The huge rebuilding and expansion of Stanford's hospitals and medical facilities in Palo Alto would dramatically clash with the city's long-term development plans and could spawn a new zoning district specifically tailored for the new hospitals, according to a study the Planning and Transportation Commission discussed Wednesday night.
The project, often touted as the "largest in city's history," would add 1.3 million square feet of new development to Palo Alto and would significantly exceed the city's height limits and density requirements.
To address the inconsistency, Stanford proposed that the city create a new "hospital zone" for the project, according to the Draft Environmental Impact Report.
But several planning commissioners expressed concern Wednesday about Stanford's proposal for the new zone and the project's inconsistency with Palo Alto's Comprehensive Plan, the city's land-use bible that guides and explicitly limits nonresidential development.
The commission is in the midst of revising and upgrading the plan a multi-year effort that would push the document's horizon to 2020.
"To a large degree, this project is overwhelming the Comprehensive Plan," Commissioner Eduardo Martinez said Wednesday. "It's only going to work if some of the most significant policies are revised to make it work."
Commissioner Susan Fineberg said Stanford's proposal for a new "hospital 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 new zone, including other projects and other parts of the city where this 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 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 (June 7).
The $3.5 billion "Project Renewal" over the next 15 years would add about 1.3 million square feet of new development and more than 2,200 new employees to Palo Alto by 2025.
The hefty Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR), 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."
The project includes rebuilding Stanford Hospital and Clinics and the Lucile Packard Children's Hospital and renovating Hoover Pavilion and the Stanford University School of Medicine.
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.
Mike Peterson, Stanford Hospital's vice president for special projects, said the university is upgrading its facilities both to meet the state's seismic requirements and to add much-needed hospital beds.
Under the current plan, the hospital expansion would add 248 new beds.
The DEIR also recommends mitigation strategies for addressing the project's significant impacts. On land use, the document 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 hospitals' impacts on the city's Architectural Review Board, 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 ARB, 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.