"If you don't have a seat at the table, you're probably on the menu." This saying should be a warning to Palo Alto and surrounding communities when it comes to Stanford University's once-in-a-generation general use permit (GUP).
A new process, proposed by Stanford, is being considered next week by the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, and it should cause concern for all of us. This may determine whether the public and our local elected representatives will actually have a say on the scale and mitigations for the county's largest-ever development project, or whether a deal will be struck behind closed doors. The community must tell the Board of Supervisors to follow a process that is transparent, participatory and legitimate.
The GUP represents almost 20 years' worth of new development entitlements for Stanford. The university has asked for over two million square feet of additional facilities and over 3,000 new beds and housing units for students, faculty and staff. The county is exploring scenarios that require as many as 5,699 new beds and housing units. Whatever the GUP is, it will be big.
So what's changed? Stanford, along with County Supervisor Dave Cortese from San Jose, has put forward a new process — a development agreement — that opens the door for a backroom deal, struck outside the public eye.
The process for the GUP approval is governed by CEQA (the California Environmental Quality Act), which requires a highly transparent, detailed and participatory process to develop an Environmental Impact Report (EIR), with mandatory mitigations. But with a development agreement, Stanford can strike a side deal with the county that covers virtually any or all of the impacts raised in the EIR and many more — thus skirting some otherwise mandatory mitigations.
And that side deal could be negotiated behind closed doors by two county supervisors sitting down in private with Stanford's lawyers and developers. The public could have no visibility on what was agreed until the deal was fully negotiated and presented for final approval. With no seat at the table, we could find out only at the end that our community interests are on the menu instead.
The stakes are enormous. Stanford's proposed projects will affect nearly every aspect of our community and our quality of life:
- Affordable housing: With thousands of additional students and staff expected as a result of the GUP, our current housing shortage will be worsened. The county has just approved an affordable-housing ordinance requiring Stanford to contribute funding to build affordable units, but this could be undermined in a development agreement.
- Traffic mitigation: Traffic near the Stanford campus, already often near gridlock, is expected to become even worse under the GUP. Hundreds of community members have weighed in on the traffic impacts during the EIR process, but a development agreement is not required to take traffic impacts into account.
- Impact on schools: New Stanford housing under the GUP is expected to produce between 300 and 1,500 new PAUSD students, with no additional property-tax revenue. Palo Alto schools rely on local property taxes for over 70 percent of their revenue. This would result in class-size increases of up to 23 percent in elementary classrooms across the district.
- Protection of the foothills: The Academic Growth Boundary, which prohibits development in the foothills adjacent to the Stanford campus, currently requires a supermajority vote by the supervisors to be amended. However, that protection expires in 2025, and there is no proposal in the GUP to extend it.
We don't have to let this happen. The supervisors need to direct their staff to create a process that prevents any backroom deal. They can:
- Create a public and transparent negotiation process for the development agreement that requires sunshining of proposals and extensive public engagement.
- Insist that the development agreement cover the full scope of issues that require mitigation, not a piecemeal negotiation as Stanford has proposed.
- Delay any development agreement process until the Final EIR is issued, which will determine the mitigations required.
These measures would set a floor for a legitimate development agreement. It is our hope that county staff, when they report back to the Board of Supervisors next Tuesday, Oct. 16, will have addressed these issues — and if not, that the supervisors will send the proposal back until it does.
Palo Alto's supervisor, Joe Simitian, has been advocating for a fair and open process and against a premature development agreement. He has also been pushing to make sure Stanford balances its own needs with the community's and mitigates the impact of its growth. But he is only one vote on a five-member Board of Supervisors — if we don't support his efforts and demonstrate our commitment, there is no certainty that the others will agree.
The Board of Supervisors needs to hear from our community that an open and participatory process is critical. We plan to attend the Oct. 16 meeting to let the supervisors know what we think about the staff recommendations and how they stack up against the public's expectation for open government and a fair agreement.
We hope many others in the community will also speak up — in-person and through emails and calls to the supervisors — and let them know what we think about closed-door deal-making on the county's largest-ever development project.
Pat Burt is a former Palo Alto mayor, council member and planning commissioner. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Todd Collins is a member of the Palo Alto Unified Board of Education and a leader of the Fair Share for Schools effort (Fair-Share-GUP.com). He can be emailed at email@example.com.
Alice Kaufman is legislative advocacy director for Committee for Green Foothills, a nonprofit working to protect open space, farmlands and natural resources in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties (greenfoothills.org). She can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nadia Naik is a transportation activist and co-founder of Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design (CARRD), a group focused on advocating for better community engagement on transportation projects and improving transparency, accountability and oversight in project planning. She can be emailed at email@example.com.