County looks to shield foothills from Stanford's growth for the next century | News | Palo Alto Online |


County looks to shield foothills from Stanford's growth for the next century

Proposed amendment to university's Community Plan would retain 'academic growth boundary' for 99 years

In order for all area residents to have important local information on the coronavirus health emergency, Palo Alto Online has lifted its pay meter and is providing unlimited access to its website. We need your support to continue our important work. Please join your neighbors and become a subscribing member today.

With Santa Clara County preparing to demand that Stanford University nearly quadruple its housing production as part of the university's ambitious expansion plan, county planners are also proposing new measures that would curtail Stanford's ability to build anything in the foothills that surround the campus.

The county is now in the midst of reviewing Stanford's application for a new general-use permit, which would allow the university to construct about more than 3.5 million square feet of new development by 2035, including 2.275 million square feet of academic facilities. As part of their review, county planners released last Thursday an amended version of the Stanford University Community Plan, a document that was crafted in 2000 and that creates an "academic growth boundary" (AGB) at the campus.

The Community Plan created a requirement for all new development to fall inside this boundary, which excludes open space areas west of Junipero Serra Boulevard. The existing plan, which the county had since incorporated into its own general plan, specifies that the boundary would remain in place for 25 years. During this period, any proposals to build outside the boundary would require support from four of the county's five supervisors.

"The concept of the growth boundary as it applies to Stanford is a basic one: development must occur within the AGB with lands outside the AGB remaining in open space," the Community Plan states. "The AGB is the primary mechanism for promoting compact urban development and resources conservation in the Community Plan, and it serves as the basis for associated policies throughout the plan that reinforce this basic demarcation line."

The county's proposed amendment would take the dotted line along Junipero Serra, between Sand Hill and Page Mill roads, and effectively solidify it. (View a map of the planned boundary here). As amended, the Community Plan would extend the Stanford academic growth boundary by 99 years. County planners are also proposing numerous edits to underscore the boundary's permanence, striking language that characterizes it as an interim planning tool and inserting wording that effectively establishes it as the status quo for the next century.

The amended Community Plan would, for example, do away with a statement that the boundary is "not meant to be a permanent planning boundary" and that it is intended to stay in place "until a defined level of development intensity has been achieved on lands within the growth boundary." Rather, the new plan would state that the boundary is "intended to provide a planning boundary for academic development on the Stanford campus on a long-term basis if planned development can be accommodated within its boundaries."

In discussing the purpose of the academic growth boundary, the new plan notes that the boundary encourages the "efficient use of Stanford lands"; that it promotes a concentration of people and activities that is needed to support transit and other non-automobile modes of transportation; and that it "preserves open space, protects natural resources and scenic vistas, and avoids geologic hazards in foothill areas outside the AGB." But planners are proposing to delete from the Community Plan a reference to the boundary as a tool to "define the point at which expansion of the portion of the campus designated for academic and related development may be considered" — a tacit acknowledgement that in the county's view, such a point is unlikely to arrive in the next century.

The proposed changes, while significant, are unlikely to change Stanford's near-term expansion plans. The university's application does not propose any development in the foothills. Stanford also credits the academic growth boundary with channeling campus growth "on infill locations within the core campus most suitable for development" and with protecting "natural resources on lands in the foothills."

The Stanford application proposes keeping all existing rules around the boundary in place. But with the significant land-use policy of requiring at least four supporting votes from supervisors to build outside the academic growth boundary set to expire in 2025, county officials are indicating that more stringent measures are now needed to protect the foothills beyond that year.

Supervisor Joe Simitian told the Weekly that the proposed policy, much like the existing one that the county adopted in 2000, intends to add a measure of protection against three supervisors abruptly deciding to "go in a different direction at the behest of the applicant."

In supporting the new requirement, Simitian pointed to a study that the county performed in 2018 to measure Stanford's development potential. Known as the Stanford University Sustainable Development Study Supplement, the document concluded that Stanford can theoretically accommodate up to 44 million square feet of development on its campus over the next 100 years without exceeding the academic growth boundary.

The study also concluded that attaining such a level of growth within the core campus would require Stanford to roughly triple its density. Even so, Stanford's density would become on par with similar institutions. Today, Stanford's academic campus has a floor-area-ratio of 0.34, well below the range of 0.9 to 2.64 at comparable universities, according to the study.

The supplement's findings, Simitian said, helped inform the county's position toward preserving the foothills.

"You can nearly triple the size of the current campus, given the current rate of growth, over the next 100 years and you still would be at a density that is typical for a major university like this," Simitian told the Weekly. "Which then I think led to the conclusion on the part of many, including apparently our planning staff, that if you could — using smart-growth, compact-development strategies — nearly triple the size of the organization over the next 100 years, why would we even be thinking about moving growth up into the foothills?"

Stanford has not issued any formal responses to the county's proposal to extend the academic growth boundary by 99 years (the university's spokesperson Jean McCown told the Weekly on Tuesday that the university is still evaluating the county's newly released documents). But the university's application does not propose any extensions of the boundary and Stanford officials have in the past resisted discussing growth options beyond 2035, citing the difficulty of making predictions about the distant future.

The county's Planning Commission is scheduled to consider the proposed amendments to the Community Plan and the county's proposed conditions of approval for Stanford's expansion over the course of three hearings, the first of which will be held 6 p.m. Thursday at Palo Alto City Hall's Council Chambers.

Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian sits down with Weekly staff to discuss the key areas of contention around Stanford University's proposed expansion on "Behind the Headlines." Listen to the discussion now on our YouTube channel and new podcast.


Follow the Palo Alto Weekly/Palo Alto Online on Twitter @PaloAltoWeekly and Facebook for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

We need your support now more than ever. Can we count on you?


3 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on May 28, 2019 at 5:29 pm

If I were Stanford I'd pack up my campus and move to Elko, NV.

11 people like this
Posted by Chris
a resident of University South
on May 28, 2019 at 10:01 pm

This issue is red herring. Joe Simitian is just trying to flex his muscle for show. It has nothing to do with the GUP under consideration. Focus on the next 20 years.

3 people like this
Posted by We will see about that
a resident of Stanford
on May 29, 2019 at 12:18 am

Merced had a nice campus that could be for sale. Stanford really could take their excellent administration and their logo, pack up, and move their shop to Merced. They could really show the County and just leave the current Stanford campus a bunch of vacant buildings. See how these County people like that. Ha!

3 people like this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on May 29, 2019 at 1:26 am

^ Would open a bidding war among Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Palantir. But I'd put my money on a pharmaceutical consortium. County would love sudden taxable real estate.

18 people like this
Posted by John
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 29, 2019 at 7:17 am

Joe torpedoes a massive deal to fund PA Schools bc they dared to negotiate without him.

Joe "takes a stand" over farmland use 100 years from now, which Stanford has shown zero desire to develop.

Joe is playing checkers while everyone else is playing chess.

Joe must go.

7 people like this
Posted by Good Job Planning Staff
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 29, 2019 at 7:32 am

Good Job Planning Staff is a registered user.

The Conditions of Approval are written by the County planning staff - not by Joe Simitian or Cindy Chavez, or any of the other supervisors.

The Planning Staff clearly recognizes that the Academic Growth Boundary still allows Stanford plenty of room to expand.

For reference, Stanford is asking for adding 2.275 million sq ft. For those who know NYC - that is approximately equivalent of adding the sq. footage of the entire Empire State Building.

For a more local reference, that's roughly equivalent to adding the sq. footage of the new Apple spaceship building.

That means in the next 100 years, Stanford could add 16 Empire State Buildings or 15 Apple Spaceship buildings on campus and still have a density similar to other institutions...

I'd say the Planning Staff clearly understands what they are doing.

7 people like this
Posted by JR
a resident of Palo Verde
on May 29, 2019 at 7:52 am

This is ridiculous and about as meaningful as negotiating with Stanford to not build a coal power plant on campus. Of course Stanford isn't going to develop the foothills.

5 people like this
Posted by JR’s right
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 29, 2019 at 9:08 am

JR’s right is a registered user.

JR’s right. This isn’t news. This is a big distraction from everything the County isn’t doing... like even speaking with Stanford regarding a development agreement that the Board voted to start discussions on last fall.

6 people like this
Posted by long view
a resident of South of Midtown
on May 29, 2019 at 11:25 am

long view is a registered user.

The new development Stanford will build is permanent. Even if a building is torn down, the right to that square footage has been granted and the building will be replaced. 99 year foothill protection is not permanent. But it is a step in the right direction.

As soon as the first academic growth boundary was established, Stanford proposed, and then Supervisor Kniss supported, a development sited on and across the academic growth boundary. Look up the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching,
51 Vista Lane, just above Junipero Serra. It is a beautiful building. Why wouldn't Stanford want more trophy buildings? Unfortunately, it is a private use for a few, while protecting the actual open space protects a public benefit. The County is right to seek stronger protection for the foothills.

13 people like this
Posted by Paul
a resident of Barron Park
on May 29, 2019 at 11:38 am

Simitian can't get basic things done like providing decent roads throughout the county. He is just another 'look for a cause' politician. As others point out, the story is much more about his career that what's best for everyone else.

7 people like this
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 29, 2019 at 12:53 pm

>> County looks to shield foothills from Stanford's growth for the next century


Like this comment
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 29, 2019 at 1:29 pm

Some people are wondering why this issue is being raised now. I guess they never saw the map, drawn up back in the auto era, of all the proposed buildings on the Dish property. Ultra sprawling. Let's keep those ideas in the dust bin.

Simitian is mostly right about density. (I do think we have to give Stanford credit for keeping most of the semi-open-space along El Camino.) There are plenty of areas where Stanford can 4-story 50-foot buildings to keep the campus compact and walkable. "4-story 50-foot" is the future: human-scaled energy-efficient buildings in a walkable area, whether a campus, downtown, or residential area.

7 people like this
Posted by Alice Kaufman
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 29, 2019 at 2:05 pm

Alice Kaufman is a registered user.

Thank you to Palo Alto Weekly for highlighting this issue!

Although County staff has recommended the 99-year protection for the foothills, this has not yet been approved.

If you support protecting open space in the Stanford foothills, please come to the Planning Commission meeting tomorrow night Thursday May 30 from 6:00 to 8:00 in the Palo Alto City Council Chambers (250 Hamilton Ave., Palo Alto). Tell the County to protect the foothills!

Alice Kaufman
Committee for Green Foothills

4 people like this
Posted by No Growth for Stanford
a resident of Downtown North
on May 29, 2019 at 11:37 pm

Stanford has plenty of environmentalists on staff who can point out why continued growth in this area, the state, the country and the world is a very BAD idea. Humans need to stop with the growth mentality and learn to live a sustainable lifestyle.

That means replacement and improvement but no growth. We need to limit our population, our use of resources and return to a balance with our surroundings.

Stanford is now run by a bunch of developers who just want to make more money. They are not a university but a research and development operation that wants to continue to get rich. We don't need to support that or give them the right to continue to overcrowd and destroy the area.

Palo Alto has worked hard to limit development and growth because our citizens realize that there are limits to growth and we want to have a good quality of life in a place worth living. Letting Stanford continue to grow and develop and spew their pollution and crowds into the surrounding area works against a sustainable population and living environment.

I hope Santa Clara county makes the GUP requirements so onerous that Stanford will decide to stay the size that it currently is - which is already too big!

Like this comment
Posted by Sky
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 30, 2019 at 10:59 pm

RE: No Growth for Stanford

I can't disagree with you more. Growth is unavoidable and also growth is beneficial. It brings a lot of value and also make it possible(with revenue) to 'solve' the traffic problems. Without growth, it's just going to outdated forever, and the problems just not going to get resolved. The infrastructure in Palo Alto is already so out-dated and we need to plan for the unavoidable growth and use the growth to plan smartly and improve the infrastructure and resolve the traffics problems, the end result should be better than what we have now.

For Stanford, it's even true that the benefit of Stanford's growth is a lot bigger than the downside. We need to look into the future, not stay at what we have now and have all the problems stay forever.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on May 30, 2019 at 11:45 pm

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

SU is busy with a campus extension in Redwood City on the 101 side of the city. There is already a hospital/medical center. They are taking over a group of commercial buildings that will be reconstructed to match the SU type architecture. There is also a large development project which will include housing.

Like this comment
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 31, 2019 at 12:38 pm

Posted by Sky, a resident of Old Palo Alto

>> I can't disagree with you more. Growth is unavoidable and also growth is beneficial.

In context, you are saying that growth is -always- unavoidable and -always- beneficial. And, that broad generalization is absurd.

"Cancer" is an uncontrolled growth of unhealthy cells. Growth is not always beneficial. Neither is urban growth. Sometimes growth is good. Sometimes shrinkage is good. People, for example, have an optimal range of body fat. Too little is unhealthy. Too much is unhealthy.

>> It brings a lot of value and also make it possible(with revenue) to 'solve' the traffic problems. Without growth, it's just going to outdated forever, and the problems just not going to get resolved.

Taxes pay for replacement of infrastructure without growth. Private facilities often need upgrading or replacement. Stanford doesn't necessarily need growth in hospital beds, but, it certainly needs to replace outdated earthquake-vulnerable buildings. Don't confuse the two.

Don't miss out on the discussion!
Sign up to be notified of new comments on this topic.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Stay up to date on local coronavirus coverage with our daily news digest email.

'A devastating impact:' The coronavirus claims Clarke's Charcoal Broiler, Mountain View's oldest operating restaurant
By Elena Kadvany | 4 comments | 3,067 views

The first few seconds after awakening; before I remember the virus
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 2,692 views

How COVID-19 Affects Communities
By Jessica Zang | 19 comments | 1,984 views

Can you stay healthy without making more trash?
By Sherry Listgarten | 2 comments | 1,963 views

Think about helping others in our coronavirus-affected area
By Diana Diamond | 4 comments | 1,874 views



The 34th Annual Palo Alto Weekly Short Story Contest is now accepting entries for Adult, Young Adult and Teen categories. Send us your short story (2,500 words or less) and entry form by April 10, 2020. First, Second and Third Place prizes awarded in each category. Sponsored by Kepler's Books, Linden Tree Books and Bell's Books.

Contest Details