Which will be the road not taken?In their first opportunity to weigh in on an age-old debate over Sand Hill Road, Palo Altans will face two competing ballot measures on Nov. 4
by Don Kazak
The distance between the intersection of Arboretum and Sand Hill roads and El Camino Real is only 0.44 miles. But it has been, without a doubt, the most politicized piece of real estate in the city's history. Now, for the fourth time in 22 years, Stanford University is making an all-out effort to get Sand Hill Road connected to El Camino Real. The three previous attempts, in 1975, 1978 and 1983, were stymied by successful court challenges, all on issues related to the environmental impact reports.
Palo Alto voters, for the first time, will get a chance to have a direct say in what happens with Sand Hill Road when they go to the polls Nov. 4 and vote on Measure M and Measure O.
The awkwardness of having Sand Hill Road dead-end in the back of Stanford Shopping Center's parking lot has been a key element of the campaign to support Measure O, the $342 million Stanford proposal that was approved by the City Council on June 30, contingent upon voter approval.
"Voters will have a chance to fix one of the worst traffic problems in the Bay Area," said Larry Horton, Stanford's director of government and community relations. "The effect of all these changes is to fix the Sand Hill Road bottleneck and reduce congestion in Palo Alto and Menlo Park."
But the connection to El Camino Real has not played much of a role in this, round four of the Sand Hill debate. During the past few months of debate, few have argued whether the connection should be made.
In fact, the competing Sand Hill ballot measure, Measure M, also calls for a Sand Hill link to El Camino Real. And, like Measure O, M calls for a two-lane connection for private vehicles on that .44-mile stretch from Arboretum.
But from there, the two measures diverge, and the key issues in this debate emerge: the building of 628 units of housing on an open field, the widening of Sand Hill Road from Arboretum to Santa Cruz Avenue, whether Stanford Shopping Center should be allowed to expand by 80,000 square feet or 49,000 square feet and issues related to traffic circulation, public transportation and air quality.
Perhaps the most volatile of these issues concerns the location of the housing.
As part of the Measure O package, voters on Nov. 4 will be asked to affirm or reject a decision to build Stanford housing primarily for faculty and staff on a 47-acre grassy meadow on Sand Hill Road next to the Oak Creek Apartments. This is the second time Stanford has tried to build the faculty/staff housing there in the last 14 years.
Stanford officials note that the field, long known as the "Stanford West" site, has long been zoned for housing and targeted by the city of Palo Alto as a site that would help address the city's housing needs. The current zoning allows Stanford to build up the 1,100 units. Stanford is seeking to build 628.
Measure O opponents have argued that this area, which they have named Ohlone Field, is the last remaining creekside meadow in the Midpeninsula and should be preserved.
And that is at the heart of their opposition to Measure O.
"(This is) a struggle for what I believe to be the soul of our community," said Debbie Mytels, co-coordinator of the Measure M campaign. "Are we going to learn to live in balance with the environment?"
Opponents of the approved Sand Hill project say it is old thinking and that it will lead to over-development of the Sand Hill corridor and massive traffic congestion.
Opponents collected 4,000 signatures of registered Palo Alto voters this summer to place their own version of the Sand Hill plan on the ballot. Enter Measure M.
If approved, Measure M would require the city to connect Sand Hill to El Camino Real and "identify potential methods of redesignating the (housing) site as Streamside Open Space and developing the multiple-family housing elsewhere in the city." It would prevent the expansion of the shopping center beyond its current cap of 49,000 square feet and prevent Sand Hill Road from being widened beyond two lanes for private vehicles. But it would allow the creation of a third lane for buses and ambulances.
If approved, the provisions of Measure M would become part of the Palo Alto Comprehensive Plan and would remain in effect until the year 2015 or unless they are changed by a vote of the public.
"This is a watershed election," said Horton of Stanford. "What will happen for the next 20 years will be determined by this election."
In addition to an El Camino connection, the one thing both camps agree on is a high level of voter confusion that exists. Stanford's campaign polls of registered voters last month showed many voters were unclear about the differences between the two ballot measures, Horton said.
Measure M telephone campaigning early on had similar findings, according to Peter Drekmeier, Measure M campaign manager.
So a key to both campaigns has been educating the public and winning support.
The support for Measure O is substantial. In addition to the Palo Alto City Council, it has the backing of the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce, the Palo Alto League of Women Voters and many past mayors and former City Council members.
Measure M has been endorsed by the Sierra Club, Committee for Green Foothills, the Peninsula Conservation Center, California League of Conservation Voters and Bay Area Action.
Support for Measure M is made up of a coalition of environmentalists, some neighborhood association members, longtime critics of Stanford's land use development plans, and advocates of alternative transportation.
Meanwhile, Stanford University is at the center of the Measure O campaign. Although university officials have formed an "Honorary Committee of Palo Altans," most of the campaign is being funded and run by Stanford.
Registered Palo Alto voters have already received multiple mailings from Stanford, with more on the way.
Measure M has done one citywide mailing, with one or two more to follow, said Drekmeier.
Both sides have also been working the telephones, calling voters and gauging where they stand and encouraging them to get out and support either Measure M or O.
The campaign is going to be expensive. Drekmeier said Measure M will spend between $100,000 and $150,000 on the campaign. Stanford, as of the end of September, had spent $131,000, and Horton said he wasn't sure how much more will be spent.
Part of the confusion among voters is over what would happen if one or both measures receive majority votes. (See related story on page XXX) The Palo Alto City Council made the decision this summer that whichever measure receives the most votes would win. But beyond that there is little agreement. Chief among the debates is what happens if Measure M wins.
Stanford and city officials say that Measure M is meaningless because, if it is approved, the alternatives called for in the ballot measure won't be built and in fact will tie the city's hands in the Sand Hill corridor for the next 19 years.
Measure M backers contend that Stanford, if it loses Nov. 4, will have too much riding on the outcome not to come back with new projects.
"It is in Stanford's interest to build something," said Mytels of the Measure M campaign.
In his annual State of the University speech last week, Stanford President Gerhard Casper attempted to put that issue to rest, once and for all. Will Stanford build if Measure M passes? "My answer is an unequivocal no," Casper said.
"There is no way we can remotely contemplate working with an alternative (Measure M) which has so many basic flaws," Casper said in a recent interview with the Weekly.
Horton said Stanford will not consider building the faculty and staff housing on the alternative sites suggested by Measure M.
But Stanford has been less clear on whether it would go ahead and pursue a housing project on the 47-acre site, which is zoned by the city for multiple-family housing. "We don't know what we'll do with this property," Horton said.
Regardless of the outcome of the election, Stanford could still build housing on the Stanford West site if it chose to separate this portion of the project from the other elements.
"We need that housing; we need it badly," Casper said. "But if we build it, would the (two-lane) road handle that traffic? I don't know."
"After five years of very hard work and $8 million in direct costs, we can't revisit all of these issues," Casper said. But, Casper told the Weekly, "I think it would be wholly irresponsible of me to say that Stanford will never contemplate building on Stanford West."
On the other hand, should Measure O win at the ballot box Nov. 4, the Sand Hill saga still won't be over.
There is the matter of a lawsuit, filed by the city of Menlo Park in August, challenging the adequacy of the massive Sand Hill Road EIR. (This is the same type of legal challenge that prevailed in 1984 after Palo Alto had approved a Sand Hill Road extension project.)
"The people in Menlo Park are not stupid," said Mytels. "They know that wider roads attract more traffic."
If Measure O wins, the Menlo Park City Council is expected to seek injunctions to block Palo Alto from issuing building permits to Stanford until the merits of its EIR lawsuit are decided in court. That would probably happen next spring.
Menlo Park is suing to block the project because, according to the Sand Hill EIR, if the project is built, five of the seven intersections that would have the largest traffic increases are in Menlo Park.
And if its lawsuit does not prevail, Menlo Park has a trump card in the Sand Hill saga--the section of Sand Hill from the bridge over San Francisquito Creek to Santa Cruz Avenue. The Sand Hill project calls for a four-lane road from Arboretum to Santa Cruz Avenue. But the section over the bridge cannot be widened to four lanes without the consent of Menlo Park.
As part of the Sand Hill Road project's approval, Stanford would be directed by Palo Alto to send a letter to Menlo Park offering to pay $7 million in road improvements, including replacing the current bridge.
But the existing Menlo Park City Council has indicated that it is not willing to accept that plan. In fact, the Menlo Park City Council last week voted to support Measure M, one of the first times in recent history that a Midpeninsula city has endorsed a ballot measure in a neighboring town.
Stanford officials note that the offer is good for 10 years. They note that is significant, because majorities on city councils change over the years. In 1996, the Menlo Park City Council favored the Sand Hill Road project by a 3-2 majority, but the 1996 election changed the composition of the City Council to be 3-2 against the project. Stanford is hoping that over the course of a decade, the Menlo Park City Council may change its position again.
But Menlo Park issues aside, the supporters of the two ballot measures are trying mightily to persuade voters that their ballot measure is the one that makes sense. The project that voters will decide on Nov. 4 isn't the same one that Stanford originally proposed. The two main changes to the project, which the Palo Alto City Council insisted on, was to reduce the actual extension of Sand Hill Road between Arboretum Road and El Camino Real from the originally proposed four lanes to two lanes, and to scale back the shopping center expansion from the proposed 160,000 square feet to 80,000 square feet.
Horton said the two-lane stipulation caused Stanford officials to pause. "We wanted the four-lane road" all the way to El Camino Real, he said, in part because that's what the traffic engineers said would work.
But Stanford went along with the two-lane extension, after some thought, because Arboretum and the new Vineyard Lane, a road to be built behind Nordstrom, would "bleed off" traffic from Sand Hill to prevent gridlock at El Camino Real. "A two-lane road works quite well," Horton said.
But the two-lane extension, coupled with the current two-lane bridge over San Francisquito Creek, gave ammunition to the Measure M backers. They have been characterizing Measure O's Sand Hill Road as a four-lane "sausage" squeezed at each end by a two-lane funnel.
Measure O supporters have countered in their own political ads saying the sausage metaphor is "baloney." They note that other improvements such as the new Vineyard Lane and widening Quarry Road and extending it to El Camino are intended to give drivers more options and relieve congestion on Sand Hill Road.
But, as noted earlier, the real hot button in the debate concerns the 47-acre meadow, a k a Ohlone Field and Stanford West.
Measure M suggests that the housing could be moved to another site on Stanford lands, such as at Hoover Pavilion or on the campus side of Sand Hill Road across from the Oak Creek Apartments. Or even to El Camino Park. Stanford has rejected all three sites for the housing.
Horton says Stanford badly needs the housing and that the alternative sites won't work. The university is already having a problem recruiting younger faculty and graduate students because of the shortage of affordable rental housing rental housing in Palo Alto and Menlo Park.
Stanford officials also note that the field has long been zoned for housing, that the housing will be set back from the creek up to 290 feet, and that 25 percent of the 628 units will be below-market-rate housing.
"Who wouldn't want to live in this housing?" Horton asked. "It will fill 100 percent with Stanford employees."
For Measure M backers, though, the field is important to retain as open space. "We need to keep the meadow open space to remind us of our connection to nature," Mytels said. "It would be a statement that we as a community value the environment."
Palo Alto officials, however, oppose Measure M because it would take planning options away from the city until the year 2015. Palo Alto Mayor Joe Huber said one reason to oppose Measure M is that, in his view, it would handcuff city planning in the Sand Hill corridor. "If you don't like this, vote Measure O down," Huber said. "But don't give me Measure M, because I can't do anything with it."
Both Mytels and Walter Hays, another Measure M supporter, concede that some people in the Measure M camp simply want nothing built.
"Measure O is a 1950s solution," Mytels said. "It won't solve the traffic problems and will create more. Measure M provides all the changes everyone wants."
And if Stanford wasn't kidding?
"What's wrong if they don't come back (with a new project)?" asked Mytels. "So what if people have to drive through a parking lot (to get to El Camino Real)?"