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Brisbane Pushes Huge Development Without Housing

The residents of sleepy little Brisbane are extremely excited about developing Baylands, a 684-acre site on the edge of town. In fact, they’ve been getting a little carried away.

When he was running for Brisbane City Council in 2009, Clifford Lentz, who is now mayor, said, “The Baylands project has the potential to change the world. This may sound like an exaggerated statement, but I believe it is true.”

The owner of much of the property is developer Universal Paragon Corp., which wants to build 4,434 homes, condos and apartments in addition to 6.9 million square feet of commercial space.

The city, however, doesn’t like that mixed-use proposal. It’s pushing two alternatives, and neither has housing. One would let developers create a huge commercial and industrial complex with 8.3 million square feet of commercial space and the other would allow for a sustainable commercial community with a wind farm.

But, the city’s alternatives seem incomprehensible in a Bay Area climate where everyone agrees creating housing is a priority. Yet the tiny town — population 4,282 according to the 2010 census — thinks it can erect a large business center and let others worry about where everyone would live.

“We’ll provide the commercial,” Lentz said this week. “San Francisco will provide the housing.”

The groans you heard were from housing advocates, who continue to say the Bay Area is way behind in the creation of housing.

A group of them intends to go to next Thursday’s meeting of the Brisbane City Council to push elected leaders to face the reality of the lack of homes, particularly for low- and very-low-income residents.

And this isn’t the Coalition to Build Wildly Expensive Condos masquerading as concerned citizens. Matt Vander Sluis is a program director for the bicycle-friendly, open-space-advocating Greenbelt Alliance.

“We want an option that helps solve our transportation nightmare and housing affordability crisis,” Vander Sluis said. “The most sustainable decision the City Council could make is to allow homes next to transit.”

It will be an uphill struggle in Brisbane.

A recent city-commissioned survey found that 71 percent of the Brisbane residents polled “feel that Brisbane would be better off if portions of the Baylands were developed.”

But when the survey asked residents what should be done with Baylands, “housing” scored just 16 percent.

“Local land use policy is just that — local,” Lentz said. “People are entitled to come to the meeting and say what they want. But it is going to be up to Brisbane to decide if housing should go up.”

Tim Colen, executive director of the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition, who is pushing for a plan that has plenty of housing, admits Universal Paragon’s proposal would have a huge impact on the city. “In fairness,” he said, “the proposal we like would double the size of the town.”

That’s not going to be popular with the residents, who cherish their Main Street USA ambience.

“That’s why people move here,” Lentz said. “They want something that is more small town, friendly and safe, where you know your neighbors.”

But advocates for housing, like Vander Sluis, say that’s exactly why homes, condos and apartments need to be part of any development. Vander Sluis says statistics from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission show that combining housing with transit options gets cars off the road and discourages gridlock.

“People in the Bay Area who have access to transit within half a mile of where they live are five times more likely to use transit,” he said.

Actually, transit is one area of agreement. All sides would like to upgrade the lonely Caltrain station, which is hardly used by commuters. The plan is to bring in SamTrans buses and build a connecting extension to the Muni T-line.

But the debate about housing is going to define the discussion.

Lentz says that “we’re already feeling the pressure” to create living spaces. And there’s likely to be a concentrated push from state politicians and housing advocacy groups.

But for now, Lentz says, Brisbane is thrilled to have the opportunity.

“Any city in the world would love to have this project,” he said.

Let’s see how he feels in a year.

C.W. Nevius is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. His columns appear Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. 

This article was originally published by the San Francisco Chronicle

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