Since 1989 a foreign-controlled corporation has owned the 680-acre landfill known as the Brisbane Baylands. Because of the landfill history, most of it is contaminated. It qualified for Superfund status in the 1980s. However, despite having the legal responsibility to remediate the toxic contamination, the landowner, Universal Paragon Corporation, has done very little. Consequently, the residents of Brisbane are skeptical of how safe the planned development will be for those people who will work and live there. There is a special concern for children because they are the most vulnerable to toxic environments.
Based on this safety concern, the City's 1994 General Plan prohibits housing in the Baylands. However, in other areas of Brisbane the community has been open to housing development, especially the northeast ridge of San Bruno Mountain. In fact, over the last 20 years, as a percentage of its housing stock, housing growth in the City of Brisbane has been one of the highest, if not the highest, in San Mateo County.
Despite this responsible track record, the media, especially the San Francisco Chronicle, has been unfairly attacking Brisbane for being a prime example of how cities are responsible for the housing crisis. How did this extraordinary misrepresentation happen?
The answer is developer/landowner power and money. After the Planning Commission recommended to the City Council that it reject the developer's massive development proposal, the developer started a political campaign against Brisbane. Its first public success was getting a column on the front page of the Chronicle that falsely claimed that Brisbane was about to approve a huge amount of commercial development (8 million square feet) adjacent to a Caltrain station without any housing. Since the City Council had not even started its deliberations on the developer's plan, from where did the columnist get his false information? Evidently, based on information provided by the developer, the columnist took one of the many scenarios and alternatives that were studied in the environmental impact report (EIR) and prematurely transformed it into "Brisbane's plan." He was assisted in this sleight-of-hand by an unfortunate semantic mistake made by Brisbane's Planning Director at the time (2009). While establishing the study options for the EIR, he called the large commercial scenario with no housing "Community Proposed." In his mind it was just an alternative to the developer's plan for purposes of environmental analysis. There was no community process for determining the appropriate amount of commercial development. The no housing came from the 1994 General Plan. This EIR scenario was not a plan. It was just an imagined option for the purpose of studying comparative environmental impacts.
However, the columnist falsely claimed that the EIR scenario was Brisbane's plan for the Baylands. The Chronicle editorial board swallowed their columnist's false narrative and decided to make little Brisbane its favorite scapegoat in its editorials and articles about the Bay Area's housing crisis. City representatives have brought these discrepancies to the Chronicle's attention, but not only do the Chronicle's editors refuse to acknowledge their mistake, they also will not let any written rebuttal appear in their newspaper. Forget journalistic integrity.
Elected officials in both San Francisco and Sacramento accepted the Chronicle's false narrative on Brisbane. It gave them a highly convenient vehicle for demonstrating that they are doing something, anything, to address the housing crisis. The fact that Brisbane was not responsible for the current crisis in affordable housing, that Brisbane had fulfilled its regional housing obligations, or that Brisbane had very good reasons for proceeding cautiously on Baylands development, especially the unremediated, unregulated contaminated landfill -- all were irrelevant to the political obsession with making Brisbane the scapegoat. Some San Francisco Supervisors even wanted to deannex the Baylands from Brisbane and give it to San Francisco. Legislators in Sacramento prepared a bill to impose the entire developer's plan on Brisbane, complete with twice the number of housing units than currently exist in Brisbane, without Brisbane having any say on protective conditions. The developer had succeeded in getting misinformed and simplistic-thinking legislators to put its financial interests over any democratic local role in responsible development planning.
The citizens of Brisbane are fighting back against the powerful interests aligned against them. Obtaining responsible development on the Baylands requires the understanding of a very complex set of conditions. An ignorant political imposition is not responsible development.
Prepared by Ray Miller
February 26, 2018