Stanford University abruptly abandoned on Friday its contentious plan to expand its campus by 3.5 million square feet, citing ongoing disagreements with the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors over the approval process.
The university’s announcement came just before the board was scheduled to hold its fourth and potentially final meeting on Stanford’s general use permit, a development application that is often referred to as the "largest in the county’s history." If approved, the permit would have allowed Stanford to build more than 2.275 million square feet of academic space and 2,600 student beds between now and 2035. The announcement also came days after the university had agreed to build 2,172 units of staff housing, consistent with recommendations from county staff. Stanford’s application had initially proposed 550 units of workforce housing.
The biggest split between the county and the university came over a possible "development agreement," a negotiated contract that would have guaranteed Stanford development rights in exchange for a list of public benefits. The county authorized in October 2018 the use of a development agreement in approving Stanford’s expansion, but negotiations broke down in April and never resumed.
While Stanford has repeatedly stated that it would not accept approval of the general use permit (GUP) without an accompanying development agreement, supervisors have been reluctant to restart negotiations, opting instead for a traditional regulatory process that analyzes the impacts of proposed developments and imposes requirements that mitigate these impacts.
In the case of Stanford’s GUP, the requirements from county planners included additional workforce housing and more stringent traffic regulations, including new requirements that the university not significantly increase average daily trips and reverse commutes to and from campus.
In its announcement, Stanford cited the county’s proposed traffic requirements and the ongoing dispute over a development agreement as the two factors that prompted the withdrawal of its application. The university argued that the traffic requirements sought by the county would not be feasible given the additional housing mandated by the county.
Stanford has consistently argued that a development agreement is necessary so that it could have "predictability" for future growth in exchange for delivering community benefits such as housing, traffic improvements and funding for the Palo alto Unified School District.
The university also announced that it is "committing to a new phase of engagement and dialogue with neighbors and surrounding communities."
"We have taken this step with regret, but with a clear-eyed understanding of the challenges before us in achieving a successful long-term permit at this time," Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne said in a statement.
"Stanford remains proud to be a citizen of this region, deeply committed to contributing to its economy, health and quality of life."
Tessier-Lavigne also said that through the new engagement process, the university hopes to "gain deeper mutual understanding of the challenges facing our region, how Stanford can best enhance its contribution to addressing those challenges, and what the implications are for our longer-term campus development."
This university’s plan has become increasingly contentious, with hundreds of people packing into Palo Alto City Hall for the Oct. 22 hearing on the general use permit to demand more contributions from the university. The meeting was preceded by protests from more than 100 undergraduate students, who argued that the Stanford should provide more housing as part of the expansion, which is expected to increase the campus population by more than 9,000 people. Graduate students and postdoctoral researchers requested more financial support and child care services, while elected officials from San Mateo County demanded “full mitigation” of the expansion’s housing and traffic impacts.
The coalition of San Mateo County cities, which includes East Palo Alto, Atherton, Menlo Park, Portola Valley, Redwood City and Woodside, as well as county staff requested $196 million for an affordable-housing fund, $4.62 million for roadway improvements, $15 million for bike and pedestrian connections, $5 million for stormwater management and $6.78 million in “in-lieu property taxes” to compensate communities where Stanford owns properties and enjoys property-tax exemptions.
In a sign of the growing rift between Stanford and the surrounding communities, elected officials co-signed a letter last month accusing the university of not paying its “fair share” for things like road improvements, public safety and other services.
"Here's what every resident in San Mateo County needs to know: Stanford – with its $26.5 billion endowment — expects to reap all the rewards while leaving local taxpayers grappling with the resulting traffic gridlock, spiraling housing prices, impacted schools and environmental consequences," the letter stated.
Stanford, which has been going through the application process since 2016, was scheduled to hold its fourth hearing in front of the Board of Supervisors on Nov. 5. It had already won the approval of the county Planning Commission, though the commission rejected a development agreement that Stanford offered in June.
The county and the university have characterized Stanford’s offer in strikingly different ways, with the university valuing it at $4.7 billion and the county estimating the cost of actual benefits at $168 million ($30 million in traffic improvements and $130 million for the Palo Alto Unified School District). The majority of the purported benefits, county staff argued, were things that the university would be required to provide or that were part of the application.
Deputy Executive Director Sylvia Gallegos said at the Oct. 8 hearing that the university and the county remain "very far apart" on what a development agreement should entail.
"The review and processing of a development application is a regulatory process. It's not a negotiation," Gallegos told the board.
Disagreeing over the development agreement
Board of Supervisors Presidnet Joe Simitian, who was part of a two-person subcommittee charged with negotiating with Stanford (along with Supervisor Cindy Chavez), told the Weekly he felt Stanford's withdrawal of its application was surprising, given that its proposal was heading for approval.
"I thought we were headed for a win-win," Simitian told the Weekly. "The authorization of 3.5 million square feet over 15 to 20 years would've been a substantial benefit to the university. But given the requirement for full mitigation, they chose to walk away. I respect their decision, as an applicant, to walk away."
Simitian noted that a development agreement is a tool that the county has never used in its 169-year history. And while he said he was open to the notion that a development agreement was "an appropriate tool for some narrow and limited set of benefits," he was not willing to support an agreement that would have required the county to effectively abdicate its police powers and its land-use authority by pre-approving future development.
"The land-use authority and police power of public and county are not for sale, nor should they be," Simitian said.
Jean McCown, Stanford's associate vice president for government and community relations, told the Weekly that the university viewed a development agreement as a necessary tool because of the "laundry list" of requests Stanford had received from cities pertaining to issues they need help with. This includes contributions that fall outside the scope of what Santa Clara County can require in its conditions of approval.
This includes contributions to Palo Alto schools and to San Mateo cities.
"Since we've been very consistent in saying that the development-agreement piece is critically important to what we'd like to do and what the community would like us to do, we didn't see how we could move forward."
Stanford noted in its Friday announcement that it had revised its proposal and agreed to build the 2,172 housing units that the county had requested. This includes 933 units of below-market-rate housing, as recommended by the county's analysis.
Stanford's letter to the county also notes that through a development agreement, "some of this housing can be provided more quickly than through the conditions of approval."
In its prior proposal, the university was seeking credit for several developments already under construction, including the Escondido Village, a 650-unit development on campus for graduate students, and Middle Plaza, a 215-unit development in Menlo Park.
This week, Stanford indicated that it would no longer request credit for the existing projects, according to the announcement. It also requested that the county delay its upcoming hearing so that Stanford and the county could begin “substantive discussions” on a development agreement. But it received no evidence that the majority of the supervisors would endorse such a delay.
While Stanford did not rely on a development agreement for its last general use permit, which was approved in 2000, it had used development agreements for all of its major projects since then, including the new Stanford Hospital in Palo Alto and the recently completed campus in Redwood City, said Martin Shell, Stanford's vice president and chief external relations officer.
Shell told the Weekly that with the GUP application withdrawn, the university now plans to "pause to assess what the priorities are."
"We clearly heard a lot from the community over the past many weeks and months, and we want to reflect on what we heard," Shell said. "We may be needing to focus more of people and programs for a while, and a little less on facilities."
The withdrawal of the application makes moot, at least for the time being, Stanford’s pending agreement with the Palo Alto Unified School District, which called for $138 million in contributions from the university to the district. That agreement was contingent, however, on a development agreement – a condition that county supervisors rejected.
Tessier-Lavigne said in the statement that he appreciates the engagement of "so many community members throughout the process, the hard work of county planning staff in reviewing our permit and exceptional efforts of those in the university who worked to put forward a comprehensive, balanced plan for the county’s consideration."
"I also deeply appreciate our strong collaboration with the Palo Alto Unified School District," Tessier-Lavigne said in a statement. "The Palo Alto public schools are a critical partner with Stanford, and we will continue seeking ways to work together to expand educational opportunities for local students."
Don Austin, Palo Alto Unified School District superintendent, said in an emailed statement that he looks forward to a continuing relationship with the university.
"Stanford’s decision to withdraw their GUP application means no new housing and no additional students to mitigate," Austin said. "The school district loses nothing in the decision. More importantly, we have gained a strong partner through the time we spent together actively problem-solving and better understanding our shared interests. I expect great things to come from our relationship and hold Stanford University in the highest regard."
Members of the Stanford Coalition for Planning an Equitable 2035 (SCoPE2035), some of whom rallied before the county's Oct. 22 hearing, expressed dismay over Stanford's action.
"We are saddened and frustrated to learn that Stanford has decided to withdraw its general use permit application," the group stated in a post on its Facebook page.
"The goal of our activism was never to stop this project — our demand is that any development Stanford undertakes support the most impacted communities on and around our campus— namely, workers and neighboring communities like East Palo Alto. We want Stanford to be able to grow and do so in a way that benefits everyone."
Despite Shell's assertion that the university is halting its proposal so that it can reflect on the community's feedback and determine its priorities, the student group accused university administrators of simply deciding to wait out those who demanded more from the current application.
"They are waiting for student activists to graduate, for county Supervisors to term out or be up for re-election, for the community to forget. Once that happens, they will submit their application again with nothing changed," the group wrote.