By Sarah Sieloff, Executive Director, Center for Creative Land Recycling
Just past the San Francisco county line sits a rare sight indeed: 684 acres of undeveloped land, hunkered between the Bay and the town of Brisbane, population 4,400 (U.S. Census). The Brisbane Baylands project encompasses a former railyard and capped landfill. It’s a complex site, and a correspondingly ambitious and sophisticated land recycling project that is currently in deliberations. The Brisbane Baylands plan represents a commitment to environmental remediation and restoration that needs to be the new normal for development in the Bay Area and around the country as we move toward a low carbon future. The Baylands is an excellent example of efforts to repopulate existing places, and by getting involved, you can be part of helping shape this project and the future of smart growth in our region: track project deliberations here and sign up for project updates here.
Figure 1: The Brisbane Baylands site as it currently appears (source: City of Brisbane, CA).
Here at the Center for Creative Land Recycling (CCLR), we’re in the business of transformation, and previously utilized land is opportunity knocking. We’ve helped the Brisbane Baylands project and developer Universal Paragon Corporation (UPC) identify potential funding sources, and have facilitated the redevelopment and productive reuse of hundreds of properties like the Baylands through guided assistance to municipalities and community groups.
From my vantage point, UPC’s approach to the Baylands exemplifies industry-wide best practices in land recycling. Its commitment to extensive public outreach is particularly laudable: the Brisbane Baylands project boasts a homey project information center in downtown Brisbane and a full time staffer dedicated to community engagement. UPC is publishing a blog to keep stakeholders up to date on approvals and share information about the impacts of smart growth.
Additionally, UPC is offering tours of the Baylands, giving Brisbane residents the opportunity to understand the site, its challenges, and the vision for reuse, firsthand. They’re also putting together tours of other smart growth communities, such as downtown Redwood City (sign up here for the April 16th tour – it’s free), to help stakeholders understand how other cities have approached infill development and revitalization. All told, UPC has energetically committed itself to collecting as much feedback from as many community members as possible. I jumped at the chance to tour the Baylands, and here’s what I learned.
• I love a good origin story. The Baylands’ history goes back to the 1880s, when a rail line was developed along what was then the western edge of San Francisco Bay. The area became a dumping ground for rubble courtesy of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Later, a municipal landfill operated on the site from 1932-1967, at which point the landfill was closed and capped with 20-30 feet of soil. Railroad activity in the area ended in the 1960s, and the site sat mostly vacant until 1989, when it was purchased by UPC.
• UPC will clean the Baylands in accordance with strict federal, state and local standards. Portions of the land intended for housing will be remediated to the strictest levels, i.e. those considered safe for residential use. Environmental remediation is a well-regulated process that is frequently used on sites large and small throughout the Bay Area and beyond. Although it is possible to build housing and other facilities atop remediated landfills, Brisbane Baylands’ plan does not call for any housing to be built on the former landfill portion of the site. Remediation is estimated at $200 million, a sum that will be underwritten by new development on the site.
Figure 2: Proposed plan for Brisbane Baylands (source: UPC). Red and pink signify restaurants, retail, and entertainment, yellow and orange signify housing, purple identifies office space, and green and blue represent open space.
- • The Baylands plan will be built out over 25 years. The project envisions delivering 4,400 units of housing in a region that desperately needs it; over 300 acres of restored wetlands and open space on formerly contaminated land; miles of hiking and biking paths; easy access to CalTrain, BART, Muni and SamTrans (which means residents can leave their cars at home more often, helping mitigate the concern that with increased density comes increased traffic); 20,000 new jobs at all levels, and a commitment to maximum utilization of renewable energy.
- • Brisbane Baylands builds on existing CalTrain, SamTrans, BART and Muni systems to create a transit hub that’s almost like a mini-TransBay for Brisbane and the neighboring San Francisco neighborhood of Visitacion Valley. Brisbane Baylands’ densest residential development will be closest to the currently extremely underutilized Bayshore CalTrain stop. The total project will encompass 684 acres, 45% of which will be restored habitat which will serve as open space and include an outdoor education lab.
Figure 3: Railyard workers, estimated cerca World War II due to the number of women present. This photo courtesy of San Francisco Trains, a non-profit organization. For an excellent collection of related photos, visit sanfranciscotrains.org.
- • History buffs take note: Brisbane Baylands is home to the Bayshore Roundhouse, the last brick roundhouse standing in the state of California (at one point more than 200 existed in the state). Built between 1907 and 1910, the Roundhouse is on the National Register of Historic Places, and will be rehabilitated under the Baylands plan. Any freight trains going into or out of San Francisco were managed at the Bayshore Roundhouse, making it one of the Southern Pacific Railroad’s busiest sites. In October 1921 alone, the Roundhouse’s crew of 300 moved over 40,000 trains through the structure.
- Brisbane Baylands represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Brisbane and the Bay Area to sustainably redevelop one of the last remaining large tracts of buildable land near San Francisco, and I’m looking forward to watching the project progress. The Baylands represent an investment in a more sustainable future for Brisbane and for the Bay Area as a whole, linking mobility with jobs and housing. When the Southern Pacific Railroad chose the Baylands for a roundhouse in 1907, it did so partly because housing was available nearby for workers. Priorities haven’t changed that much since 1907: then, as now, the most sustainable thing we can do in our accelerated age remains linking jobs, housing and mobility, and the vision for Brisbane Baylands is an excellent contemporary example.
Figure 4: From left to right: Xiomara Cisneros, Brisbane Baylands Community Outreach Manager; Sarah Sieloff, Executive Director at CCLR; Nori Jabba, Public Affairs Manager with Brisbane Baylands.
The Center for Creative Land Recycling is the only national non-profit organization solely dedicated to catalyzing the redevelopment of contaminated or underutilized land by applying specialized knowledge to accelerate results-focused, community-driven revitalization. For the past twenty years, we've worked with communities and infill developers to provide guided navigation and hands-on assistance to unblock obstacles and realize the benefits of redevelopment. Learn more about our work at www.cclr.org. Find us on Facebook or on Twitter @LandRecycling.