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Study: Stanford can triple its density

Santa Clara County analysis shows university has capacity to expand its campus by nearly 30 million square feet without infringing on foothills

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A new study commissioned by Santa Clara County indicates that Stanford has the campus capacity to roughly triple its density without infringing into open space areas. File photo by Veronica Weber.

As Stanford University advances its request to add more than 2 million square feet of academic space to its campus by 2035, one question that has long bedeviled local residents and policymakers is: How big can the university get?

Now, there is an answer. According to a study commissioned by Santa Clara County planners, the university can roughly triple its density and expand to 44 million square feet. Currently, the university has 15.2 million square feet of development. Furthermore, the study concluded that Stanford has enough space on its academic campus to accommodate such a level of growth without infringing on the foothills.

Known as the Sustainable Development Study Supplement, the new analysis aims to address a question that's been posed by Palo Alto council members, Santa Clara County supervisors and concerned residents, more than 500 of whom signed a petition last December demanding that the county establish a "maximum buildout" on Stanford.

"Stanford cannot continue to grow indefinitely without seriously compromising our quality of life on the Peninsula," states the petition, which was launched by former Palo Alto Mayor Peter Drekmeier.

The county Board of Supervisors expected the university to address the question of "maximum build-out" in 2000, when it approved Stanford's last application for a General Use Permit (GUP). As part of the approval, the county required Stanford to submit a Sustainable Development Study that would "identify the maximum planned buildout potential for all of Stanford's unincorporated Santa Clara County land" and identify the university's strategies for preventing sprawl into the hillsides.

Instead, Stanford submitted a study that considered three theoretical growth scenarios -- with low-, moderate- and high growth -- with a 2035 horizon (despite some misgivings, the supervisors approved the study in 2009 by a 3-2 vote).

Joe Simitian, president of the Board of Supervisors, said the new supplement was commissioned by county staff as part of the board's ongoing review of the new GUP application, a process that is expected to conclude by March 2019. Simitian told the Weekly that in commissioning the study, county officials were hoping to get Stanford to answer the question posed two decades ago.

"Then as now, people were asking, 'Is there an end to this and, if so, at what point? Or are we going to expect that every 15 years or so, the university will come back to ask for another few million square feet?" said Simitian, who was also on the board in 2000, when the existing GUP was approved.

The study's conclusion is based on existing land use designations, land capacity, development patterns at other universities and various resource constraints (energy, water and transportation). The study used a classification tool created by the Carnegie Commission of Higher Education to find 27 universities categorized as comparable to Stanford -- a list that includes University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Northwestern University and -- closer to home -- UCLA and UC Berkeley. After evaluating the floor area ratio (FAR) on each campus (a measure of density), it concluded that Stanford has a "relatively low development density" and "one of the largest acreages across comparable universities."

Not surprisingly, the survey of universities showed that those with less land generally tend to build at a greater density. Universities with lower density than Stanford -- including UC San Diego, University of Colorado, at Boulder, and Yale University -- all have more than 1,000 acres of developable land and FAR of under 0.3 (Stanford has 1,018 acres on its academic campus).

Those on the higher end of the density spectrum -- including Johns Hopkins University, Boston College and Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- all have less than 200 developable acres and FAR levels greater than 0.9.

Stanford's 1,018-acre academic campus currently has a FAR of 0.34, though it is slated to go up to 0.38 once the university completes construction of the Escondido Village Graduate Residences and to 0.46 once the university fully implements the construction plans in its new General Use Permit.

Even with this expected growth spurt, the study suggests that Stanford can potentially accommodate much more. It acknowledges that Stanford is unlikely to ever reach an FAR of 1.5, which is generally associated with "very small campuses in highly urbanized cores of major cities (New York, Boston and Washington, D.C.)."

It does, however, deem a FAR of 1.0 to be a more reasonable "maximum" density to plan for. If Stanford were to reach for that density level (which would still be a bit below Berkley's FAR of 1.11), its academic campus would accommodate 44.4 million square feet of development.

Even at a more modest a FAR of 0.75, Stanford could accommodate 33.3 million square feet of development, effectively doubling its campus.

To be sure, there's been no sign to date that Stanford wants to go that route, a fact that Stanford officials had emphasized in a fact sheet released Tuesday. The current General Use Permit application requests permission to build 2.275 million square feet of academic space and 3,150 new housing units or student beds by 2035.

Stanford noted that the new report's study horizon is "beyond a reasonable planning frame" and that its conclusions are on "hypothetical development capacity."

"It is not possible to know what the needs of the university and the community will be in the future," Stanford response stated. "Land use is a dynamic and rapidly-evolving field being shaped by advances in knowledge and technology. And given the rapid rate of economic and societal change in the world, the work done by Stanford is likely to continue evolving in the coming decades as new needs and opportunities emerge for the research and teaching missions of the university."

The report also recognizes its own forecasting limitations. Five decades, it notes, is the typical limit of anyone's ability to accurately predict future development and land use patterns. Most General Plans look only about two or three decades into the future. At current rates of development, doubling Stanford's density would take at least 50 years and possibly more than a century, "well beyond the planning horizon for even the most long-range plans."

"Extrapolating the present to the distant future through the lens of the current environment is invariably uncertain and speculative," the plan states.

Of the various development constraints that the study considers (including energy, wastewater, solid waste), water usage is deemed among the most significant. In the absence of a drought, projects that supply of potable water would become a constraint once total campus development grows from its current level of about 15.2 million square feet to about 25.4 million square feet. With drought conditions, water supply would become a constraint when campus reaches 21 million square feet.

Traffic and transit can also become a constraint, the study states, though not necessarily an insurmountable one. The study notes that there are various transit improvements being implemented throughout the region ("with varying success"); that technological innovations (including autonomous vehicles) can potentially increase roadway capacity; and that Stanford is pursuing its own congestion-management programs as part of its efforts to comply with a "No Net New Commute Trip" policy in its General Use Permit.

"Transportation conditions in and of themselves do not represent a physical constraint to development on the Stanford campus," the study concludes. "Rather, the acceptability of levels of congestion, and the comfort and convenience of different modes of travel are the real constraints. Societal norms related to these factors have and likely will continue to evolve over time. It is unknown to what extent the surrounding community could accept higher congestion levels and whether social norms would represent a future constraint to campus growth."


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46 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 5, 2018 at 10:17 am

The 2 paragraphs buried at the end about transportation issues are the most important part of this article.

36 people like this
Posted by Paul
a resident of another community
on Sep 5, 2018 at 10:55 am

Unless I've missed it, the article leaves out what I think are the most important numbers, as far as the community is concerned. That is, if/when the square footage of Stanford expands as projected, what will be the corresponding increase in students, faculty, and staff? And traffic.

9 people like this
Posted by Mike Alexander
a resident of St. Claire Gardens
on Sep 5, 2018 at 11:11 am

It would be helpful if the Weekly would clarify this: if potable water supply becomes a development constraint under drought conditions once academic space has increased from the current 15.2 msf to 21 msf, isn't that the practical, sustainable limit? Why highlight the unsustainable 44 msf, which appears to be based only on FAR?

32 people like this
Posted by Janet
a resident of Menlo Park
on Sep 5, 2018 at 11:37 am

The big issue that is not addressed is TRAFFIC which is at over capacity as it is. There is no way to address this except by a tunnel from 280 or some future technology that allows employees/students to be "beamed up" to get to the campus

33 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 5, 2018 at 11:51 am

The very last paragraph of the article addresses traffic. Essentially it says that traffic will become as terrible as the "surrounding community" lets it become. How much can Palo Alto tolerate? If you have an opinion on this, let your city council now now.

"Transportation conditions in and of themselves do not represent a physical constraint to development on the Stanford campus," the study concludes. "Rather, the acceptability of levels of congestion, and the comfort and convenience of different modes of travel are the real constraints. Societal norms related to these factors have and likely will continue to evolve over time. It is unknown to what extent the surrounding community could accept higher congestion levels and whether social norms would represent a future constraint to campus growth."

17 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 5, 2018 at 11:53 am

Annette is a registered user.

At this point my reaction is: Please, no.

But . . . Stanford is not only an ambitious entity, it is a capable entity. There are numerous significant obstacles to development (water, housing, traffic, landfill, etc) that must be addressed. Perhaps growth approval should be tied to demonstrated problem reduction. Since desire is a great motivator, if Stanford wants to pursue what the County is suggesting is possible, every alum (especially those who live here!) should encourage Alma Mater to get her scientists, engineers, innovators, and entrepreneurs crackin' on solutions.

20 people like this
Posted by There is no government control - only greed
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 5, 2018 at 12:56 pm

Seriously, Stanford already got away with building a giant hospital to rival those of UCLA and SF (both housed in large urban areas) and now apparently if no one stops them they will "reach for the skies" and build a high rise university crammed onto there spot of land.

I thought this was what we had a Santa Clara county board of supervisors for - to save us from greedy institutions like Stanford. Groups that think only of their profit and needs while trampling the surrounding community with too many people, too many cars, too many school children (that they don't pay for- since they are a "non-profit" and don't pay property tax) all while massively polluting the area.

Greed is certainly the rule in this Valley and Stanford one of the greediest - paying off the board of supervisors every 15 years (let's see how many millions it takes this time) so that they can continue to overbuild and destroy the area.

1 person likes this
Posted by A Noun Ea Mus
a resident of Professorville
on Sep 5, 2018 at 4:48 pm

One thing the public should DEMAND is that dogs on leashes are allowed to be with hikers, joggers on the Dish Trail. Years ago they banned dogs under the ruse that the "dogs are threatening the nesting birds". First dogs are on leash, second even if some let theirs off leash, what wild nesting bird is really threatened by domesticated canines?

When dogs were allowed I had hiked once to the top of the trail. Down below is this parallel trail that goes into a deep ravine, the joins the top trail. I heard a woman screaming and looked down to see a very small dog running and dragging a leash. Atop the dog was a downward swooping hawk, behind the dog the woman running and screaming. I was a bit like "Pinot" in Animal House with competing animations on both shoulders--David Attenborough describing the predatory drive of the hawk, another one with horror and empathy for both dog and owner. The hawk aborted it's dive as the woman got closer. But yeah, "the nesting birds"

I would be heavily and give good odds that the real motivation was to cut down on public use of the trail in preparation for development at a later date.

4 people like this
Posted by Bunyip
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 5, 2018 at 8:21 pm

This is awesome. As the major employer in this area, this will further strengthen our jobs prospect and housing demand. Hopefully ervyone commenting remembers that they are millionaires thanks to Stanford. If you don't like progress or growth, move to Alabama.

Please Stanford, build tremendous new facilities and be as desirable as possible.

8 people like this
Posted by Enough of Stanford
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 5, 2018 at 8:49 pm

A Noun Ea Mus, I wonder why you are talking about dogs when the topic is about Stanford and its deleterious effects on transportation and traffic infrastructure.

In spite of that, I want to hear how Stanford is "diversifying" Palo Alto. I'd argue it's only dividing Palo Alto given its outrageous expansion agenda.

(Of course, feel free to disagree.)

17 people like this
Posted by JR McDugan
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 5, 2018 at 8:58 pm

JR McDugan is a registered user.

Stanford expansion has already had a terrible impact on quality of life in Palo Alto and if Stanford has its way then it will only get worse. This Stanford-paid study may say "Stanford can triple its density", but I'd like to point out that "Palo Alto can eliminate cut-through traffic to Stanford". Modify Embarcadero to end at Paly, then give Oregon / Page Mill the Ross Road treatment. If Stanford wants to play "destroy your quality of life" then two can play at that game.

3 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 6, 2018 at 7:50 am

@JR McDugan - also turn University Avenue into a pedestrian-only mall with car traffic routed onto side streets with parking lots. The only reason the city hasn't done this already is that Stanford pressured the city to keep the street open to through traffic coming from Hwy 101 to their campus.

7 people like this
Posted by Joe
a resident of Stanford
on Sep 6, 2018 at 9:42 am

Yes, how dare Stanford build a large hospital that provides high quality life-saving care to hundreds of thousands of people on their privately owned suburban campus. Such greed!

Some day you and your loved ones will require the services of Stanford's hospital. I wonder if you will still think it has "destroyed" the area.

Stanford is one of the world's leading institutions, and it has served as the starting point for many of our country's most important people and companies. Without institutions like Stanford, America would not be what it is today, let alone the Bay Area. The idea that we should artificially restrict Stanford's growth while the rest of the world works every day to surpass us is pure shortsighted selfishness on the part of a few of Palo Alto's residents.

Every single one of you chose to live next to a world class university, which has been here far longer than any of you have. If you don't like it, choose to live somewhere else.

2 people like this
Posted by Sea Reddy
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 6, 2018 at 10:49 am

Sea Reddy is a registered user.

Stanford and Greed. No so. It is an endowment from a family that gave this land and university to us; it is a national asset.

Four times capable to grow is a ok in a study. In our lifetime another 10-15000 at the most in the near future.

Why not consider moving stanford shopping center to vacant lands in East Palo Alto and build to expand Stanford in the mallspace.


12 people like this
Posted by Grumpy Old Guy
a resident of Palo Alto Orchards
on Sep 6, 2018 at 10:54 am

Stanford tripling its density will be amazing! It will be amazing to the residents of the county as to the costs that Palo Alto, Menlo Park and the county will need to pony up for increased traffic, sewage processing, fire services, recycling and garbage, power needs, and impact on the stressed data structure. And to provide for the working families that Stanford attracts, we'll have to build a few new schools (with union teachers and pensions) for their children that both student families and workers will bring to the area. Of, and of course, don't forget that the Stanford campus is exempt from property taxation as an exempt organization.

But wait, there's more. Don't forget the demand of their student graduates that we'll be obligated to give all of them affordable and diverse housing (so they can hire their maids, nannies, cooks and nannies at an affordable sub-living wages).
And then to protect the old time Palo Altans, the ones who grudgingly built this city into the jewel that it is (but not good enough for PAF), they'll need rent and homeowner protections to stay in their home.

Amazing. Simply Amazing.

6 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 6, 2018 at 11:17 am

Posted by Sea Reddy, a resident of College Terrace

>> Stanford and Greed. Not so. It is an endowment from a family that gave this land and university to us; it is a national asset.

Because Stanford decided quite some time ago to be more like a business than a classical "university", I think the appropriate comparison is with Google. I guess Google is a "national asset" in the same way that people used to refer to IBM as a "national asset". But, it is a mistake to expect Stanford to act like a "university" whose main mission is to impart knowledge to the next generation. So, if the Stanford campus was Google instead, what would the appropriate growth be?

>> Why not consider moving stanford shopping center to vacant lands in East Palo Alto and build to expand Stanford in the mallspace.

I don't see that amount of vacant land in East Palo Alto any more. It was there, but, has since been developed. Still, I like the sentiment. I would prefer Stanford academic use to the Stanford Shopping Center any day.

Like this comment
Posted by Macbaldy
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 9, 2018 at 12:17 am

For those who feel that this article is insufficient in the amount of information about particular details, follow the link in the 2nd paragraph of the text. Of course, maybe 324 pages of more-than-you-really-want-to-know is a turnoff?

BTW, "Anon", Palo Alto gets revenue from the Stanford Shopping Center, which has not been a common gripe.

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