Stanford University's bid to massively expand its campus received the Santa Clara County Planning Commission's unanimous endorsement Thursday with a 7-0 recommendation of a new general use permit that will govern Stanford's growth for the next two decades.
But the victory came with one catch: a requirement that Stanford construct roughly four times as many housing units as it proposed in its application.
The commission concluded a marathon meeting with a series of votes that effectively endorse Stanford's proposal with some key caveats, particularly on housing. The vote followed three public hearings and more than 300 comments from members of the public, which ranged from full-throated support for Stanford's plans to deep skepticism and requests for additional measures to curb the impacts of the university's growth.
In making its decision, the commission weighed Stanford's offer to negotiate a development agreement, which includes a menu of community benefits that it asserted are worth $4.7 billion, against county planners' proposed conditions of approval, which require far more housing and more stringent traffic regulations than Stanford has been willing to provide.
Much like at prior meetings, Stanford staff spoke in favor of reaching a deal through negotiations, while county staff insisted that its job is to require full mitigations for the problems that the university's growth will create.
"This isn't a negotiation process. This is a regulatory process," Deputy County Executive Sylvia Gallegos told the Planning Commission. "This is a permit application, and we don't negotiate away conditions of approval."
Gallegos underscored that the county is recommending approving all the academic growth that Stanford has sought, which includes 2.275 million square feet of academic space, 2,600 student beds and 40,000 square feet of child care facilities and transportation hubs. But the growth plan, she added, can only be considered "reasonable and sustainable" because the county put in protections to ensure that the impacts of Stanford's growth would be minimized.
Stanford's package of offerings, by contrast, falls far short of the county's goal, planning staff said.
While the university touted its development-agreement package as an unprecedented offer with substantial community benefits — including $3.4 billion for housing alone — county staff have vehemently rejected these figures and argued that most of the "benefits" are in fact legally required mitigations or, in some cases, part of the proposed campus development itself.
Gallegos pointed to the 2,600 student beds, which Stanford is counting as benefits and which comprise a $1.4 billion investment.
"Those aren't community benefits; that's the project application. It's what they're proposing to develop," Gallegos said.
The real value of Stanford's community benefits is $166 million, Gallegos said, which includes more than $130 million that the university is planning to provide to the Palo Alto Unified School District over the next 40 years and about $30 million that the university offered to Palo Alto and to various San Mateo County cities for bike projects and other transportation improvements.
But while county planners maintained that their proposed conditions constitute critical community protections, Stanford staff characterized some of these conditions as counterproductive and, in some cases, impossible to meet.
After the long discussion, the commission unanimously approved the final Environmental Impact Report for the proposed expansion. It also unanimously approved the water-supply assessment for Stanford's growth, a change to the zoning ordinance to allow the expansion and changes to the Stanford Community Plan, a broad land-use document that is part of the county's general plan.
How much housing?
The biggest bone of contention surrounded housing. The county's planning staff had recommended that Stanford be required to build 2,172 units of housing to accommodate the new employees associated with the campus expansion. In its initial application, Stanford had proposed 550 units of "workforce" housing. In the new development agreement offer, it upped that figure to 1,307.
"We cannot deliver the amount of housing that the administration proposes and also make a (below-market rate) requirement that is unprecedented in magnitude," Catherine Palter, a university associate vice president, told the commission Thursday.
As part of the new proposal, Stanford had also sought credit from the county for housing already under construction, including the Escondido Village development for graduate students and the 215-unit development known as Middle Plaza in Menlo Park.
By housing Stanford's existing graduate students on campus, Stanford "will open up hundreds of rental units in the community for future workers," Palter said.
"The current base of graduate students is occupying off-campus workforce housing units today, and 75% are living within 6 miles of campus," Palter said. "When they move onto campus in 2020, their vacated off-campus units will be available to serve future growth in the workforce population."
County planners had previously rejected that proposal, noting that these units are associated with growth that has already occurred. By seeking to count those previously approved projects as part of the new GUP application, Stanford is in fact proposing to build 40% fewer housing units than the county has recommended and the planners believe is needed to meet the demand for housing created by faculty and staff working in new academic space, Gallegos said.
The commission generally agreed with its staff's proposal to require 2,172 units, though there was some debate over whether Stanford should get some credit for ongoing projects. Vice Chair Marc Rauser said the more housing the county can approve for Stanford, the better. Yet he said he was "torn" over the credits Stanford was seeking for Escondido Village and Middle Plaza.
"I'd like to give some credit because they're very nice units and there's a lot of them," Rauser said, referring to Escondido Village.
His colleagues firmly disagreed. Bob Levy and Vicki Moore both rejected the notion of using existing housing to compensate for future growth. The county planners' proposed housing requirement, Moore said, is clearly intended to be "above and beyond what's already been approved."
"I don't believe any credit should be given to projects existing that do not relate to the growth (under the new GUP)," Moore said.
The commission also supported a proposal from county planners to require at least 70% of the new units to be on the Stanford campus, with the remainder being provided within 6 miles of campus.
What to do about traffic?
Traffic also remained a subject of dispute between Stanford and county planners. But unlike with housing, the planning commission offered the university a significant concession.
Stanford favored retaining the existing "no net new commute trips" standard, which measures traffic impacts during the busiest commute hour in the morning and the afternoon. The county had proposed more stringent regulations, which would consider three-hour "peak periods" and that also require Stanford to limit reverse commutes and average daily vehicle trips.
The county's proposed conditions would require Stanford to limit the growth in reverse commutes to 2% from the base year and to keep average daily traffic within a 3% threshold. Exceeding these limits in consecutive years would suspend the university's right to expand.
Palter argued that the conditions are impossible to meet, particularly with the higher number of housing units the county is recommending. The university's traffic consultants, she said, concluded that to meet the thresholds proposed by staff, Stanford would need to generate trips at a rate lower than that of Manhattan.
"This is simply impossible on the San Francisco Peninsula where Stanford is located," Palter said.
The argument found some support on the commission, with Levy and Rauser each suggesting that county planners may be demanding too much from Stanford when it comes to reverse commutes and average daily traffic counts. Levy noted that the county's requirement that 70% of the new workforce housing get built on campus would make it easier for staff and faculty to avoid driving, but their spouses would still need to find ways to get to work, which could be in other parts of the county.
"My concern is that we'll have people doing that reverse commute – as Stanford has correctly said – who will be the spouses and roommates taking their kids to school and going back," Levy said. "It isn't really Stanford driven. It's the other people living in the house doing that."
Geoff Bradley, the county's consulting project planner, acknowledged that meeting the reverse-commute threshold would require Stanford to provide services so large numbers of would-be drivers use other modes of transportation, such as having children walk to schools and other residents walk to transit, restaurants and stores. This, he argued, is not impossible.
"This is one of the few places in the county where you can do this, where all these pieces come together. The goal really is to create a dense, compact comfortable environment and not repeat the auto-centric environment where everyone does have to get into their car," Bradley said.
The commission members didn't resolve the traffic issue but ultimately coalesced around the idea of requiring Stanford to initially use fees to mitigate its traffic impacts. At some point in the future, whether in 10 years or when Stanford builds a certain amount of housing, the county can consider new requirements for the university for traffic reduction.
The commission referred the issue to planning staff for more analysis with the understanding that additional options will ultimately be presented to the Board of Supervisors.
Protecting the foothills
The topic of development in the foothills also elicited a range of opinions, with Moore strongly urging the county to pursue a conservation easement for the foothills area to secure permanent protection for the open-space preserve.
But Commissioner Erin Gil and Rauser both pushed back. Rauser said he would prefer to see the topic resolved as part of a development agreement. He and Gil also both noted that the foothills aren't in danger of getting developed any time soon. The Stanford application doesn't propose any construction in the foothills. Doing so would, in any event, require approval from four out of five board supervisors under a policy that expires in 2025. As part of the general use plan application, staff had recommended expanding that requirement by 99 years – an approach the commission generally favored.
Even though most of Moore’s colleagues balked at pursuing a conservation easement, commission Chair Kathryn Schmidt and Gil both said they support foothills protection, which Gil said potentially could be accomplished by other means.
"That needs to be addressed in terms of the whole Bay Area," Gil said. "I'm in favor but I don't see it as an imminent threat at this point. It needs to be a community conversation."
Rauser suggested that open-space protections could be part of a future development agreement between the county and Stanford. But the commission majority agreed that the development agreement process is defunct at this time and voted 6-1, with Rauser dissenting, to formally deny Stanford's application for the negotiated agreement.
Prior to its deliberations, the commission heard from dozens of speakers, with business leaders, union workers and various members of the Stanford community urging the commission to back Stanford's proposal and elected officials from neighboring communities voicing support for the county’s conditions.
Olivia Navarro was one of about two dozen union workers who attended the meeting to urge support for Stanford's proposal. They lauded the university for agreeing to provide housing immediately, with all 575 below-market-rate units of workforce housing all scheduled to get built (or funded) before the first quarter of the academic expansion is completed.
"The need is now," Navarro said. "If we want to build more housing that means there are residents now who hopefully will have roofs over their heads. And for us, it will provide jobs now so that our members, who are currently in Santa Clara County, can keep their living situation."
But many others urged the commission to follow the advice of planning staff. Palo Alto City Councilman Tom DuBois pointed to a new analysis from Palo Alto's transportation consultants indicating that Stanford would need to provide about $260 million in "fair share" contributions for transportation, far more than Stanford has proposed.
The conditions of approval proposed by staff are "a critical baseline to which any further agreements should be based."
"It's important to establish that baseline," he said.
East Palo Alto City Councilman Larry Moody similarly favored the county planners' position and suggested that Stanford should have done more to engage with his city, which already suffers from heavy traffic jams and which remains vulnerable to gentrification from the proposed influx of students and faculty.
Stanford's development "will significantly exacerbate the housing crisis associated with the traffic gridlock," Moody said.
"For them to believe they can move forward with the project without having consultation with East Palo Alto is something that they shouldn't be proud of," Moody said.
Menlo Park City Council members Betsy Nash and Cecelia Taylor urged the commission to require Stanford "fully mitigate" its growth impacts. Taylor said this means requiring full mitigation for housing demand, environmental impacts, traffic and public education. Nash pointed to the two giant problems that her community — as well as neighboring jurisdictions — are already facing: housing affordability and traffic congestion.
"Menlo Park residents, like others in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, cope with these issues every single day," Nash said. "Stanford's proposal to expand under the 2018 general use permit will obviously aggravate these already very serious problems, and I think it's hard to overstate the potential harm."