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Now a developer who owns 40 acres of land on Oyster Point is looking to tweak the mix of uses in the area once more by building as many as 1,200 housing units in the biotech stronghold.
But while housing advocates favor the idea, South San Francisco’s biotech players argue that residential development is incompatible with the research and development activity that has made the city of 67,000 residents one of the leading life-science clusters in the world.
The property owner, a group of investors led by the Chinese developer Greenland USA, is proposing to revise the 2011 Oyster Point Plan, which approved 2.25 million square feet of office and research-and-development space on the V-shaped property that wraps around the South San Francisco marina and harbor. The revised proposal, which calls for 4 acres of waterfront open space, would replace the third and fourth phases of that office development with seven residential buildings, decreasing the commercial development by between 500,000 and 750,000 square feet.
Paul Stein of SKS Partners, a real estate development firm that is advising Greenland USA, says the housing will help meet the needs of South San Francisco’s biotech workforce, which is anticipated to grow by 18,000 workers over the next three years.
Stein said the decision to segregate biotech jobs from residential neighborhoods in the Oyster Point Plan “was an ’80’s planning document” that came at a time when the life-science field was in its infancy and there was a lot of misunderstanding about health risks that came with the research and development of drugs.
Since then, housing and biotech have been built close to each other in several places, including in Cambridge, Mass., and San Francisco’s Mission Bay. The new generation of biotech researchers want to work and live in a mixed-use environment with housing, retail and recreation, Stein said.
“The idea was: It’s biotech, people don’t know what it is, let’s throw a fence around it and protect it,” said Stein. “Now, the reality of the world has changed, and we think housing will help enhance the biotech cluster out here.”
Sara Radcliffe, president of the California Life Sciences Association, an industry group that represents many South San Francisco biotech companies, says the industry supports housing but that Oyster Point is not the place for it. Plunking a residential neighborhood down next to around-the-clock research labs will inevitably lead to discord, she said.
Much of South San Francisco’s meteoric rise as a biotech center is attributable to smart planning that has “avoided land-use conflict by not locating residential next to an industrial area,” she said.
“The successful development of the life-science cluster has really been supported and driven by that vision,” she said. “Allowing housing would represent a dramatic turn in the city’s vision for east of 101.”
While South San Francisco city staff has yet to take a position on the housing development, it was city officials who initially asked the developers to consider changing the Oyster Point approvals to include residential. City Manager Mike Futrell said a 2015 study identified two sites west of Highway 101 where housing could be desirable: Oyster Point and an industrial property next to the Caltrain station.
“The study said housing might be feasible,” Futrell said. “We are currently weighing the risks, looking at the macro and the micro. Which is the bigger risk to the biotech sector in the long term? Is it the housing shortage and the adverse impact of long commutes, or is it some perceived disadvantage of having residential too close to biotech?”
City planning staff will probably make a recommendation on the changes to the City Council by February. The City Council could vote in March or April.
Mayor Pradeep Gupta supports the housing, arguing that the change would not only create places for workers to live but also inject energy into an area that is dead at night and on weekends.
“It’s not only a good idea, it’s a critical need,” said Gupta. “We need the housing, and it’s essential that the new housing be built close to where people work so we can get them out of their cars.”
Casting a shadow on the debate is Genentech, the city’s largest and most powerful employer. Genentech, which has been in South City since 1978, employs 12,000 workers there. Greenland says Genentech has not directly said it opposes the plan but has been lobbying against it behind the scenes.
In a statement, Genentech said, “We support the concept of residential developments in appropriate areas East of 101. At this time, we are not commenting on specific projects.”
Opponents to housing at Oyster Point also say that the area lacks the transportation infrastructure to support housing. Oyster Point has a ferry terminal with connections to Alameda, Oakland and San Francisco’s Ferry Building. It’s about 1.5 miles from the Caltrain station. But Futrell pointed out that the alternative to housing at Oyster Point is more office space — 2.25 million square feet versus about 1.5 million square feet with the residential development.
“We are not comparing residential to open space, we are comparing it to more biotech space,” he said. “As compared to commuters going to work in biotech, the residential development will create less traffic. There will be people who live nearby who can bike or walk to work.”
While municipal planners generally have moved away from separating land uses into distinct zones, there are times when it makes sense, said Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of the generally pro-housing urban think-tank SPUR.
“Not every site in the region is appropriate for housing,” he said. “Where there are intact, healthy industrial and manufacturing clusters we probably want to protect those.”
Meanwhile, whether or not the housing is approved, work has started at Oyster Point. Demolition of several old buildings is set to commence this year to make way for phase one — 508,000 square feet of commercial space in three buildings.
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Clara Tang, executive vice president with Greenland USA, said she is excited to do what her company has done on a large scale in 80 Chinese cities, as well as in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Los Angeles.
“That’s what we build: industrial parks with housing next to the companies so people can live next to where they work,” she said. “That’s what we do all over Asia.”
If approved, construction on the first phase of residential buildings could start as soon as next summer, she said. That phase would include 330 rental units, 150 condominiums and 11,000 square feet of retail.
“We wanted to plant a flag here, and Oyster Point is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she said. “It’s by the water. Everyone loves the water.”
J.K. Dineen is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @sfjkdineen