Land Sits Fallow While Bay Area Housing Crisis Continues

In the middle of a housing crisis, the land adjacent to a Caltrain station only ten minutes out sits fallow. Image: Wikimedia Commons.
The Bayshore Caltrain station is surrounded by empty land. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Anyone who rides Caltrain has probably looked out the window once or twice at the Bayshore Station, a stop that practically nobody uses. There’s nothing there but a giant brown field.

It’s a little strange that a stop that is literally a ten minute ride from San Francisco and about thirty to forty minutes from the booming tech centers of the Peninsula, has no housing, no stores, and basically just a bit of light industry–and that’s only on one side of the tracks. The station itself was modernized a few years ago, but is still surrounded by a tall wire fence.

“This is an extremely underutilized station,” explained Adina Levin, Director of Friends of Caltrain, a group that supports Caltrain modernization and transit oriented developments. “This is the weirdest one.” Weird indeed, considering the White House announced it is seeking $125 million towards Caltrain electrification. The California High-Speed Rail Authority, meanwhile, is looking at focusing its energies on the Caltrain corridor. Both efforts will permit trains to go faster and run more frequently, which will make the land even more valuable for Bay Area commuters desperate for someplace to live.

So why has this land remained fallow for decades?

The problem, said Levin, boils down to the fact that the station and the adjacent land is located outside of the San Francisco limits, in the City of Brisbane, population 4,282 as of the 2010 census. Developers would like to add enough mixed-use, transit oriented development to double the population of Brisbane. But Levin said the city council doesn’t want that–and has pushed for office parks and retail that, she said, might provide more tax revenue. “It’s still partially a Proposition 13 mindset” which puts sharp limits on how much residential property taxes can increase.

Gerald Cauthen, a founding member of the Bay Area Transportation Working Group, also blames the problem on a tendency of San Francisco and Peninsula politicians to neglect Caltrain. “Even Oakland has enough sense to build decent centers around their BART stations, such as MacArthur and Fruitvale,” he said. Another factor is that the soil will need to be cleaned up, thanks to contamination from the industries that previously existed on the site. But a short distance up the road one portion of the area that’s controlled by the City of San Francisco is already undergoing a cleanup on what was once the Schlage Lock factory. “We recently approved 1,700 units at the Schlage Lock site and expect to see an additional 500 units at Executive Park,” wrote San Francisco Supervisor Malia Cohen, whose district encompasses this parcel, in an email to Streetsblog. “A large piece of this puzzle also depends on the future of the Brisbane Baylands project, which is still in the middle of its deliberation process and we have been monitoring closely.”

In other words, most of the site remains dormant. “We’ve been going through a fairly lengthy entitlement process,” explained John Swiecki, community development director for the city of Brisbane. “I’ve been working on this, on and off, for ten years.”

Meanwhile, the City of San Francisco is fighting over Google Buses, needed because of a lack of housing easily accessed by tech jobs on the Peninsula. “Our housing crisis results from decades of not creating enough housing for our growing population,” wrote Supervisor Scott Wiener, in a recent letter to the chairman of the SFMTA, supporting allowing the Tech Shuttle program to continue using Muni bus stops. “We need to do everything in our power to allow people to live without cars.” A new study from the Legislative Analyst’s Office concluded that the only way to stem the increase in housing costs and stop displacement of the poor is by building more housing. The real problem, said one critic close to the Bayshore Station plan, is that San Francisco can’t take over and build the project itself. “It’s a shame San Francisco doesn’t have tanks.”

Swiecki said a vote on starting construction around the station is still over a year away. “It’s a big project for such a small town,” he added. “There are concerns about getting it right.”

  • I’m not sure developing that area is such a good idea anyway as it’s likely to return to its lagoon/bog/wetland state relatively soon. Indeed, much of it is predicted to be under water with just a one meter rise in sea level. (Sea levels right now are predicted to rise between one and two meters before the year 2100. No one knows the exact timing, or if it will end up going much faster due to the Greenland ice sheet melting.)

    Before there is constant standing water, the area will experience periodic flooding during high tides and storm surges. We’re going to have enough trouble defending low-lying areas that already have valuable things on them–such as SFO, much of Dogpatch, Mission Bay, the new development on Hunters Point, etc. Most of Brisbane is up high enough it’ll be ok, but will little Brisbane have the money to defend this lowland in twenty years? The Federal Government will have its hands full with the eastern seaboard, California will be scrambling to keep 101 and Caltrain above water, not to mention Alameda, much of Larkspur, Corte Madera and San Rafael. Even Palo Alto is going to have its share of troubles. My guess is the Oakland airport, Treasure Island and Foster City will just be sacrificed.

    Not to say Bayshore couldn’t be developed and defended but it will be a constant, ongoing battle that someone will have to pay for. I’d say it makes more sense to increase housing by continuing to replace parking lots, gas stations, garages, auto-body repair shops, car dealerships, and self-storage units in San Francisco with condos, apartments and public space. (There are nearly infinite opportunities to do the same on the Peninsula if the towns there didn’t keep fighting it.) Large developers could always tackle West Oakland, a mere ten minutes from downtown by BART, although that area, too, will need a good dose of Dutch hydrology.

  • jonobate

    Brisbane is pretty much the only viable location near SF for a combined HSR and Caltrain yard. If the city sits on the site for too much longer, HSR will simply take the property by eminent domain.

  • njudah

    when does someone blame aaron peskin for brisbane’s narrowmindedness? surely this can be blamed on all progressives in SF even though it’s not in SF? right?

  • Clem Tillier

    Visualization here:
    http://caltrain-hsr.blogspot.com/2009/09/focus-on-brisbane.html

    I wrote this in 2009 and I wouldn’t change much today.

  • Gezellig

    As a side note, SPUR has proposed several ways for the Bay Area to cope with sea rise, including a dynamic tidal gate at the Golden Gate:

    http://www.spur.org/publications/article/2009-11-01/strategies-managing-sea-level-rise

    Of course it would not be without its significant cons, and having a tidal gate preventing bayside rise would not be a good excuse to just continue business as usual.

    After all, even ignoring sea rise another point to add is that developments in low-lying areas built on mush are much more subject to intense ground shaking and ground liquefaction in seismic events. This either means they sustain greater damage or must be very expensively built to counteract this huge threat. Deep pile driving (as with many multistory buildings in SoMa/FiDi/Mission Bay) or base-isolation (as with much of SFO and SF City Hall) are examples of mitigation strategies, but this is very expensive.

    I’m not sure if this means no new lowlying areas should ever be developed, but it’s definitely yet another major factor to consider. Smart infill development should always be priority #1.

  • lunartree

    Politicians have created a lot of problems, but they didn’t create the housing crisis. The people did when they chose to fight housing development and transit expansion over the years. We love ranting about conservatives here, but sometimes we need to talk about our own cognitive dissonance that’s causing liberals to fight for regressive values.

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