decorative stars on houses. The city that helped preserve San Bruno Mountain and protect the Mission Blue butterfly. The city that tries to hold on to what it means to have neighbors.
“We're in between all those cities that have been developing like crazy,” said Ray Miller. “And we've been trying to take our time.”
The developer, Universal Paragon Corp., submitted its plan to build on the Brisbane Baylands area in 2006. Back then, no housing was proposed, but the developer updated its proposal in 2011, adding approximately 4,400 units of housing. UPC would be subjected to Brisbane’s 15 percent affordable housing inclusionary ordinance.
The development site sits on 228 acres of former Southern Pacific freight rail yard and what used to be a landfill for San Francisco’s waste. Recology currently operates on a piece of the land, and construction companies dump soil from development sites elsewhere in the Bay Area on a southern portion of the property.
Scharfman said the Baylands project would connect much-needed housing along public transit lines to the tech job center sites in the Peninsula and San Francisco.
“There's a lot of the workforce that is being displaced by the higher-income new employees, particularly of tech and biotech industries, that can afford the higher rents but are moving into the older housing stock in some of our neighborhoods and displacing the workforce,” said Scharfman.
One argument Brisbane residents make against the development is that they don't believe the site is safe enough to live on. They cite the potential health and environmental impacts of building housing on top of a former industrial and landfill site.
"Contaminants known to be present in this area include volatile organic compounds (VOCs), metals, Bunker C fuel oil (used for locomotives), and total petroleum hydrocarbon (TPH), a term used for any mixture of hydrocarbons found in crude oil," according to the draft environmental impact report.
Residents would like to see the land remediated to the highest standards, which would be for habitation under the state’s toxic cleanup guidelines, and used as a renewable energy farm.
City Manager Clayton Holstine said Brisbane must consider other city revenue contracts with companies that currently operate on the site, such as Recology.
“The council can’t sit here and become a single-issue advocate for anything,” he said. “They have to look at a broad spectrum of potential impacts.”
State officials and mayors from other cities have pressured Brisbane to approve the 4,440-unit housing development proposal, which became a hot topic among Brisbane candidates running for City Council this year.
All six candidates expressed animosity about the outside pressure on the city to approve the project, and many have said that maybe the best way to resolve this issue is to allow Brisbane voters to decide in a future election. Some warned that while San Francisco politicians may not have jurisdiction in this project, state politicians could draft legislation that would force the city to do what it doesn't want to.
"Now will other cities wake up to that?" said Ray Miller. "They might just say, 'Well, it's happening in Brisbane. It doesn't bother us' ... when you're really in the crosshairs eventually."
This story has been updated with new election information.