A new independent analysis aimed at determining how much more development is possible under a maximum "build-out" scenario of Stanford University's academic campus has concluded that the institution has space available to roughly triple its current square footage, to more than 44 million square feet.
Before panicking at that alarming conclusion, note that neither Stanford nor anyone else has proposed or envisions that much growth, a fact both Stanford and report authors are quick to emphasize. In a statement, Stanford dismissively called the study's conclusions "hypothetical" and the horizon "beyond a reasonable planning frame."
"It is not possible to know what the needs of the university and the community will be in the future," the statement cautioned.
The report, commissioned by the county, acknowledges its limitations in projecting future growth needs. But that wasn't the goal. Instead, the study was to assess how much more development could physically be accommodated over decades or longer within the core campus (between El Camino Real and Junipero Serra Boulevard).
To do this, the consultants evaluated the density of development at 27 universities deemed comparable to Stanford, including UCLA, UC Berkeley, Northwestern and Michigan, and determined how much more could be built at Stanford if the density (as measured by floor-area ratios, the ratio of square footage in a building to the size of the land it sits on) was similar to the current density at the other schools.
Stanford's has more than 1,000 acres in its core campus (one of the largest campuses in the country) and the current floor-area ratio (FAR) is only 0.34. It will increase to 0.46 by the time the university fully uses up the development proposed under its new general-use permit (GUP) application by 2035. Based on the density of development at the other universities, the study considered an FAR of 1.0 as a reasonable cap, which would mean the campus could accommodate a total of 44 million square feet compared to its current 15 million.
The study was done by consultants to the Santa Clara County Planning Department, which has planning authority over all unincorporated Stanford lands within the county, to help the public and Board of Supervisors evaluate the university's current GUP application.
Stanford is seeking permission to build 2.3 million square feet and 3,150 housing units or student beds between 2020 and 2035. These numbers may change as the county's review proceeds, especially with regards to housing, and will include many terms, conditions and mitigation requirements, but is likely to be approved.
The report is labeled a "supplement" to a 2009 "Sustainable Development Study" prepared by Stanford as required after the county approved its current general use permit in 2000. The original report, while accepted by the Board of Supervisors on a 3-2 vote, did not fulfill the stated objective of articulating Stanford's view of what the ultimate build-out of the campus would entail. Instead, Stanford simply offered three different development scenarios through 2035.
The new county study's value is not as a roadmap for expansion of the campus over the next 100 or more years, nor does it have any direct usefulness to the amount of development expected to be approved in the new GUP, scheduled to be considered early next year.
The significance of the analysis is in establishing that there is no conceivable scenario under which any development in the Stanford foothills could or should be considered for many decades. This should lead the county and Stanford to extend the current restriction on such development, which expires in 2025, for a much longer period. We recommend at least 50 years. (Currently, a four-fifths vote of the Board of Supervisors can lift the restriction.)
The other benefit of the study is to remind the public that unlike traditional zoning, which includes height, set-back and building size limitations, Stanford is granted unique autonomy in how it develops the campus so long as it stays within the approved total square footage set in the GUP process. That means that there are, for example, no height limits or siting requirements for new development.
Stanford has done an exceptional job at designing and building the campus without traditional zoning regulation, but as housing and transportation impacts and mitigation measures become more important and controversial, pressures will intensify on the county to be more assertive in imposing more regulation.
The new report provides useful data on how much densification could theoretically occur on Stanford's core campus, but it also warns of critical constraints such as the availability of adequate potable water and the transportation impacts affecting Palo Alto and Menlo Park should such a growth rate actually occur. For now, however, its main message for the public and policymakers is that very long-term protection of the foothills can be adopted without any negative consequences for the university.