"To a large degree, this project is overwhelming the Comprehensive Plan," said Commissioner Eduardo Martinez, referring to the city's land-use bible that guides and explicitly limits nonresidential development. "It's only going to work if some of the most significant policies are revised to make it work."
The commissioners are in the midst of revising and upgrading the Comp Plan — a multi-year effort that would extend the guidelines to 2020.
Stanford's "Project Renewal," often touted as the largest proposed redevelopment in Palo Alto history, would exceed the city's height limits and restrictions for the density of buildings.
The $3.5 billion project includes rebuilding Stanford Hospital and Clinics and the Lucile Packard Children's Hospital and renovating Hoover Pavilion and the Stanford University Medical School.
Stanford Hospital and Clinics would be 130 feet tall, far exceeding the city's 50-foot height limit, while the Children's Hospital would rise 85 feet.
The university is upgrading its facilities both to meet the state's seismic requirements and to add much-needed hospital beds, said Mike Peterson, Stanford Hospital's vice president for special projects.
Under the current plan, the hospital expansion would add 248 new beds.
The hefty project's Draft Environmental Impact Report, published May 18, identifies two "significant" land-use impacts caused by the project: conflict with "adopted land-use plans and policies" and "adverse changes to overall existing or planned land uses in the area."
To address the inconsistency, Stanford has proposed that the city create a new "hospital zone" for the project, according to the Draft Environmental Impact Report.
But several commissioners expressed concern Wednesday night.
Commissioner Susan Fineberg likened creating a new zone while the city is revising its long-term vision to "putting the cart before the horse." She said the city needs to explore all the unintended consequences of the proposed zone, including other projects and other parts of the city where the new designation could potentially pop up in the future.
"I think it's a grave mistake to craft language and amend our Comprehensive Plan based on a specific project while the whole policy is being reviewed citywide," Fineberg said. "We don't have the right way to handle this issue citywide."
Commissioner Arthur Keller agreed and said the city should further study the project's impacts rather than simply change the name of the zone and waive the usual requirements.
"Just because a hamburger calls itself caviar doesn't make it so, particularly if it tastes better with ketchup," Keller said.
The impact report recommends other strategies for easing the project's significant impacts. On land use, the plan largely relies on the city's architectural review process to keep the impacts of Stanford's new developments to a minimum. This puts the greatest burden for containing the expansion's consequences on the city's Architectural Review Board (ARB), a five-member commission that reviews new developments and routinely wrestles with issues such as construction materials, building colors and architectural designs.
Several planning commissioners said Wednesday they were concerned about placing such a broad burden on the Architectural Review Board, a detail-oriented board with a limited purview.
"That's putting a lot of pressure on our poor old ARB to try to make significant changes based on the tools they have to look at design quality, massing and materials," Martinez said.
The commission's meeting Wednesday night was the first of six such hearings scheduled for the next two months. The City Council is scheduled to discuss the land-use impacts of Stanford's proposed hospital expansion Monday night. The 15-year redevelopment would add more than 2,200 new employees to Palo Alto by 2025.