Palo Alto Weekly

News - May 20, 2011

Stanford Hospital expansion sails toward finish line

Palo Alto's Planning and Transportation Commission unanimously approves new 'Hospital District' for proposed facilities

by Gennady Sheyner

After nearly 100 public hearings and more than two years of negotiations, the largest development project in Palo Alto's history is now on its way to the City Council.

The colossal expansion of Stanford University Medical Center received a major boost Wednesday night when it earned the backing of the city's Planning and Transportation Commission, which has been vetting the project over dozens of meetings in the past year. The commission voted Wednesday to revise the city's official land-use bible, the Comprehensive Plan, to create a new "Hospital District" that would accommodate the hospital project and endorsed a proposed "development agreement" between the city and Stanford. The agreement will allow Stanford to exceed the city's zoning regulations in exchange for a wide range of community benefits.

Palo Alto is creating the new zone to allow Stanford to rebuild Stanford Hospital and Clinics, expand the Lucile Packard Children's Hospital, reconstruct various buildings at Stanford University School of Medicine, renovate Hoover Pavilion and build new medical-office buildings. The project would add about 1.3 million square feet of new development to Palo Alto and allow Stanford to add 144 beds to its main hospital, add 104 beds to the children's hospital and seismically retrofit the hospital buildings to meet state requirements.

The ordinance creating the Hospital District specifies that the district is designed to accommodate Stanford's hospital, medical office and research facilities "with the need to minimize impacts to surrounding areas and neighborhoods." The new zoning district will allow building heights of up to 130 feet for the main hospitals — far above the 50-foot height limit in other parts of the city. The Hoover Pavilion site will allow a maximum height of 60 feet, not including helicopter pads.

The establishment of the new hospital zone is among the final milestones for the colossal Stanford project. It now awaits final approval from the council, which is scheduled to review the project June 6.

Wednesday's actions complete the planning commission's review of the project. Last week, the commission voted to approve the project's Final Environmental Impact Report — a comprehensive document that analyzes the project's impacts and proposes mitigations.

The commission also unanimously endorsed the project's development agreement, which took Palo Alto and Stanford officials about two years to negotiate. (Commission Chair Samir Tuma recused himself from the discussion because his wife works at Stanford University.)

To get the city's approval, Stanford has agreed to provide $7 million in health-care programs and services, $23 million in payments for housing programs and $12 million for climate-change initiatives. Stanford would also buy Caltrain Go Passes for all hospital workers and give the city $3.4 million for improvements to bicycle and pedestrian paths near the hospital facilities.

Stanford also agreed to guarantee a payment of $8.1 million to ensure the project would not have a negative impact on the city's budget.

While Stanford estimates its benefits package to total about $173 million, the city values the proposed benefits at about $40 million. The main difference is Stanford's assertion that the Go Passes constitute public benefits, while the city maintains that they are mitigations required by state law. Both sides agree, however, that Stanford's purchase of Go Passes is a valuable component of the package.

The planning commission generally supported the agreement, though some members offered a few additions. Vice Chair Lee Lippert recommended tying some of Stanford's entitlements to its status as a nonprofit institution. Commissioner Susan Fineberg said Stanford should start a historical-restoration fund to compensate for its demolition of the historic hospital building designed by Edward Durell Stone. Arthur Keller suggested including more details about the potentially escalating cost of the Go Passes.

But the commission concurred that after more than two years of negotiations, the two sides had reached a fair agreement.

The commission also watched a video fly-through of the proposed facilities and commented on the project's design, which had been extensively vetted by the Architectural Review Board over 29 public hearings. The commission expressed a few slight reservations. Commissioner Daniel Garber said he wished Stanford would have done a better job integrating Quarry Road with the surrounding area, while Keller said the project would've been better if the Hoover Pavilion site were less crowded.

Still, after dozens of meetings and more than two years of negotiations, the commission agreed that the project has come a long way.

"I think on the whole we have probably the best project we can possibly have at this point in time," Keller said.

Lippert said he was concerned about the lack of way-finding elements in the design of the proposed Stanford Hospital and Clinics building and said he was disappointed in the design of the main entrance. But like others, he said the project merits approval.

"What an incredible journey," Lippert said.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

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