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Editorial: As county review proceeds, Stanford should focus on public's desire to see future development impacts contained on the campus

If Stanford can't accept proposed conditions, it should reduce its expansion plans

The first test of whether Santa Clara County policymakers are willing to back up the recommendations of its planning staff on strong mitigation measures for Stanford's future development plans will come next Thursday, when the county Planning Commission is expected to vote on Stanford's application and proposed conditions of approval.

At issue are conditions that require Stanford to "fully" mitigate impacts created by the approval of 3.5 million square feet of new development on the campus over an estimated 20 years. Not surprisingly, the greatest conflict is over housing and traffic requirements, which Stanford believes create unfair, unprecedented and potentially illegal demands on the university.

But more generally, Stanford is attempting to persuade the public and county officials that it isn't being treated fairly and is being held to a higher standard than other property owners or developers. Let's put that notion to rest so that the substance of Stanford's concerns can be the focus.

Stanford is the only large private employer located in unincorporated county land. It has chosen not to have the campus incorporated into the city of Palo Alto and is therefore overseen exclusively by the county. No other large private institution or company has been given the benefit of operating under a 20-year development permit that exempts it from review of projects as they come along.

Stanford benefits immensely from this arrangement, as does the county and public, because it results in careful advance planning and avoids disputes and political battles over every new building. If Stanford didn't believe it benefited from the current once-every-two-decade review by the county it could always opt to bring its projects in for approval one at a time.

Instead of trying to paint a picture of unfairness, Stanford needs to acknowledge this beneficial special treatment and focus on the impacts and how they should be mitigated. Its current strategy appears more designed to throw up as many objections as possible and to influence public opinion than to work constructively to achieve the broad goal of full or nearly full mitigation of the development it desires.

Although the seven-person Planning Commission's action is only a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors, which is expected to make the final decision later this year, a split vote by the commission could fuel Stanford's efforts to undermine its own supervisor and board president, Joe Simitian, and seek a needed majority of three votes from other supervisors.

Such a tactic would be fraught with political danger. Stanford has already engaged in an erratic and ill-considered strategy for cultivating public and political support that has mostly boomeranged. The university has on multiple occasions made assertions in public that differ from statements sources say it has made privately, leading to diminished trust among those whom it needs to achieve approval.

The most glaring example of Stanford's political ineffectiveness was its attempt to reach an agreement with the Palo Alto school district that was conditioned on the approval of a development agreement with the county. The move was carefully calculated to circumvent a promise to not enter into any such deals and to curry favor within the Palo Alto school community. But the university didn't consider the fall-out — antagonizing Simitian, the person most influential in the county general-use permit (GUP) process, and the county's decision to discontinue discussions about a development agreement.

Stanford now finds itself needing to press its objections to the proposed county conditions while trying to calm the controversies it has created. While some modifications of the proposed requirements after considering Stanford's concerns are inevitable, the county staff and its consultants have done an outstanding job at firmly yet fairly coming up with appropriate conditions of approval. Stanford's most persuasive case lies in the transportation area, where new measures to ensure no growth in traffic throughout the day may simply be unachievable given the other requirements.

Lost in the debate over the details is the fact that county planners are recommending approval of all the development Stanford has requested. If Stanford finds the required mitigation measures too onerous, then it always has the option of reducing the size of its proposal.

One of the good things that has come from this process is that Stanford and the county are engaged in a fully transparent debate of the merits of the proposed development conditions instead of negotiating behind closed doors.

That's a far better process for the public than private meetings in which a development agreement is hammered out and then presented as a fait accompli for approval by the full Board of Supervisors. That has never been done before by the county, and this shouldn't be the first time.

The Planning Commission meeting, its third on the Stanford application, will begin at 1:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 27, at the County Government Center at 70 W. Hedding St. in San Jose.

Related content:

Santa Clara County and Stanford remain split over 'workforce' housing

• 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 podcast.

Guest Opinion: I feel sorry for Stanford University

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Comments

14 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 21, 2019 at 9:49 am

Excellent editorial. I would like to address the following point:

>> Lost in the debate over the details is the fact that county planners are recommending approval of all the development Stanford has requested. If Stanford finds the required mitigation measures too onerous, then it always has the option of reducing the size of its proposal.

Everyone is assuming that Stanford at least knows what is in its own self-interest, but, I'm not convinced. It looks to me like Stanford is engaged in a huge over-building period already, and, is proposing much more. All these new buildings require heat and electricity and maintenance and staffing. It is unlikely that Stanford or any other large university will be able to sustain its current income based on level of research funding, student tuition, and, endowment ROI. Stanford should be restricting itself to investments that will make it more resource-efficient in the future.


10 people like this
Posted by PA Grandmother
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 21, 2019 at 2:56 pm

I don't know how many workers and students Stanford is adding in the current expansion. I'm guessing the people who will live in the massive housing units under construction on the south end of campus are not yet there but don't know if those buildings will house everyone being added. If not, then some number of people will be driving to and from the campus every day, adding to the long lines of cars now pouring in and out.

And Stanford apparently will add 9000 people in the next expansion round, with some number of students living on campus and most of the faculty and staff expected to find housing off campus. Again, adding to the flood of cars in and out. Palo Alto will be in a state of permanent gridlock.

This is unacceptable. Especially since Stanford apparently has several areas on campus that are currently zoned for housing which they want to change to zoned for other things. That should not be allowed. The Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors should insist Stanford house all the new faculty/staff and if they say they don't have room, reduce the size of the expansion until the additional people will fit on campus.

Finally, I would expect the Supervisors/Planning Commission requre some evaluation or actual count of the increase of traffic of both scenarios - on and off campus housing. And how it today's traffic would be affected. We need to know this.


4 people like this
Posted by Crescent Park Resident
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 22, 2019 at 9:26 am

Crescent Park Resident is a registered user.

“As county review proceeds, Stanford should focus on public's desire to see future development impacts contained on the campus.”

Hmmm... so should the public, in turn, not impact Stanford land or resources? Should the foothills be closed to anyone not affiliated with Stanford? Should the Mauguerite shuttle only allow Stanford affiliates on it?

Could the Weekly be any more biased against Stanford? Could the Weekly be any more pro Joe Simitian?

The 20 year permit benefits all parties. The County and neighboring cities have advanced notice and the cumulative impacts of all proposed development can be determined.


7 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 22, 2019 at 10:07 am

This editorial ignores the elephant in the room: required housing as mitigation, and in particular on-campus housing. What's extraordinary about the County's position is that they are insisting that Stanford build a truly unprecedented amount of housing and 70% must be ON THEIR OWN CAMPUS. Nearby won't do; in neighboring towns won't do; money won't do. Stanford must create a company town.

Time (and probably court cases) will tell if this approach to "mitigation" is fair or even legal. But it is definitely not business as usual - in fact, it is completely unprecedented. As we've learned from the national political scene, when unprecedented government actions are "normalized," we are all at risk.


1 person likes this
Posted by Another Resident
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 22, 2019 at 12:18 pm

There is a a reasonable debate about how much of the housing Stanford should provide on campus vs off campus as mitigation for the housing demand they will be creating under the GUP. However, equating that debate to normalizing unprecedented Trumpian governmental actions is beyond a stretch. That kind of hyperbole adds nothing to the discussion.


6 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 22, 2019 at 2:15 pm

@Another Resident, perhaps. Personally I think requiring large companies to provide employee housing on their own grounds has profound implications - for land use, employment relationships, corporate rights and responsibilities, etc. It may be ok, it may be terrible - but it is dangerous to pretend it is not an unprecedented extension of government power, over companies and over housing. You may feel this point "adds nothing to the discussion;" I feel your assertion of "reasonableness" contributes to the "normalization" of something we should see as unprecedented and consider as such. History will be the judge.


5 people like this
Posted by Mary O
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 22, 2019 at 3:34 pm

Mary O is a registered user.

@resident. There is a great deal of information available regarding the impacts company-owned housing on company lands have not just on the ees who live in them, but on the adjacent communities. Just look at the areas of the country where they were most prevalent- West Virginia and Western PA predominantly. Company towns are a failed housing strategy of the late 1800’s/early 1900’s. They create truly segregated communities that become their own echo chambers. And think about the logical conclusion of this policy? Every shop that adds an ee must house that ee on shop land? Absurd? Why? Why would it be okay to insist that Stanford do it but not other businesses?


1 person likes this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 22, 2019 at 8:11 pm

Posted by Mary O, a resident of Crescent Park

>> @resident. There is a great deal of information available regarding the impacts company-owned housing on company lands [...] Company towns are a failed housing strategy of the late 1800’s/early 1900’s.

You raise a number of interesting points. Let me jump to your last point below and say that I agree with you that Stanford shouldn't have to do it if other -companies- don't. Two points there: it is reasonable to consider Stanford as more like a business than it is like a small-town Vermont university. Second point: Cisco, Facebook, and Google -are- all doing it.

>> And think about the logical conclusion of this policy? Every shop that adds an ee must house that ee on shop land? Absurd? Why? Why would it be okay to insist that Stanford do it but not other businesses?

Back to you discussion about company towns. Yes, they mostly are nasty, but, company housing solves certain problems for both employer and employee. Back in the old mining towns you refer to, it was boom or bust, with many transient employees arriving during booms and leaving during busts. It made no sense for everybody to assume that all employees could count on relatively "permanent" jobs, when everyone knew that layoffs would always come. We have the same problem in Silicon Valley-- it is a gig economy for everyone now. It makes sense for employers to take care of the housing needs of some workers.


4 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 22, 2019 at 8:39 pm

I believe those large companies are building housing because it is their own economic interest, not because they are being compelled by local govt. If I'm wrong about that, please let correct me. Stanford is also building housing of course (in addition to the extensive housing already there) - both right now, and under the proposed GUP. The difference with the County is the amount they are being told to build is much more than they have proposed.

The issue here is whether govt should mandate employers to provide housing for employees. Aside from whether that's every been done before and whether it's legal or appropriate, it seems fraught with many issues to me, and I'm surprised that people have let it go by.

For instance, is that housing restricted to employees only? Do the employees have to move out when they change employment? What about fair housing laws - do they apply? There's a body of US law the prohibits landlords and sellers from all sorts of discrimination - but now landlords can choose to rent/sell only to their own employees? Can they discriminate based on children (Stanford does this routinely, barring families from much of its housing)?

Saying that Stanford or a company needs to contribute to govt low-income housing funds in the form of developer fees is well-established and reasonable. Saying they have to build housing themselves, on their own lands, intermixed with their own facilities, is unprecedented.


3 people like this
Posted by Mary O
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 22, 2019 at 11:41 pm

Mary O is a registered user.

@anon. Please do a minuscule amount of research. The boom or bust mining towns are what was out West ; miners following gold and silver. Those were not company towns. Company towns referred to coal mining towns predominantly. No boom or bust there for 70+ years. One road in and out of them - with guards.

And to say that Stanford and Google are comparable is to truly create a false equivalence. A tactic of politicians . All the 2016 Republican candidates for president were NOT the same. And they all have greater similarities than a university does with a for profit corporation. If employing a lot of people is your criteria, the County, state and federal employers can be lumped with corporations.


2 people like this
Posted by Another Resident
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 23, 2019 at 12:01 am

Another Resident is a registered user.

I agree that there is a reasonable debate about what amount of housing Stanford should be obligated to provide and what portion of that should be on their lands. Let’s have that debate and do so in public like Simitian and Chavez propose.
But there are two arguments in opposition that Stanford’s defenders seem to be making above. The first is whether the on campus housing is inherently bad, “company housing”. Stanford already provides lots of such housing for its students, researchers, and faculty. They have been increasing amounts of that housing in recent years because of the pressures from massive growth in the region and due to their own huge growth. Managing the rules for who can occupy that housing and under what employment conditions adds complications, but is clearly doable.
A poster also argued the logical extreme about extenythis obligation to each shop owner. That kind of exaggerated extension argument can be used against almost any position, but it is not what is being proposed or suggested.
Second is the argument that it is ok for them to provide such housing as long it is done at their own discretion and in their self interest. A critical role of government is to balance private with public interests. The county is proposing that Stanford’s obligations extend to better mitigating their impacts on surrounding communities and that their lower income employees receive benefits similar to their more elite staff.
Lastly, Stanford is unique within the county in that they function essentially as a private non-profit municipality that is seeking blanket approval for twenty years worth of very large growth. In return, the county, as the government entity responsible for governing them is seeking full mitigation of their impacts.


Like this comment
Posted by Another Resident
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 23, 2019 at 12:05 am

Another Resident is a registered user.

I agree that there is a reasonable debate about what amount of housing Stanford should be obligated to provide and what portion of that should be on their lands. Let’s have that debate and do so in public like Simitian and Chavez propose.
But there are two arguments in opposition that Stanford’s defenders seem to be making above. The first is whether the on campus housing is inherently bad, “company housing”. Stanford already provides lots of such housing for its students, researchers, and faculty. They have been increasing amounts of that housing in recent years because of the pressures from massive growth in the region and due to their own huge growth. Managing the rules for who can occupy that housing and under what employment conditions adds complications, but is clearly doable.
A poster also argued the logical extreme about extending this obligation to each shop owner. That kind of exaggerated extension argument can be used against almost any position, but it is not what is being proposed or suggested.
Second is the argument that it is ok for them to provide such housing as long it is done at their own discretion and in their self interest. A critical role of government is to balance private with public interests. The county is proposing that Stanford’s obligations extend to better mitigating their impacts on surrounding communities and that their lower income employees receive benefits similar to their more elite staff.
Lastly, Stanford is unique within the county in that they function essentially as a private non-profit municipality that is seeking blanket approval for twenty years worth of very large growth. In return, the county, as the government entity responsible for governing them is seeking full mitigation of their impacts.


3 people like this
Posted by Mary O
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 23, 2019 at 6:45 am

Mary O is a registered user.

Stanford provides housing for essentially two groups of people 1. Students (whether they’re undergrad or grad) and 2. faculty. The first group is a transient and dynamic population that, in order to take full advantage of opportunities are on campus almost 24/7. The same is true of faculty - they need to be on campus almost 24/7 to be teaching, doing their research, mentoring, and numerous other activities required of them. I’ve known professors who go back to their offices at midnight so they can get work done. The same is not true for non-faculty staff. They only need to be on campus during the hours they are scheduled to work. 35-40 per week is my understanding.


6 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 23, 2019 at 9:50 am

@Another Resident, I appreciate your sincere and thoughtful view, but I think you are normalizing the extraordinary. To say the govt's role is to balance public and private interests is all good - but if they decided instead of paying your taxes in cash, you have to do mandatory work detail for a year, definitely not fine, in fact unprecedented (outside of times of war).

Same here - developer fees are fine and well-established; forcing organizations to house their employees in company-owned housing on their work site is extraordinary and unprecedented. You can't just skate by that and say it's normal - it has literally never been done (counter examples welcome!).

My read is that this, more than anything else, is what Stanford is reacting to, since for them their campus land is both finite and central to their core academic mission. They want to house faculty and students, core to their mission and traditional for residential universities. Housing non-academic employees - unprecedented.

So "full mitigation" is fine - the problem is that the County is saying mitigation requires something no one else has ever been required to do, anywhere. As I said, the courts will likely be the forum where this gets sorted out.


Like this comment
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 25, 2019 at 2:26 pm

Posted by Mary O, a resident of Crescent Park

>> @anon. Please do a minuscule amount of research.

Hi Mary. As it was said in a novel, "I been". But, I don't post with a lot of personally identifiable information, so, I will leave it at that. Yes, there were plenty of company towns that were not coal mining towns, and, had large swings in employment and output depending on cyclical demand. I would know. ;-)

>> And to say that Stanford and Google are comparable is to truly create a false equivalence.

Stanford is more business-like than you are willing to admit. Stanford wrote the book on it playing it both ways, and, is certainly not ashamed of it. I'm not particularly angry about it; they are doing what they think is in the interest of Stanford. We just need to keep our eyes open about it, that's all.

In fact, a lot of my criticism of Stanford right now is that Stanford is embarking on a program that will NOT ultimately be in its best interest. Stanford appears to be overbuilding. Research dollars are harder to come by, there is a lot of pushback about unaffordable college tuition, and endowment returns are sure to drop. Stanford needs to plan harder for a reduced-income future.

>> All the 2016 Republican candidates for president were NOT the same. And they all have greater similarities than a university does with a for profit corporation.

Stanford has shown that it isn't either/or, having more businesslike qualities than people think of when they hear the word "university". I'm not saying that is a bad thing or a good thing.

>> If employing a lot of people is your criteria, the County, state and federal employers can be lumped with corporations.

Actually, some State and Federal agencies have often provided housing as part of the benefits-- namely, the Park Service and state parks agency. Why? Employees often move every so often from park to park (it is considered a benefit of that type of service) and housing is often hard to find and inappropriate near the parks. IOW, basically the same reasons that Cisco, Google, Facebook, and Stanford do it. Nothing "unprecedented" about it at all.

Someone else asked whether we want to encourage "company towns". I don't particularly. Been there, done that. Lots of downside, not much upside. But, companies like Cisco, Google, Facebook, and, Stanford, are being extremely insistent on growing -right here-. I don't agree that it is necessary to put all growth right here. I think they could easily add satellite campuses.


Like this comment
Posted by Mary O
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 25, 2019 at 4:10 pm

Mary O is a registered user.


Like this comment
Posted by Jimbo
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 28, 2019 at 10:00 am

There is much focus in this debate on square footage and new building construction, but there may not be a strong relationship between total sq ft space on campus and total employee headcount. As long as money is there, Stanford will find creating solutions ways to put more people in the currently available space, creating modular work spaces with higher occupancy. The result of preventing new building construction is not to limit headcount but to degrade work conditions for Stanford employees and force the fragmentation of the campus into a multitude of off-campus worksites.


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