Palo Alto Weekly

News - May 21, 2010

Study lists impacts of Stanford hospitals 'renewal'

Newly released Draft Environmental Impact Report identifies projects' impacts on air quality, traffic, noise

by Gennady Sheyner

Stanford University Medical Center's sweeping proposal to rebuild and expand its hospital facilities threatens to bring — along with improved medical care — a wide range of traffic, noise and pollution impacts to Palo Alto, some of which cannot be avoided or mitigated, a detailed environmental report released Wednesday indicates.

The $3.5 billion "Project Renewal," which city officials routinely call the "largest project in the city's history," would unfold over the next 15 years. It would bring about 1.3 million square feet of new development and more than 2,200 new employees to Palo Alto by 2025.

The project includes reconstruction of Stanford Hospital and Clinics, an expansion of Lucile Packard Children's Hospital, renovation of Hoover Pavilion and replacement of School of Medicine facilities.

The completion of the report is a "significant milestone" in the rebuilding project, dubbed "Project Renewal," executives of both hospitals said in a joint letter released Wednesday afternoon shortly before the city released the report.

Stanford officials say the improvements will bring the medical complex into line with California's seismic requirements, relieve a shortage of hospital beds, add much-needed patient rooms and further enhance the medical and health care facilities and care.

But according to the new Draft Environmental Impact Report the project would bring a host of other impacts — not all of them desirable. A lengthy list of "significant" impacts includes 10 that cannot be eliminated fully through mitigation.

These include emission of air pollutants and greenhouse gases; substantial construction noise; ambulance noise around a proposed new route along Sand Hill Road; demolition of the historic Stone Building complex; and removal of up to 71 trees that are listed as "protected" in Palo Alto's official regulations.

The fact that the massive development project will bring with it a wide range of major environmental impacts is unlikely to surprise either city or Stanford officials, who have been negotiating for more than two years on possible ways to contain the impacts.

The new report is a critical component of the development process because it details for the fist time the project's effects on air quality, climate change, noise, geology, hydrology, housing, cultural resources and visual quality — and identifies ways to mitigate them.

The report also allows city and Stanford officials to distinguish between measures that the hospitals are required to implement to obtain environmental clearance and items that would qualify as "community benefits."

The distinction is critical because Stanford is seeking to develop at a far greater density than the city's zoning regulations allow. As a result, Stanford is expected to provide significant benefits before the City Council approves a "development agreement" enabling the ambitious project.

The council and the Planning and Transportation Commission are both scheduled to publicly review the DEIR in the next two months.

The council is also scheduled to hold an "orientation" session on the comprehensive document on Monday night (May 24).

The section on traffic impacts is expected to particularly arouse intense interest in the community. It already is one of the council's top concerns about the hospital project. The report identifies numerous mitigation measures Stanford could take to reduce traffic, but notes that a few intersections will suffer significant "loss of service" even if Stanford agrees to implement all the measures listed.

"Given the magnitude of the SUMC Project's intersection impacts, there is no single feasible mitigation measure that can reduce the impacts to a less-than-significant level," the report states.

"However, there are a range of measures that, when taken individually, would each contribute to a partial reduction in the SUMC Project's impacts."

Recommended measures include new traffic signals, new bicycle and pedestrian undercrossings, an enhanced "travel demand management" program that would encourage workers to take public transportation, and design improvements at busy intersections.

The combination would reduce impacts during the morning rush hour, the report states. But intersection impacts would remain "significant and unavoidable" during the evening-commute hours at three Menlo Park intersections: Middlefield and Willow roads; Bayfront Expressway and Willow; and University Avenue and Bayfront.

Stanford has already agreed to a series of programs and projects aimed at lessening traffic impacts, including a $2.25 million payment to the city to improve pedestrian and bicycle connections from the transit center in downtown Palo Alto to the intersection of El Camino Real and Quarry Road.

Stanford has also agreed to purchase Caltrain "Go passes" for all hospital workers and to expand its Marguerite bus service.

The report also states the project would adversely impact the city's already high jobs-to-housing ratio, which may cause more traffic and further air-quality impacts. The hospitals have agreed to address this issue by contributing $23.1 million to the city's housing fund.

Given the number of "significant unavoidable environmental effects," Palo Alto's approval of the project will require the city to adopt a "statement of overriding considerations," the report states. The statement would indicate that "the City of Palo Alto is aware of the significant environmental consequences and believes that the benefits of approving the SUMC project outweigh its unavoidable significant environmental impacts."

Just before the scheduled release of the document, Stanford Hospital CEO Martha Marsh and Children's Hospital CEO Christopher Dawes issued an open letter calling its publication a "significant milestone" for Project Renewal. They underscored their "sense of urgency" to keep the project moving forward. Stanford is required by state legislation to seismically retrofit its hospital facilities by 2013, with a possible extension to 2015.

"We are very pleased that this important document is now available for public review and comment," the letter states. "This represents significant progress toward assuring that Palo Altans will continue to have access to vital medical services in modern, seismically safe facilities."

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

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