Editorial: Used to getting its way, Stanford struggles to gain control over county review process | September 27, 2019 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - September 27, 2019

Editorial: Used to getting its way, Stanford struggles to gain control over county review process

As it preps for public hearings on its 25-year development application, university demands a closed-door negotiation instead

Stanford University and Santa Clara County staff are locked in an unusual conflict over how the university's application should be handled by the county Board of Supervisors, a disagreement that few in the public understand or consider important.

As the supervisors proceed toward public hearings in the weeks ahead and a decision on Stanford's general-use permit application, Stanford is not helping itself or serving the community's interests by demanding a different process that consists of confidential negotiations behind closed doors.

The university's preferred process amounts to freewheel bargaining between the applicant and the government agency, where deals are struck to trade off some requirements in exchange for obtaining other benefits that the public may want but has no legal authority to require. In the end of the process, the applicant and staff release the resulting "development agreement" that spells out the commitments of the applicant. The agency, in this case the county Board of Supervisors, then holds public hearings and votes on the agreement. This is not the normal way government agencies consider development proposals, and Santa Clara County has never used it.

County staff are instead following the traditional legal process, which involves the staff recommending conditions of approval, including measures necessary to mitigate the impacts of the development, followed by public input and final action. That approval process is well underway. The county Planning Commission has already held hearings and approved the staff-recommended conditions of approval.

Stanford has strong objections to some of the conditions, including requirements that it provide more housing than the university originally proposed and meet stringent new traffic requirements based on a more aggressive monitoring system. It says these conditions, when taken together, are infeasible.

But instead of either reducing the 3.5 million square feet in its development proposal or focus on persuading the county and public to agree to specific changes to the proposed conditions, Stanford has decided to threaten the withdrawal of its application unless negotiations get shifted to a closed-door development agreement process.

The Board of Supervisors and the public should strongly resist this attempt. The county staff has prepared, in good faith, conditions of approval that seek to give Stanford all the development approvals it seeks for the next 25 years while protecting the surrounding communities from the impacts created by that development.

Stanford University already enjoys tremendous exclusive benefits from the county, including the opportunity to avoid going through a separate permit process as it constructs each building. Once approved, for the next 25 years Stanford will be free to proceed with its plans with minimal involvement of the county other than to ensure compliance with the conditions of approval.

Stanford has not made the case that a change in the process is needed or desirable. Its statement that "under a development agreement, Stanford is able to provide significant community benefits, and even front-load those benefits, because of assurances from the county that the university can build its academic buildings under predictable land use rules and regulations" is vague, unpersuasive and fails to explain why the same cannot be accomplished through the current open public process.

With under 200,000 square feet left to develop from its current permit, Stanford can hardly afford to walk away from its new application. Let's hear the arguments and the university's alternative proposals for mitigating the impacts of its growth. But thinking its best strategy is to threaten the withdrawal of its application in order to get all or part of its application diverted to a development agreement is a recipe for confusion, further delay and unpredictable and unaccountable horse-trading. The normal process worked fine for Stanford when its current use permit was approved in 2000.

In the meantime, a piece of good news this week: Stanford has informed the Palo Alto Unified School District that when it builds new housing on campus as a result of being granted a new general-use permit, it will honor the commitment it made earlier in the year to pay the district about $6,000 a year for every additional student who enrolls in the school district who lives in new tax-exempt housing, as well as other benefits that could total as much as $138 million over 40 years.

The public is not served by any process that pushes the negotiation of critical issues behind closed doors. Much as Stanford might prefer otherwise, the county has oversight of development on the campus and is right to insist on following a normal, open process in which the public can fully observe and participate.

Comments

39 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 27, 2019 at 9:56 am

It was the headline that drew me in: "Used to getting its way, Stanford struggles to gain control over county review process."

IMHO, -Stanford University-, the institution of higher learning, needs -to gain control- over the MBAs that are running the place now, and put academics first. Stanford the business is really the "edifice complex" run amok right now.


46 people like this
Posted by LSJU79
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 27, 2019 at 5:07 pm

I have to agree with Anon (above). Over the last couple of decades the university once known as Leland Stanford Junior University has evolved into the diversified corporate conglomerate now commonly known by the empty "stanford" brand.

The change was driven by self-serving MBA group think deeply embedded within the university bureaucracy as functionaries within the various business units struggled to amass empires and compensation packages that would impress their business school peers working in the corporate world.

I fear it is too late for the academic side of the university to regain control of this monster. It may be time to accept the fact that "stanford" is just a corporation, like any other, and no longer deserving of tax exempt status, or special consideration from the County.


12 people like this
Posted by Paly parent
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 27, 2019 at 5:55 pm

The editorial curiously omits some highly relevant facts. The first is that the supervisors directed County staff to negotiate a development agreement with Stanford, and delegated to Simitian and Chavez to manage it. So this isn't somehow an alien idea.

The second is that Cortese on Tuesday called out staff (and implicitly Simitian) for failing to negotiate in good faith.

I get that the Weekly has decided to carry Simitian's water on this issue. I personally think Simitian has utterly screwed this up. But no matter what the Weekly editor's opinion, he should at least write an editorial that isn't misleading on crucial points.


12 people like this
Posted by substance
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 27, 2019 at 7:03 pm

substance is a registered user.

Paly parent,

Wasn’t there a violation of the development agreement negotiations when PAUSD and Stanford went at negotiations alone and forgot the public?


12 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 27, 2019 at 7:37 pm

@substance, no, that was just what Simitian proclaimed to cover his errors. Stanford and the district told everyone they were negotiating and reached a tentative agreement. Simitian realized it boxed him in, so he claimed it broke the rules; simply not true. Of course, since this paper blatantly carries his water, there was no big risk to him in making it up.


7 people like this
Posted by substance
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 27, 2019 at 10:31 pm

substance is a registered user.

Paly parent,

Seems to me that the error was to allow PAUSD and Stanford (a business in activities and behavior) to negotiate on the side with the development agreement itself, was that how it was supposed to work?




3 people like this
Posted by Chris
a resident of University South
on Sep 27, 2019 at 11:11 pm

Why do Palo Altans think that an outside entity should be held to a higher standard than they impose within its own borders?

The Weekly should concern itself with getting Palo Alto to mitigate its own issues before it advocates Stanford mitigate the effects of Stanford development AND Palo Alto’s mismanaged development/housing imbalance.


16 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 28, 2019 at 9:13 am

Posted by Chris, a resident of University South

>> Why do Palo Altans think that an outside entity should be held to a higher standard than they impose within its own borders? - The Weekly should concern itself with getting Palo Alto to mitigate its own issues before it advocates Stanford mitigate the effects of Stanford development AND Palo Alto’s mismanaged development/housing imbalance.

Uh, sure. Can you be more specific? Because, to me, this -is- Palo Alto working on its own issues. Parts of "Stanford, Inc." are inside Palo Alto, parts are "outside" the boundaries. But, most of the parts create traffic through Palo Alto, some more benign than others. I'm happy to see many Stanford employees ride Caltrain, then Marguerite, to work. And, as far as Palo Alto == PAUSD is concerned, all the Stanford residents utilize Palo Alto schools. So, this is Palo Alto business, even if the construction permitting process is at the County level.


17 people like this
Posted by Oldster
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 28, 2019 at 1:53 pm

It's not "Stanford, Incorporated" but the Stanford "Trust" thanks to that old rascal Robber Baron former California Goverrnor Leland Stanford having pursuaded the State legislature to approve his university trust to avoid it having to pay normal landowner or corporate taxes, or follow any corporation laws. He must be laughing about this from his mausoleum.

The County and City faced with that nearly lawless and unaccountable trust has to play hard ball neogtiating with it just like the hard ball old Leland played to build his railroad because the current Stanford leadership behaves like a chip off the old Leland block. "Don't play the secret game we want to avoid public input? WE WALK!" Geesh. It's like Leland demanding and getting exhorbitant rail freight fees on his lines where he had monolopolies and defrauding creditors with his junk bonds - juts becasue he could g away with that. Bad acting is bad acting.

The trust as a creation of Sacramento legislation can always be revoked with sufficient public pressure on Sacramento. Make Stanford Unviersity become a normal nonprofit or a for profit corporation. That would be a start to play real hard ball at the level the universiy has been doing in my lifetime.


25 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 28, 2019 at 3:26 pm

I’m confused.
Stanford is threatening to drop their request to be allowed to build millions of square feet if the county, the governing body, does not obey their demand for a specific process for approval? What next, will Stanford threaten to hold their breath or cut off their nose if the elected officials don’t meet their demands?


18 people like this
Posted by Don't build
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 28, 2019 at 11:12 pm

One could only hope that Stanford would stop the building mania, but that isn't likely. As the largest real estate and development entity in this area (that also runs a small school to keep their tax exempt status) they will no more stop building than any other developer until forced to do so.

Enlightened Palo Alto citizens were able to get our city council to enact a 50,000 square foot yearly development limit due to overcrowding, gridlocked traffic and lack of housing in Palo Alto. At least we, as a city, are no longer adding to the massive over-development bubble in the area that is destroying everyone's quality of life.

Stanford should be held to the same standards. They should be part of the solution and fix the transportation and housing issues they have created before they build any more office space. They think they have such great minds on campus but for decades they have been allowed to ignore the obvious issue that too many jobs are being allowed to build office space here and there is not room for the people in those jobs to live here without destroying the livability of the area.

I'm glad that the Santa Clara board of supervisors has finally grown a back bone after giving Stanford everything they have asked for in the last two permits. Perhaps this time they will make this mega-entity do the right thing or even better would be to deny any more development. Because, let's face it, development in this area can no longer be mitigated due to lack of space and further destruction to our quality of life is all that we will end up with.




19 people like this
Posted by Oldster
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 28, 2019 at 11:15 pm

Resident, Yep, like a little kid holding his breathe in an epic tantrum.

If Stanford doesn't get what it wants it for its latest densification ideas, how & when it wants, maybe it will run to Sacramento as the Valco redevelopers did to have Sacramento trump local government land use rules. Maybe that is the real game Stanford is now playing? Or perhaps like The President Hotel redevelopers expecting authorities to roll over and grant variances like Halloween candy in return for a few more taxes.


13 people like this
Posted by LSJU79
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 1, 2019 at 9:48 pm

Yesterday Governor Newsom signed a bill that effectively allows amateur college athletes to take money and become professionals while still in college. It is hard to blame the athletes since they are the only ones left in the whole top heavy athletics bureaucracy that are not making money from the whole sick system.

The MBA group-think deeply embedded in the university administrative bureaucracy ruins everything it touches. The entire university structure is being torn down and thrown on the fire that fuels the administrative bureaucracy's lust for bureaucratic empire and compensation packages that will impress their business school classmates working outside of the college/university system.


Like this comment
Posted by Not LSJU at all
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 1, 2019 at 11:04 pm

@LSJU79, sounds like one of those "deep state" things. President Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Drell are both hard-core research scientists and Hennessy was a computer scientist; even Bob Reidy, the Stanford Land person, is a Cal Poly mechanical engineer by training. Those MBA's must be pretty stealthy to have taken over while letting the others "run things."

Your rant reminds of Derek Bok, former president of Harvard, who wrote a whole book ("The Cost of Talent"), complaining that non-academics (lawyers, business people, etc.) were just paid too much and it wasn't fair!


13 people like this
Posted by LSJU79
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 1, 2019 at 11:29 pm

@Not

You do not have to be an MBA to be lured or stampeded into self-serving MBA group-think. Self-serving group-think is insidious and invisible to its beneficiaries.


1 person likes this
Posted by Not LSJU at all
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 1, 2019 at 11:38 pm

@LSJU79, in my experience ambition and greed are well-distributed across the population. You may have noticed some tech companies around here - including giants like Google and giant frauds like Theranos - that were driven by engineers and technologists. You're giving MBAs too much credit for creating the culture - they are just a part of it.


9 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 2, 2019 at 7:51 am

Posted by Not LSJU at all, a resident of Barron Park

>> @LSJU79, in my experience ambition and greed are well-distributed across the population. You may have noticed some tech companies around here - including giants like Google and giant frauds like Theranos - that were driven by engineers and technologists. You're giving MBAs too much credit for creating the culture - they are just a part of it.

The MBAs can take credit for turning the thought that "It doesn't hurt to know how much things cost" into "the -only- thing that matters is the next quarter's bottom line". Real, projected, or, imaginary (someone mention Theranos?).


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