Plan to rebuild former Facebook headquarters draws concerns

Residents say both existing and new project violate density requirements in Palo Alto's zoning code

A proposal to demolish Facebook's former headquarters at Stanford Research Park and construct four new office buildings at the Page Mill Road campus is facing criticism from residents who say the development exceeds Palo Alto's zoning regulations and needs to be scaled down.

The plan submitted by Page Mill Road Property LLC calls for demolishing the two existing buildings on the 13.5-acre site and building four new two-story buildings. Collectively, the four buildings would have 265,895 square feet of office space, same as the existing structures. The new buildings would be positioned around the periphery of the site, around a central plaza.

But even though the new development would have the same amount of floor space as the existing buildings, residents are raising concerns that both the existing and new project violate the density requirements in the city's zoning code. Specifically, both projects exceed the allowed floor-area ratio by about 31,000 square feet.

Stanford University, which owns the research park and operates it through long-term ground leases, acknowledged in a letter that the former Facebook campus includes an excess of square footage, but because this excess already exists, Stanford should be grandfathered in when it comes to reviewing the new application.

Tiffany Griego, managing director of Stanford Research Park, responded to residents' concerns by pointing to the unusual status of Stanford Research Park, which the university is prohibited from selling. All of the 700-acre Stanford Research Park consists of one legal parcel, Griego wrote in an Aug. 7 letter to the city. The excess was created by a lessee who split the leasehold in 1998 when applying for the new development at 1117 California Ave., a project that was based on that split.

"Given the University's many decades' long practice of establishing lease lines for the purpose of complying with zoning standards, the situation at 1050 Page Mill Road appears to be either an exception or an anomaly," Griego wrote. "Research of available internal records does not provide much information about the circumstances or decision factors at the time."

But residents Jeff Levinsky, William Ross and Doria Summa, all of whom spoke out against the project on Wednesday night, argued that the situation is not so much an "anomaly" as a violation of the city code.

Stanford, they maintained, broke the rules in 1998, when the new development exceeded the floor-area requirements, and the new development should remedy this by bringing the project to code. Grandfathering should only occur for projects that were developed before 1989, when the city last had a major revision to its zoning code, they said.

"Stanford and its tenants violated laws 10 years after the cutoff date, so they are not eligible for grandfathering," Levinsky said.

He dismissed Stanford's explanation of the excess square footage as an exception and its argument that the floor-area plan should remain at 265,895 square feet.

"Apparently, what Stanford is saying is if you only break a law infrequently, then it's OK," Levinsky said. "If you take Stanford's logic, it's OK to move a lot line and create an illegal parcel and then claim grandfathering for it."

The Planning and Transportation Commission, which on Wednesday night was reviewing the draft Environmental Impact Report for the project, didn't take any votes on the proposal, which is still being analyzed by planning staff.

City planner Jodie Gerhardt noted that the site has a maximum floor-area ration of .4, which means that the total square footage of development cannot be more than 40 percent of the site.

Both the existing floor-area ratio and the proposed project are .45. Gerhardt said because the existing and proposed ratios are the same, staff believes the project may indeed be grandfathered. She also said that she understands the community's concerns and told the commission that staff is completing its floor-area-ratio analysis, which will be presented to the City Council before a decision is made on the project.

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18 people like this
Posted by barron park resident
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 13, 2015 at 12:33 pm

Why couldn't I remodel my house larger than what the floor size/lot size ratio or light plane residential codes specify?

Do the rules only apply to residents, and not businesses?

13 people like this
Posted by Desperate
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 13, 2015 at 12:43 pm

We desperately need to add a bedroom and bathroom to our house for our growing family. But the city will not let us, unless we jack up the house and put in a basement, putting the rooms down there.

The city states that our lot is too small, though we have 3000 extra square feet of space available.

Why should we comply when businesses do not

19 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 13, 2015 at 12:58 pm

Oh my goodness, Stanford is trying to build more than the law allows! What a shock. How can we have a code that only some us need to abide by? Let's hope the City make the ethical decision and sends the new plan back to the drawing board. Come on City, do the lawful thing and force Stanford Land, Buildings and Real Estate to conform to the code we all agreed to.

Like this comment
Posted by Downtown Worker
a resident of Menlo Park
on Aug 13, 2015 at 1:57 pm

Is it a better option for Stanford simply not to remodel the building? Why is that a better person outcome for Palo Alto residents or workers?

3 people like this
Posted by Do Something About It
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 13, 2015 at 1:59 pm

I think it's a little more complex in that Stanford leases (or pretty much "owns") a whole bunch of land in Palo Alto proper. To continue your analogies of expanding your home, if you owned the parcel next door, can't you understand how the city might allow you to build more than what was allowed on your parcel alone? I think it's a similar situation and really hard to judge considering what was there to begin with.

5 people like this
Posted by Supply & Demand
a resident of Green Acres
on Aug 13, 2015 at 3:49 pm

That rendition looks great!

World class university needs a world class look on everything they (allow to) build!

As long as traffic is not involved!

Go ahead and give us a visual extravaganza!

3 people like this
Posted by observer
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 13, 2015 at 11:12 pm

Stanford has indeed metastacized. They have billions in their endowment. That's a B. They own property not only in the Research Park and College Terrace, but they have office buildings on Middlefield Road, on Sherman Avenue, in Menlo Park, and much more.
Lots of money from wealthy alumni and from Asian billionaires who construct buildings on campus, naming the buildings for themselves.

They keep claiming they need more space but the hospital advertises for more patients in all the newspapers, on the radio, KQED, and on Channel 4 and Channel 5.
It's not a healthy situation.

2 people like this
Posted by Ha!
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 14, 2015 at 9:38 am

A few years ago we wanted to make a small change to our home that would have added 36 square feet - it was just to fix an odd-shaped room - and were told by the City that we could not because our house already exceeded the FAR by 110 square feet (don't know how that happened). We tried to negotiate and remove 50 square feet from another part of the house, expecting to be allowed if the overall FAR was less than the original, but nope! The City was adamant that if we wanted that extra 36 square feet, we had to remove 146 square feet first.

If the City grandfathers in the Facebook buildings, they will next be explaining to me why they would not do the same for us.

I don't buy the story that Stanford is special. And I don't believe the rules change if you own the property next door too. Separate parcels can always be sold independently, so the City should not allow one parcel to exceed the FAR just because the same person/entity owns the one next door. May be that's how this Facebook situation arose in the first place.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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