What if you hosted a public hearing on the largest land-use project in Santa Clara County history and almost no one showed up?
That's what happened on Oct. 12, when county planners came to Palo Alto to gather residents' thoughts about Stanford University's application for a new general-use permit, which would allow the university to build 2.275 million square feet of academic space, along with 3,150 housing units and 40,000 square feet of child care centers and other supporting facilities by 2035.
Despite the scale of the project, and its potential impact on everything from the local housing market to traffic conditions, Palo Alto residents largely stayed home. Among the few who showed up at the Lucie Stern Community Center was county Supervisor Joe Simitian, a former Palo Alto mayor for whom the proceedings had a ring of familiarity. In 2000, when he was in his first stint as a supervisor, Simitian helped craft the existing general-use permit (GUP), which authorized 2 million square feet of academic space and 3,000 housing units.
By many measures, the first-of-its-kind 2000 agreement has been a boon to both Stanford and the surrounding communities. Under the permit, Stanford has constructed (among many other things) a new Science and Engineering Quad to house its engineering, medicine, humanities and sciences, and earth-science programs; the Knight Management Center to serve as home for the Graduate School of Business; and the Lorry I. Lokey Stem Cell Research Building, which includes biology laboratories and communal work spaces.
The university also has undergone an art Renaissance of sorts, with the opening of Bing Concert Hall for music and dance performances; the Anderson Collection, a modern-art museum that includes works by Rothko and de Kooning; and the McMurtry Building, which focuses on art history.
At the same time, the GUP introduced numerous ambitious policies to minimize the consequences of Stanford's growth. It established a transportation requirement that bars Stanford from adding to traffic congestion during peak commute hours, a standard that resulted in the university's adoption of the region's most successful transportation-demand management program. The GUP also protected the foothills from development by restricting construction to a defined section of Stanford lands — the dividing line becoming known as the "academic-growth boundary." And it required Stanford to contribute to an affordable-housing fund, which the county later used to help purchase and preserve the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park. The university also contributed to a recreation fund, some of which will be used to help pay for Palo Alto's new bike bridge over U.S. Highway 101.
"A lot of the things that they are now quite proud of are things that they had to be implored, encouraged or required to do 17 years ago," Simitian said. "They have now become just sort of the standard way of doing business, and I think it has served the university and the community pretty well."
The two-year effort to pass the original permit, Simitian recalled, featured its share of "push and shove," much of it occurring in the final stretch of the negotiations. That's when open-space advocates began advocating for better foothills protection; it's also when Stanford's golfers realized that the university was contemplating reconfiguring a portion of its course, Simitian said.
"It's the only time I've ever gotten a letter from Tiger Woods," Simitian said.
One of the lessons Simitian said he learned from the high-stakes wrangling in 2000 is that it's best to vet issues early so that all the stakeholders have time to reach suitable compromises. After the modestly attended meeting at Lucie Stern, he hosted his own hearing on the GUP in the Palo Alto Council Chambers on Oct. 19. This time, 125 people showed up and more than 30 Palo Alto residents offered comments and concerns. Some asked for more assurance that Stanford would not make traffic conditions worse; others suggested that the level of growth Stanford is requesting is excessive.
Don Barr, a Stanford sociology professor and a longtime affordable-housing advocate, called for a more creative and collaborative approach to using the housing fund. Tina Peak, resident of Downtown North (and wife of Councilman Eric Filseth), argued that Stanford's growth is already out of control. How much more do they need, she asked, garnering applause.
"Does anybody ever say, 'What's the maximum? How big can they get?' ... Everything here is 'more, more and more.' How can we cram more in?"
Since then, community interest in the Stanford permit application has continued to grow. The City Council plans to approve on Monday night a comment letter on the project's voluminous draft Environmental Impact Report, which assesses likely consequences of the expansion. The letter takes issues with Stanford's assumptions about traffic, groundwater and fire-service demand, among many other things.
In addition, Palo Alto and Menlo Park officials have requested a 60-day extension to further vet the report, which weighs in at three volumes and more than 1,000 pages (the county granted the request Thursday evening). And 366 people (as of Thursday afternoon) have signed a petition asking the county to require the university to state what the ultimate limit of its development could be, known as "maximum build-out."
The petition, whose signers include former Mayor Peter Drekmeier and former Vice Mayor Jack Morton, notes that the amount of development proposed by Stanford in the new permit is the equivalent of two-and-a-half Stanford Shopping Centers.
"We are concerned about the potential impacts of such a large amount of growth over a relatively short period of time," it states.
The petition requests that the county Board of Supervisors, which is tasked with reviewing the application, require Stanford to establish the maximum build-out level; preserve the foothills; providing housing on campus for all of its new staff and students; commit to "no net new trips" during all hours, not just peak commute hours; and adopt a "carbon neutrality" policy to ensure new construction is environmentally sustainable.
Stanford has maintained that its proposed development, while dramatic on paper, is consistent with the trends of the past two decades. The 2.275-million-square-foot expansion is equivalent to 1.2 percent annual increase in academic space in each of the 17 years of the GUP application, the university notes in its overview of the permitting process. Catherine Palter, Stanford's associate vice president for land use and environmental planning, told the crowd at the Oct. 19 meeting that the university has diligently evaluated the expected impacts of the new developments and is confident that it can address the problems. She pointed to three areas — air pollution, vehicle miles traveled and greenhouse-gas emissions — that the impact analysis notes would actually improve under the GUP proposal.
"I know that 2 million square feet and 3,000 housing units over a period of 17 years can feel like a lot of development and the feeling that there must be impacts, but I urge everyone to review the rigorous study that was done to see that Stanford has a unique opportunity to address its impacts in a very comprehensive way, in a very successful way," Palter said. "And we have a track record of doing it since 2000."
When it comes to traffic, Stanford's track record has been particularly strong. It has successfully met the goal of limiting its traffic during peak rush hours — known as "no net new trips" — almost in every year since 2000 (on three occasions, it slightly exceeded the limit). It did so through an ambitious transportation-demand program that includes giving employees subsidized transit passes, improving bike infrastructure and launching a fleet of Marguerite shuttles that not only roam the campus but transport riders as far as Mountain View.
But despite Stanford's intent to continue this policy in the current GUP, traffic remains the subject that is now causing the most anxiety for area residents. The environmental analysis for the project concluded that the expansion will bring "significant and unavoidable impacts" on several already congested areas, including Foothill Expressway, the Page Mill Road off-ramp from southbound Interstate 280 and the intersection of Alma Street and Charleston Road.
Some members of the public feel that the "no net new trips" program is no longer enough. Under the 2000 GUP, monitoring of Stanford's traffic takes place only during the peak hours: 7 to 9 a.m. and 4 to 6 p.m. College Terrace resident Pria Graves, who attended the Oct. 19 meeting, is among those who believe Stanford's current target is inadequate.
"The peak hour has expanded to be peak three of four hours at each end of the day," Graves said. "And traffic all day and all night is getting worse and worse."
That is also Palo Alto's official position. The city's consultant, Hexagon Transportation Consultant, noted in its review of the Stanford impact report that "peak hours" have changed since 2001. It has reviewed raw data from the county's cordon counts on Stanford's campus, which monitor traffic twice a year to determine the university's compliance, and found that the morning commute frequently occurs after 9 a.m., while the evening commute often happens after 6 p.m.
"One of the likely reasons why there appears to be a disconnect between Stanford's achievement of the 'no net new trip' standard and the community's experience of increasing levels of congestion may be that there are higher levels of Stanford-related trips throughout the day or during much longer periods during the morning and evening than was true in 2001," Hexagon President Gary Black and Associate Jane Clayton wrote in a memo. "Therefore, it is critical that a fresh analysis of the peak period of travel to and from the campus be conducted and that recommendations for future cordon counts be based on that analysis."
Palo Alto officials are also concerned about a provision that allows Stanford to compensate for added traffic by paying to improve traffic at off-campus intersections and roads. The city's letter to Stanford, which the council plans to approve on Dec. 4, states that Palo Alto "does not believe this approach is sustainable for the next 20 years."
It urges the county to require Stanford to provide "explicit and effective mitigation" for capital improvements at local intersections and roadways. During a council discussion last month, Councilmen Adrian Fine and Greg Tanaka both said they'd also like to see Stanford contribute toward the city's effort to separate the Caltrain tracks from roadways at rail crossings.
The city's similarly concerned about a related issue: housing — the shortage of which is contributing to the deterioration of traffic conditions because it increases commuting. Stanford's proposal calls for building 3,150 housing units, which includes 1,700 beds for undergraduate students, 900 beds for graduate students and 550 homes for faculty and staff.
Many area residents, however, are concerned that this is not enough to accommodate a population expansion of more than 9,600 people, which includes students, faculty and support staff, Simitian said.
The city's comment letter notes that the region's housing crisis "will be exacerbated by any project that proposes to add more jobs and more housing demand than housing."
"We urge the county and university to reconsider parameters of the current proposal and either reduce housing demand or increase affordable housing proposed within and proximate to the campus," the letter states.
Yet there is one area that Palo Alto wants to see remain undeveloped: the open space districts next to the campus. The 2000 general-use permit offered some protection by requiring four of the five county supervisors to approve any development in the foothills or on Junipera Serra. The provision, however, is set to expire in 2025, and Stanford's new request does not propose a renewal.
This effectively means that after 2025, the university will be able to build in the foothills by obtaining a zone change — an action that can be achieved through a simple-majority vote by the Board of Supervisors. The citizen petition argues that the Stanford foothills outside the campus' academic-growth boundary should be "preserved as permanent open space."
Vice Mayor Liz Kniss, a former county supervisor, argued at the Oct. 16 meeting that planning officials should consider stronger protections for the open space areas, which "are an important recreation aspect, not just for Palo Alto but for the entire campus."
Councilwoman Karen Holman agreed.
"Maintaining the urban growth boundary and protection of the foothills is critical and key to not just this council but the community at large," Holman said.
These concerns notwithstanding, development is the foothills is highly unlikely even without this provision. Stanford has indicated that it has no plans to build outside there as part of the GUP expansion. And Santa Clara County Planning Director Kirk Girard assured the council that the foothills are zoned to prevent development.
But even if the foothills are protected for the foreseeable future, what will happen down the line, beyond the horizon of the new GUP? That's a question that Drekmeier, Simitian and various council members have been asking for years, with no good answers forthcoming.
The 2000 permit tried to address this question by requiring Stanford to create a Sustainable Development Study that "shall identify the maximum planned build-out potential for all of Stanford's incorporated Santa Clara County land, demonstrate how development will be sited to prevent sprawl into the hillsides, contain development in clustered areas, and provide long-term assurance of compact urban development."
The study, which was approved by the county in 2009, does not in fact include a "maximum build-out" assessment. Rather, it lays out the university's strategy for developing its campus and protecting the foothills up until 2035.
Drekmeier, for one, believes that is not enough. During the Oct. 16 meeting, he argued that a "ball was dropped" when the supervisors approved the study without requiring the university to declare its ultimate goals. Unlike in cities, where the zoning code establishes density standards and parameters like height limits for each property, Stanford has the flexibility to build as much as it wants to at any given site, provided it remains within the scope of the GUP.
"There is really no limit to growth on campus," Drekmeier said, in arguing for requiring the establishment of a maximum build-out level. "Limitless growth is not sustainable."
But Stanford is confident that it can accommodate the new growth in a responsible manner, with few negative consequences to the communities that surround it. Palter noted that of the 80 environmental impacts that the report looked at, 47 were deemed "less than significant" and 29 others would be "less than significant" after the proposed mitigations are implemented. Only four were deemed "significant and unavoidable": construction noise, loss of historical resources and additional traffic on roadways and intersections.
As of Thursday morning, the comment period on the draft environmental-impact report was set to close on Dec. 4 (the county was preparing to announce on Nov. 30 whether to grant the requested 60-day extension). Residents and city officials will also have a chance to weigh in next year, when the project goes to the county's Planning Commission and, ultimately, the Board of Supervisors for approval.
• Watch Palo Alto Weekly journalists discuss Stanford's expansion on this week's "Behind the Headlines" webcast.