A revised "master plan" for an "arts and innovation district" on Stanford-owned land adjacent to the downtown train station will be back in front of the City Council Monday night after a flurry of meetings in the last six weeks by various boards and commissions.
The latest plan shows reductions in the heights of two buildings by three stories (the tallest building would now be seven stories and 114 feet) and in square footage from 260,000 to 210,000, improved pedestrian and bicycle access, and the relocation of the historic MacArthur Park restaurant building to El Camino Park.
These changes, apparently OK'd by developer John Arrillaga, are all fine and good, but the detailed consultant and staff reports (which include such important details as what kinds of flowers, grasses and palm trees will be planted) threaten to distract the City Council and community from the critical questions about this development.
According to the city, the master plan is not to be confused with a "project," which hasn't yet been submitted by Arrillaga.
In theory, creating a master plan rather than reviewing a project creates a more flexible and interactive process and can shape what the city actually wants, rather than what a developer may want, for an area.
In practice, however, the master plan approach to the development of five large buildings at 27 University has become a tool through which processes can be sped up, where no rules apply, and the line between a developer's wants and a community's needs becomes blurred. Not to mention that the city is footing the bill for the costs, which are quickly approaching half a million dollars.
Under these circumstances, the role of city staff becomes confused and extremely difficult. Is the staff developing a vision for the area based on community needs, values and traffic considerations or is it responding to what John Arrillaga wants?
In the latest pile of staff reports, issued the day before Thanksgiving, the staff has wisely toned down its exuberance and has focused mostly on presenting useful factual information.
But even as they seek to appear more impartial there are troubling revelations. A preliminary traffic study completed in early July was not mentioned or released until last week, in spite of questions raised about traffic by council members (and the public) in September. Why not?
The report shows that even without any development at 27 University, because of the new Stanford hospitals the El Camino Real-University Avenue intersection will fall to "F" level of service, the worst possible rating. The report raises serious questions about whether the traffic pattern envisioned for the new development can work. And, of course, the report does not consider the large office complex Arrillaga is intending to build on El Camino in Menlo Park.
Evaluating the traffic impacts and feasibility of adding 1,000 to 1,500 jobs to this area should be the City Council's threshold priority. If there is no way to create a successful traffic flow in this area then it's silly to spend time planning other features of the development or debating whether seven stories is too tall or not.
But even more important is determining the economic value of the proposed development to Stanford University. Since current zoning doesn't entitle Stanford to build anything on the property, the enormous ongoing value of lease income to the university over the life of the development should be the basis for determining what public benefits need to be provided. This should have been the starting point for discussions with Arrillaga and public debate.
And there is the question of why we aren't seeking a better solution for the needed bus connections. Instead of trying to accommodate parking for 32 buses at a time and the traffic they generate within the project, why not explore creating a new bus staging area on Stanford land west of El Camino, or by using turnouts on El Camino?
We fear the city staff has become so mesmerized by and invested in this ambitious plan that it is losing the bigger picture. Before worrying about bringing this to the voters, let's do the hard work to figure out what size and type of development can be successfully accommodated on this site and the appropriate value of public benefits to offset the allowed development.