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We Are All Brisbane

Bay Areans who sneer at the hamlet’s pull-up-the-drawbridge approach to housing need to look in the mirror—and embrace regional planning.

An artist’s rendering of the proposed Baylands development in Brisbane.


On August 7, the Brisbane City Council postponed—again—a decision on whether to approve the Brisbane Baylands, a mixed-use development of 4,434 housing units and seven million square feet of office, industrial, and retail space on 733 acres. The council has been under heavy pressure within Brisbane to reject building new housing, which could triple the quaint, steep-streeted little town’s population of 4,300. In a 2015 poll, 71 percent of Brisbane’s citizens said they wanted no more than 1,000 housing units built; a full 43 percent wanted zero.

You could almost feel the rest of the Bay Area rolling its collective eyes. With the region’s housing shortage reaching epic proportions, how could one little town be so selfish? Didn’t it realize that we’re all in this together?

But that eye-rolling should be replaced by soul-searching. For when it comes to self-centered housing policies, we are all Brisbane. Which Bay Area city dares throw the first stone? Not San Francisco, where for decades a peculiar coalition of anti-gentrification leftists, I’ve-got-mine-Jack homeowners, and neighborhood preservationists has allowed only a trickle of new residential construction. Not Silicon Valley towns like Cupertino, which build huge office parks but not enough housing. Not ritzy burgs like Palo Alto, which are determined to preserve their suburban character at all costs (which will be borne by others anyway).

So instead of scapegoating Brisbane, Bay Area residents need to accept their own towns’ responsibility for the housing (and transportation) crisis—and start working on common solutions. The key word here is common. We really are all in this together, but we’ve never created planning or governmental structures with enough muscle to allow us to act together. Until we do, the Bay Area will remain a collection of Brisbanes. And that would be an uncommon tragedy.


Originally published in the September issue of San Francisco

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