A Tale of Two Cities
Updated: Feb 26, 2018
The problem with the Brisbane Baylands development is not the City of Brisbane. The deep pocketed development corporation, UPC, has been able to cloud the narrative, in the press and with state legislators. In Brisbane, we know the facts. Which story is the tale, and which is true?
If Mountain View’s recent approval of a plan for nearly 10,000 new residential units provided an extraordinary example of progress on California’s housing crisis, a standstill at the other end of the Peninsula exemplifies the forces that keep homes from being built even at the core of the Bay Area employment boom.
In the year that the Legislature finally passed a raft of bills to boost housing, the lingering impasse over more than 4,000 proposed homes in Brisbane shows that Sacramento, as the would-be developer put it, “has a tremendous amount of work to do.”
The Brisbane City Council was expected to make a decision this year about the Baylands, more than 600 acres of former landfill and rail yards near public transit on the edge of San Francisco. But 2018 will be the 13th year that local officials consider the proposal — or effectively decline to do so. City officials even cited then-pending legislation to expedite housing as their latest reason to delay development of housing or anything else.
Although one key new state housing law is designed to diminish the local obstructionism at the heart of the shortage by easing projects that answer unmet housing needs, it’s not expected to affect the Baylands project. State guidelines require Brisbane to accommodate only a small fraction of the new housing proposed for the site, and the city’s general plan prohibits housing on the Baylands site.
Universal Paragon Corp. first proposed developing the area more than a decade ago and added housing to its plan five years later. A final environmental impact report was completed in 2015, and last year, after much deliberation, the Brisbane Planning Commission recommended keeping the site housing-free. The City Council went on to hold more than 15 special meetings on the subject, the last one in August, without reaching a conclusion.
“This is a textbook example of a case in which the state needs to step in and do something about what’s broken ... that allows communities to spend 12 years considering a proposal and put it off again and again,” said Jonathan Scharfman, Universal Paragon’s general manager.
The project raises several questions the state has yet to address, including how to assess and enforce housing needs more effectively, prevent environmental laws from being used to stop smart urban development and change incentives that favor commercial uses.
“It’s a magnification of an issue that we have statewide,” Scharfman said. “For 40, 50 years, we’ve done very well at adding jobs, but we’re lagging in producing housing. The result is a disaster.”
(BTW, the final quote from this article is the from Jonathan Scharfman, the General Manager for the developer)
The City of Brisbane submitted a response to the Chronicle’s Editorial Board on January 4, 2018. The Board published only portions of the response and over-simplified others in its “Letters to the Editor” on January 12, 2018. Below is the City Manager’s full letter.
Special to the San Francisco Chronicle
The Chronicle’s commentary criticizing the careful scrutiny that the City of Brisbane is giving to the most recent Baylands development proposal is ill informed. (Brisbane - a case study in housing crisis, December 28, 2017).
Regarding “The crux of the crisis” (Editorial, Dec. 28): The Chronicle’s editorial criticism of the scrutiny that the City of Brisbane is giving to a 2015 Baylands development proposal is mistaken.
Building housing is a complex issue for any local government, and it is significantly more complicated when the proposed housing is to be built on a long contaminated former industrial site. It gets infinitely more difficult when the owner of the land has not committed to full clean up the site, as is the case with the Baylands.
Surprisingly, the Chronicle threw its editorial weight behind the argument that Brisbane is a “case study” for why we have a housing crisis, implying that Brisbane is delaying acting on housing for political reasons. In doing so, the Chronicle skirts the very real and complex environmental and environmental justice issues that must be addressed before building housing on currently contaminated land.
We are not surprised at this gross oversimplification of the project. We have been responding to it, generally as a result of “facts” attributed to the developers, for the past year. What alarms us is the Chronicle didn’t bother to reach out to Brisbane’s City Council or staff to understand our legitimate concerns regarding the Baylands before running its editorial.
Working through serious issues with a developer is not evidence of a “lingering impasse,” as the Chronicle puts it. It is validation that the City is doing its job properly, recognizing that whatever development decision is made will irrevocably impact the health and welfare of future residents and neighboring cities.
The developer, UPC, has had approval for nearly 10 years for a housing project on Schlage Lock in San Francisco, which is adjacent to the Baylands, but is unable or unwilling to commence construction despite the high demand for housing. If the Baylands project is built, due to significant soils contamination, the State of California Department of Toxic and Substance Control (DTSC) will not allow schools, hospitals, first floor residences and daycare facilities to be placed on the property. Brisbane expects a full clean up from any developer of the Baylands.
UPC has owned another parcel of land in Brisbane for nearly 30 years that is zoned and planned for a hotel, and despite several favorable development markets, has never acted on their approvals. This pattern of seeking approval, but delaying development, is repeating itself on the Baylands, which UPC has owned since 1989.
To date, UPC has yet to fulfill any of the required steps that would make the site ready for development, such as site contamination cleanup, a sound plan for water resources or demonstrated how a project of this magnitude could be paid for, let alone their ability as a company to deliver. Instead, UPC re-envisions its proposal every few years. Housing was only added to UPC’s plans in 2010, which required the environmental review process to start all over again. This is one of the reasons the final environmental impact report (EIR) was not published on behalf of the developer until June 2015, initiating a new review by the City’s Planning Commission in 2016, and continued review and public meetings held by the City Council in 2017. Reports of years-long delays by the City are factually incorrect.
We encourage UPC to come forward and answer these basic development questions, and the City of Brisbane is willing and open to enter into a true collaborative working relationship that will address these complex and difficult issues.
We understand the desire of the Chronicle and state leaders to find a solution to California’s housing crisis. The open space of the Baylands may look like an easy fix, but it isn’t. Future residents on that site will, after all, be residents of Brisbane. Our council owes it to them and to current residents to carefully review the proposal to ensure safety on the site, the infrastructure required to support a completed development, and a financial model that protects the solvency for the City in providing services to that new part of our community.
Clay Holstine, City Manager, Brisbane