Stanford University's decision last Friday to pull the plug on a plan that would have given it approval to build all 3.5 million square feet of new development it had asked for over the next 25 years is as difficult to understand as the strategy it has followed throughout the last year.
It means that the long and tedious review of its application will eventually need to start anew, since the university cannot proceed with any development once it uses up the remaining 200,000 square feet or so of growth authorized under the 2000 general use permit. Both Stanford and county staff, plus elected officials and the staffs of surrounding communities, have invested enormous time, professional expertise and money that may now need to be largely re-done. That's frustrating for all involved, as well as the public.
Before it returns with a revised application, Stanford must reassess its negotiating and public relations strategies, both of which have hurt, not helped, the university's case. Unless Stanford reconsiders its intransigence over the county's review process it will encounter the same (or worse) public and political opposition and find itself back in the same place. The university cannot simply take a time-out and hope for a change in the political landscape that will make county officials and the public more receptive to its wants. Obtaining approvals for massive development will only become more difficult over time.
That Stanford would be given permission to expand was never in doubt. The entire process, which is now in its fourth year, centered around how the impacts of its desired expansion needed to be mitigated. But from the start, process was a huge issue. The university felt the way to achieve the best outcome was to negotiate the major mitigation requirements in private meetings with county staff.
For months, it repeatedly -- almost obsessively -- sought to move negotiations with the county from the normal public forum to closed-door negotiations. Over and over, the county made clear it would not agree to a process that wasn't transparent to the public and that it would proceed with normal public hearings and decision-making.
Whether it was because it never anticipated such a robust and comprehensive county review of its application or believed it would eventually persuade three supervisors to relent to its insistence on a negotiated development agreement is unclear. For some inexplicable reason, Stanford believed that the county would eventually capitulate to its demands for negotiating a development agreement, in spite of the fact that it could never make a persuasive case for its necessity and didn't have one when the last use permit was approved 20 years ago.
Frustrated, in September Stanford made a shocking ultimatum. It announced that unless the county agreed to negotiate a development agreement it would withdraw its application. Then last Thursday, just five days prior to Tuesday's Board of Supervisors meeting at which Stanford's proposal would have been approved, university representatives made a last ditch effort. They told county officials the university would accept the proposed housing mitigation requirements if the board agreed to suspend the process and direct the staff to negotiate a development agreement over the next four months.
It was a bizarre offer given that the housing mitigation measures are completely within the county's legal authority and an obligation under CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act, and given that the county has repeatedly made clear it had decided against using a comprehensive development agreement.
The next day, Stanford made good on its threat to withdraw its application.
Successful negotiating requires both parties to understand who has what leverage and to find ways around road blocks. Stanford is usually quite good at this, and the result is more often than not something with which both the university and public are satisfied. The question that has thus far produced no satisfactory answer is why Stanford was so invested in negotiating a development agreement that it was willing to withdraw its application even when approval was days away.
Appropriately, Stanford says it wants to step back and reassess its plans and engage in a new public outreach effort before returning with a new application. We hope and assume it will also include a new, more collaborative and fully transparent approach to negotiating mitigation measures with the county, the cities of southern San Mateo County and the Palo Alto Unified School District. Most importantly, a successful process will depend on repairing the strained relationships between Stanford, county staff and elected officials.