News


Off Deadline: Stanford's expansion/land-use wars taking a cease-fire timeout?

University's pullout 'was unfathomable,' says Santa Clara County supervisor

The surprise pullback on Nov. 1 of plans for major growth by Stanford University is almost certainly temporary, according to longtime observers of the university's land-use battles over the decades.

Ironically, the university was on the brink of winning Santa Clara County's approval of its entire proposed 3.5 million square feet of additional space, following three long years of planning studies, community meetings and hearings by the county Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors.

Both the county's planning staff and the commission had recommended that the board approve the expansion, so the pullout came as more than a small surprise.

"Unfathomable," one veteran observer called it.

The core problem was the degree of "mitigations" that were being tacked onto the recommended approvals — which Stanford started balking at soon after the approval process started in years back, and which surfaced openly last year.

The details leading up to the current impasse were magnificently outlined by reporter Gennady Sheyner in the Weekly's Nov. 8 cover story "AXED — Inside Stanford's bid to expand — and how it came undone."

But in broad outline, the central issues involved go back decades to the growth/anti-growth disputes of the 1960s following the fast-growth years of the 1950s in Palo Alto and beyond.

They came to a head in 2000, when Stanford proposed, and was granted by the county, nearly 3 million square feet of academic expansion plus 2,000 housing units, under a process called by the unflattering acronym "GUP," for General Use Permit.

The recent proposal went by the formal name of Community Plan, but nicknamed "GUP2."

One of the mitigations for GUP1 was for Stanford to operate a free shuttle service for the campus and surrounding communities, the Marguerite.

But there have been squabbles even after the plan was approved, relating to a key requirement that there be "no new net trips" by peak-hour automobile commuters due to expansion-related job growth — a supremely challenging and expensive proposition.

Some at Stanford tried to reduce the impact on the university by first getting the peak hour defined as just one hour. At least one department head, it was discovered, put out a memo encouraging employees to arrive and depart before or after the designated hour so their trips wouldn't count.

Back to the present, the déjà vu I mentioned in my last column on the topic seems to be happening all over again, as just about anyone involved in the 2000 GUP process knows.

One of those is Joe Simitian, currently a member of the county Board of Supervisors after serving terms in both houses of the state Legislature and earlier on the Palo Alto school board and City Council.

He was a central player during the 2000 GUP process in his former stint on the county board, when he received some verbal battle scars. And he has some good words for Stanford: "We all know how important Stanford has been to the success of our region. We all want that success to continue," he said last June, adding that community impacts must be addressed.

The pullout by Stanford "was unfathomable," he said in a phone interview Monday.

"But I feel they'll be back. It'll be fine; it'll be fine."

I agree, being a veteran myself of the land-use wars of the late 1960s and early 1970s as a reporter for the erstwhile Palo Alto Times/Peninsula Times Tribune, which died in 1993.

The current pull-back of the plans, despite its shock value, is a solid strategy that will allow the university to pursue two avenues in seeking a go-ahead with less stringent mitigations.

The first approach is simple lobbying, which Stanford has shown its skill at repeatedly over many years, both locally and at the state level.

But the second approach appears to be something Stanford hasn't put a lot of effort into over the years: building community support for the university as a whole, for its superb academic offerings and extensive state-of-the-science research in health and medical issues and sci-fi sounding advanced technology.

And it's using one old-school method to win community support: Advertising in newspapers, among other methods that presumably include social media.

I noticed some of the Stanford-promotional ads, but Simitian stumbled on them in an odd way.

"I went away for vacation in July, and when I came back — my dry cleaner keeps the Daily Post for me — they handed me about two weeks of the Daily Post," Simitian said. "In every issue there was either a full- or half-page ad about Stanford. Staffers rounded up copies for the rest of July, and every single day there was either a full-page ad or a half-page ad touting the wonderful work the university has done. And that was in the immediate aftermath of a Planning Commission decision, so there wasn't anything coming right up. It was during a month when we were on recess anyway.

"And that's just one of the seven papers they advertised in. They advertised in the Mercury, the Weekly, the Almanac, the Voice, the San Mateo Daily Journal, the Daily News."

There's an additional irony in the big picture. On Oct. 30, 1973, I wrote a story for the Palo Alto Times that carried the headline, "No-growth plan for Stanford."

The story quoted three top Stanford officials at the time on the eve of their making a presentation to the Palo Alto City Council: Robert Augsburger, Stanford vice president for business and finance; Vice President and Provost William F. Miller; and Claton Rich vice president for medical affairs and dean of the Stanford School of Medicine.

"Almost everything under construction of planned is for consolidation," much of it related to housing for students and staff, Augsburger said.

The growth battles of 2000 were a vastly long way off, 27 years, and the vision-battles of 2019 weren't even a glimmer on the far horizon.

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com and/or jaythor@well.com.

Related content:

Over the past year, Stanford and Santa Clara County clashed over numerous issues. Here are three key points of contention.

Editorial: On the eve of county approval, Stanford withdraws its development application and forfeits years of work. There was a better way.

• Watch Weekly journalists discuss details of Stanford University's proposed expansion plan and how the community received it on the Nov. 8 episode of "Behind the Headlines," now available on YouTube and our podcast page.

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Comments

9 people like this
Posted by PA observer
a resident of Community Center
on Nov 16, 2019 at 8:46 am

Actually Stanford's decision is completely fathomable. Joe was overmatched by a task this big, and couldn't figure out how to climb down from his refusal to negotiate with Stanford.

Do we really want a supervisor who claims to have no idea what happened on the biggest job he had on his watch?


9 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 16, 2019 at 10:19 am

Article:

>> The first approach is simple lobbying, which Stanford has shown its skill at repeatedly over many years, both locally and at the state level.

>> But the second approach appears to be something Stanford hasn't put a lot of effort into over the years: building community support for the university as a whole,

Unfortunately, what this says is that Stanford is not taking the time to do the real planning effort seriously: figuring out where its employees will live, and, how they will commute to Stanford, even as Facebook, Menlo Park, EPA, Google, Mountain View, etc, block out existing commuting on US-101 and the CA-84 Dumbarton Bridge. Figure out how more Stanford employees can live closer to, or on, Stanford.

The main problem that needs to be addressed is -traffic-. Stanford needs to think much harder than it has about -transportation-. Stanford will have a worsening transportation problem for decades to come, but, it thinks it has a PR problem. I would like to think Stanford management is smarter than that.


Posted by PA observer, a resident of Community Center

>> Actually Stanford's decision is completely fathomable. Joe was overmatched by a task this big, and couldn't figure out how to climb down from his refusal to negotiate with Stanford.

Joe Simitian has done a great job over the years. Did he tell you your dog was ugly or something? Skip the ad hominem and address the issue-- traffic.


15 people like this
Posted by JR
a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 16, 2019 at 12:49 pm

"Some at Stanford tried to reduce the impact on the university by first getting the peak hour defined as just one hour. At least one department head, it was discovered, put out a memo encouraging employees to arrive and depart before or after the designated hour so their trips wouldn't count."

This is outright fraud in an attempt to rig a traffic study. Why isn't that department head in jail? Who ordered them to rig the study?

Shame on Stanford.


6 people like this
Posted by lili li
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 17, 2019 at 7:01 am

A lot of that traffic comes from outsiders driving to the Dish so they can exercise for free on Stanford land. Maybe Stanford should close the Dish to outsiders? Would alleviate a big part of the traffic problem.


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