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Is Sustainability a Dodge for Housing in the Bay Area?

Leaders in Brisbane, California, want to prioritize sustainability—and exclude homes—in a massive new development just outside San Francisco.

Wallace Roberts & Todd

The Bayshore Station might be the closest point to the middle of nowhere that’s still accessible by Caltrain. Located in sleepy Brisbane, California, just south of San Francisco’s Visitacion Valley, the stop doesn’t offer much more than access to a vast abandoned Southern Pacific rail yard. That is about to change.

On Thursday, the Brisbane City Council will review a plan to turn the rail yard upside down. Brisbane Baylands, a massive mixed-use project proposed by Universal Paragon Corporation, the developer that has owned the 684-acre parcel since 1989, would include more than 4,400 housing units. For a metropolitan area parched for housing, the Baylands development promises a blooming desert oasis.

That might be a problem, though, for Brisbane—a city with fewer residents (population 4,282) than the number of new homes, condos, and apartments that Universal Paragon intends to build. According to The San Francisco Chronicle, the city is pushing two alternative concepts, one of which would devote 8.3 million square feet entirely to commercial space. Neither alternative would allow for any housing.

“We’ll provide the commercial,” Clifford Lentz, mayor of Brisbane, told the Chronicle. “San Francisco will provide the housing.”

Rendering of the proposed Brisbane Baylands development. (Universal Paragon)

It’s as crisp a comment on the Bay Area housing crisis as you’ll find anywhere. Residents of municipalities across the region, dreading traffic and change, reject sorely needed housing on the logic that housing would work better somewhere else. Brisbane has given the old standard a new refrain, however. The community is pushing for exceedingly high standards for sustainability—standards that do not leave any room for housing.

Mayor Lentz, who spoke briefly with CityLab, says that his quote in the Chronicle is inaccurate; he declined to elaborate on the article or his position on the Brisbane Baylands development. Some have said that San Francisco will provide the housing and some have said that Brisbane will provide the commercial, he says.

“My job as a council member is to listen to my community, to evaluate the project that I see before me,” Mayor Lentz says. “It would be irresponsible for me to already have my mind made up prior to the first hearing.”

In lieu of comment, he points to the Baylands Sustainability Framework, a set of guidelines addressing construction methodologies and building performance drafted by the city in October 2015. At the document’s core is a clever conceit: If the city of Brisbane opposes housing for the Baylands development, it does so in the name of sustainability.

Although Mayor Lentz disputes the way that he was characterized by the Chronicle, the framework document references the same argument, that “there will be ample housing in the new developments planned across the border in San Francisco for those working in the Baylands who wish to live nearby.” Which leaves Brisbane free to focus on sustainable commercial building methodologies.

Here’s a sampling of language from the document (emphasis added):

We will create an easy pedestrian and bicycle lifestyle, where the location of jobs, restaurants, retail, services and recreation are in close proximity to each other. If housing is allowed, it will be incorporated into this web of mutual efficiency.

[ . . . ]

If housing is allowed for inclusion in the project, include at least one grocery store that carries organic and local food in the project, and encourage organic local food in all food procurement locations in project.

[ . . . ]

If housing is allowed, it may be appropriate to emphasize alternative forms of housing for the Baylands that address the needs of seniors, students, artists, and those wanting to live in “community-based” live-work environments.

That caveat—“housing (if permitted),” “if housing is allowed”—appears no less than a dozen times in the Baylands Sustainability Framework. In large part, this language simply reflects the reality of the site: The city’s general plan for the Baylands does not currently permit residential zoning.

But this language fails to adequately convey the fact that building homes and transportation adjacent to employment centers is essential to achieving sustainability. In that sense, Brisbane has missed the forest for the trees. Land use, not building materials, drives sustainability. The city will only meet that metric if housing is allowed.

The document itself even acknowledges the centrality of housing and planning to sustainability. Citing the California state law that sets regional targets for reducing carbon emissions (S.B. 375), the Baylands framework reads:

There is a strong tension between the lack of housing, let alone affordable housing, and sustainable communities, which are best served by a strong relationship between housing, jobs and transportation. The question of whether housing will be allowed as part of the Baylands development has important impacts on sustainability and the approach to creating an economic plan.

Yet the Brisbane community failed to take the logical leap, requiring housing in the Brisbane Baylands development.  

Jonathan Scharfman, the director of development for Universal Paragon, describes the framework as “solid” in some respects but says that it wholly ignores the negative externalities associated with “absolutely crushing” commutes in the Bay Area. Scharfman says that Brisbane currently imports some 12,000 workers per day. (That number is not out of line in San Mateo County, which has created more than 50,000 new jobs since 2011 but only 3,000 new housing units.) Without adding housing, building out 8 million square feet of commercial space in Brisbane will dramatically exacerbate the problem for the city’s workforce.

“It’s a manufactured justification for a distaste among voters in small towns to claim that having no housing next to a development that’s going to create thousands and thousands of new jobs is sustainable,” Scharfman says. “It’s just anathema.”

The location of the Brisbane Baylands development relative to San Francisco. (Universal Paragon)

Further, Scharfman says, the framework overstates the environmental concerns associated with the remediation of this brownfield site. Indeed, per the framework, the site’s toxicity is the principal objection held by Brisbane residents to allowing housing. Many feel that the Baylands would not be a safe place to live due to toxins from the parcel’s history as a former rail yard and, east of the Caltrain tracks, as a former landfill.

The standards for environmental remediation are not up for question, however; the regulations are set by the state. And any proposed housing would be located west of the train tracks, calling for little more than soil mitigation to remove heavy-metal residues from pesticides and herbicides. It’s a standard that the developers can meet, Scharfman says.

“On the west side, the conditions are very similar to the area in San Francisco known as Mission Bay, which has a new University of San Francisco campus, a children’s hospital, and over 6,000 housing units,” he says. “You’ve got thousands of people living in Mission Bay, 5 miles from here, in similar conditions.”

More to the point, Brisbane already enjoys one development on a former landfill site: Sierra Point, which is home to a DoubleTree Hotel, the Brisbane Marina, and a pair of office towers known locally as the Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader buildings. The part of the Baylands development that would occupy former landfill area would comprise similar uses, primarily an R&D campus.

With all the housing that the Brisbane Baylands development could bring to the Bay Area, it’s no wonder that Universal Paragon’s proposal has drawn the endorsements of the Housing Leadership Council of San Mateo County, San Francisco Housing Action Coalition, SPUR, and other organizations. Rob Poole, development and communications manager for the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition, says that the housing proposed for Brisbane Baylands is transit oriented—and it would be only half as dense as that of Mission Bay.

“About 95 percent of the development is going to be within a half mile of that Caltrain station, which is to the northern part of the site. Then it gets less dense the further south you move,” Poole says. The housing in Brisbane Baylands would not be out of step with other nearby communities. “It’s comparable to a lot of the sites that are in San Francisco County right around it,” he says, naming the Shipyard, Executive Park, Candlestick Point, and Visitacion Valley.

It may be the case that Brisbane residents don’t want their community to be the next Visitacion Valley, which has already been hailed as the next SoMa. But it’s important to note that Bayshore Boulevard, a major thoroughfare, divides Brisbane’s current population center from the area where new housing would be built in the Baylands. The Bayshore Caltrain station is much closer to Visitacion Valley than it is to Brisbane proper, and the housing would be, too.

More importantly, though, Brisbane’s objections don’t hold up to scrutiny. The city’s own draft environmental impact report on Brisbane Baylands finds that the developer-sponsored plan (DSP) would have a less detrimental effect on the environment than the community-proposed plan (CPP) or the other alternative scenario favored by the city (CPP-V). That much is clear despite the EIR jargon:

Because the DSP scenario proposes a mix of housing and employment-generating uses within the Project Site, per capita vehicle miles traveled resulting from the mix of onsite housing and employment would be less than for the CPP and CPP-V scenarios, leading to significant but mitigable [greenhouse gas] impacts for the DSP scenario (compared to significant unavoidable GHG impacts for the CPP and CPP-V scenarios).

According to the draft EIR, the community’s no-housing plan would produce up to 25 percent more carbon emissions than the developer’s plan. The no-housing option would lead to between 72 and 81 percent more vehicle trips per capita—the opposite of a sustainable community.

Brisbane’s emphasis on sustainability in building standards and performance is laudable. It is necessary for communities like Brisbane to take action, both to meet their commitments under state law and to exceed them. But Brisbane’s contribution to global climate change, whatever decisions it makes, will be relatively small. Its effect on the Bay Area housing crisis will be much, much larger, whether the community decides to exacerbate or alleviate the problem. And it turns out that the decision that Brisbane makes on housing is the one that will drive its impact on the environment—for or against.

“Brisbane is a small town that is fiercely proud of its heritage and its small-town character,” Scharfman says. “So they have some very difficult decisions to make in terms of what, and how, they want their future to be like.”

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps
    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. More

    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab, where he writes about housing, art and design. Previously, he was a senior editor at Architect magazine.