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The Bay Area is mostly built out. Any new housing or infrastructure here has to replace something else: rail tunnels go under city streets, and big buildings replace single-family houses. But one inner suburb has a site full of empty, developable land: Brisbane. 

 

The Brisbane Baylands offer a 684-acre site right next to Caltrain's Bayshore station. The developer that owns the site, Universal Paragon, plans to relieve the region's desperatehousing shortage by building 4,400 units of housing and 7.5 million square feet of commercial development. But is it really the best use for the site?

Just like at any other desirable site, there are competing uses for the Brisbane Baylands. The California High-Speed Rail Authority is interested in using the site for one of its light maintenance facilities, which would take 75 acres. Universal Paragon is complaining that the HSR Authority did not let it know about this in advance, but there is no question the Authority is within its right to take the land with eminent domain. The only question is whether it's prudent. Is it really the highest and best use for the site.

Modern rail operations attempt to place railyards far from expensive city centers. On commuter rail, this is usually easy: the railyards go at the outer end of each line, or at historic junctions that never became desirable real estate. Paris maintains its vast commuter rail fleet at railyards outside the city. On Caltrain, this is harder, since the entire Peninsula is expensive; but the maintenance needs are small, since Caltrain is a relatively small operation.

On California HSR, finding a good maintenance site is considerably more difficult. Both ends, Los Angeles and the Bay Area, are expensive. The HSR Authority plans to place the heavy maintenance facility in the Central Valley, where land is cheap. But it also needs light maintenance sites near the termini, including in the Bay Area and the Los Angeles Basin, to minimize deadheading moves. It is not a big problem if a train deadheads to Fresno for infrequent heavy maintenance, but light maintenance occurs at short intervals, and long deadheading moves would noticeably raise HSR operating costs.

Since the HSR Authority is only interested in about one ninth of the Brisbane Baylands, it would still be possible for Universal Paragon to develop the site. But it would have less housing, and probably be less desirable. The jobs at the maintenance facility would be working- and middle-class, and not the upper middle-class professional jobs that the new residents, all paying market rate, would want.

But Brisbane itself opposes both plans. It has suggested that the HSR Authority look for other sites for a maintenance facility, which are either more constrained (as in San Francisco) or still more expensive than Brisbane (as in San Jose). It also prefers that the Baylands be developedwithout new housing and with only 2 million square feet of commercial space. Brisbane, a town of 4,600, could see its population triple if the entire residential development were built according to plan.

 

The new residents are likely to pay high property taxes (since the new housing would not be as protected by Proposition 13 as older houses are) and support high-end commercial development paying high sales taxes. They would also be able to take control of the town, since they'd form a large majority of residents. It may be that this is what Brisbane is really afraid of, and not that the new residents would degrade the quality of service.

Regardless of Brisbane's NIMBYism, the decision for what to do with the land - a large quantity of housing or a railyard and a smaller quantity of housing - is difficult.

 

The HSR Authority should take a hard look at how to minimize the land acquisition costs for the maintenance facility, under the assumption that the Baylands have already been developed and its residents, with easy access by Caltrain to the future HSR station at Millbrae, are potential customers. Most likely the Brisbane site would still look good compared to nearby alternatives, but it is not guaranteed. The HSR Authority should take the Baylands into account when making its decision, even if the decision is still to use a portion of the site for maintenance.

Alon Levy is a mathematician with a strong interest in urbanism and mass transit, and currently works as a freelance writer. He contributes to the Bay City Beacon as a weekly transit columnist for Pedestrian Observations. You can find more of his writing supporting walkability and good transit athttps://pedestrianobservations.wordpress.com.

 

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Photograph by Sharon Hanh Darlin

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