It is not surprising that residents and government officials of the communities surrounding Stanford University are only now beginning to wake up to the importance of the university's pending request for a new general use permit (GUP) to regulate its growth and development through 2035.
Palo Alto and Menlo Park have each had other major land use issues occupying their time, including the final adoption of Palo Alto's own updated Comprehensive Plan — an 11-year endeavor — and Menlo Park's approval of Stanford projects on El Camino Real and its attempt to reverse its approval of a development on Sand Hill Road near Sharon Heights.
But with appropriate prodding by Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, who will play a key role in the county's review of the Stanford GUP application, the community is awakening to the need to carefully scrutinize Stanford's plans.
The general-use-permit process that Stanford uses is unique and is not subject to normal review and approval by either the Palo Alto or Menlo Park city councils. While some of Stanford's commercially developed lands, such as the Medical Center, the Research Park and the Shopping Center, are located in the city of Palo Alto and subject to Palo Alto zoning control and approvals by the City Council, its general use permit covers the core academic campus and the foothills, which are unincorporated lands regulated mostly by Santa Clara County even though the impacts are felt within nearby cities.
Stanford's current general use permit was adopted in 2000 and was the subject of much public debate. Intended to eliminate the need for project-by-project review of every Stanford development, the GUP application is a single-shot opportunity for the public to exert land-use and transportation controls over the region's largest land owner and one of its largest employers.
Coincidentally, Simitian, during his previous stint on the Board of Supervisors, played a key role in the review and approval of the original plan in 2000. He successfully pushed for many detailed new practices, such as requiring no increase in peak-hour car trips and mandates that university's housing and academic buildings be developed in stair-step fashion to ensure housing kept pace. He also was instrumental in getting the university to commit to preparing a model of fully "built-out" campus lands, a task only partially completed and which needs to be renewed in the new GUP.
Now, 17 years later, the university has come to accept the more rigorous county oversight and the benefits of the processes, predictability and flexibility it established. Approval was granted in 2000 for all the development Stanford was requesting at the time (2 million square feet of new academic and athletic buildings and 3,000 housing units), along with some key limitations, such as a 25-year moratorium on any development in the foothills west of Junipero Serra Boulevard.
Stanford's original prediction was that it would need to return for a new use permit (due to using up the authorized development allowance) after about 10 years, but the Great Recession slowed the pace of Stanford's building plans. It's now likely that Stanford will use up its allowed development from the 2000 GUP within the next two years.
The university's new request is for approval to build another 2.275 million square feet of new academic facilities and 3,150 housing units (550 faculty housing units with the balance being beds in student housing).
An enormous, three-volume draft environmental-impact report has been completed, and several local jurisdictions, including the cities of Palo Alto and Menlo Park and the Palo Alto Unified School District, have asked the county for a 60-day extension from the Dec. 4 deadline for submitting comments. Given the magnitude and complexity of this unique process, those requests are reasonable and Stanford is being short-sighted in opposing this extension. (Santa Clara County granted extending the public comment period on Thursday evening. Read the story here.)
As the process proceeds over the next year, there are a number of issues that are likely to become contentious and require careful negotiation, including more aggressive traffic-mitigation measures, the renewal of the university's commitment not to develop in the foothills after the current restriction expires in 2025, the issue of workforce housing for university employees and the development fees the university will be required to pay to help fund transportation and housing mitigation.
Stanford has, for the most part, faithfully lived up to the terms of the current use permit and has developed an outstanding and innovative Marguerite shuttle system, a balanced housing program and attractive and energy-efficient new campus buildings.
But these achievements have come in part because of rigorous public and governmental review and monitoring, and as it becomes more and more difficult to mitigate the impacts of further growth, such oversight will be even more important as the GUP is reviewed.