A developer looking to revamp the sprawling Stanford Research Park campus once occupied by Facebook earned a long-awaited victory Wednesday night when the city's Planning and Transportation Commission endorsed the environmental analysis for the project.
The proposal by Sand Hill Property Company calls for demolishing two four-story buildings with a combined 265,895 square feet of floor area and replacing them with four two-story buildings with the same floor area.
The current and future occupant of the 13.5-acre parcel, located at 1050 Page Mill Road, is Machine Zone, the gaming company that was formerly headquartered in downtown Palo Alto and is best known for its empire-building title, "Game of War."
Before Machine Zone, the campus served as headquarters for another local startup that outgrew its downtown location and moved on to a larger campus: Facebook, which relocated to Menlo Park in 2011.
The planning commission had already discussed the project on three occasions prior to the Wednesday hearing. During its last discussion, on Nov. 18, the commission took public comments but abruptly concluded the hearing after a commissioner recused herself, thus depriving the body of a quorum.
On Wednesday, Commissioner Kate Downing was able to participate in the discussion after the city attorney conferred with the Fair Political Practices Commission and determined that her lease-hold interests in a different Stanford Research Park parcel would not constitute a conflict of interest.
At the same time, commission Chair Greg Tanaka, Vice Chair Adrian Fine and Eric Rosenblum all recused themselves either because they live near the site (in Tanaka's case) or have connections to Stanford, which owns the research park and operates it through long-term leases.
The four participating commissioners voted 3-1, with Asher Waldfogel dissenting, to recommend that the City Council approve the Environmental Impact Report (EIR). Commissioners Michael Alcheck, Downing and Przemek Gardias all supported the certification of the state-mandated document. It will ultimately be up to the council to decide whether to do the same.
The vote came despite concerns from several College Terrace residents and land-use watchdogs about the project's compliance with local zoning. Because the project would not add any new square footage, merely replace existing buildings with new ones, staff concurred with the developer that the new project is zone compliant.
Critics, however, maintained that both the existing project and the new one violate the city's floor-area regulations and have done so since 1998, when the property owner split the parcel into two as part of a redevelopment at 1117 California Ave. Stanford had referred to this split as an "anomaly" and maintained that the project is grandfathered and that the square footage in the new development should be allowed to match that of the existing one.
For Lenore Cymes, who lives near Edgewood Plaza, the big concern had less to do with the proposed project and more to do with the developer pursuing it. Sand Hill, which recently redeveloped the plaza, faced fines from the city for demolishing an Eichler-style commercial building that it was supposed to retain. The developer also was obligated to keep a grocery tenant at the plaza, which has been without a supermarket since Fresh Market left in the spring. The grocery vacancy has rankled neighbors, who have been urging the city to increase its fines against Sand Hill.
Cymes cited the Edgewood Plaza experience and encouraged the city to make sure its agreement with Sand Hill doesn't have any "loop holes."
"Two neighborhoods lost lots of parking and we don't have a grocery store," Cymes said.
But for the commission and Palo Alto's planning staff, the focus of the hearing wasn't Sand Hill's history but the EIR. Most commissioners agreed that the environmental document sufficiently analyzed the project's impacts on traffic, noise, aesthetics and other areas of concern.
On the issue of traffic, the document predicted that the project would generate 663 new daily trips, including 83 new vehicle trips during the morning peak hour and 81 new trips during the evening peak. The impact was deemed to be "not significant" because it wouldn't lower the service level of the already congested intersections around Page Mill.
Downing called the EIR "pretty thorough" and said the document does "a very good job looking at the impacts of the project."
"I think there are other issues that have been raised and they are great issues for the council to address," she said. "They don't prevent me from finding this to be a good EIR and one we can approve."
But Waldfogel disagreed and questioned the study's conclusion about traffic impacts. He noted that new developments like the one proposed at 1050 Page Mill continue to shift Stanford Research Park from its traditional role as a center for manufacturing and research-and-development to office use.
The traffic analysis performed for the project acknowledges that the project will be 100 percent "office use," up from the existing level of 67 percent. Because office complexes tend to have heavier traffic impacts than manufacturing companies, the new use is incompatible with the historic use of the research park.
Waldfogel said he questions "the whole premise" of the traffic study and suggested that the methodology being used almost guarantees to show that a project won't have significant impact. He emphasized the fact that many of the businesses at Stanford Research Park has transformed from research-and-development operation to regular office use, which typically has a heavier traffic impact.
"I think the reason we have intersections on D, E and F levels of service (the lowest traffic levels, connoting major congestion) is because we allow uses at the Research Park to switch from R&D (research and development) and manufacturing uses to general office uses," Waldfogel said. "That's why the number of trips is going up."