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Stanford raises environmental standard for Middle Plaza project following concerns

Stanford's Middle Plaza Project in Menlo Park will include housing, office and retail space (Courtesy of Stanford News).

Following concerns raised by a local nonprofit called Menlo Spark, Stanford has agreed to raise environmental standards for its Middle Plaza Project in Menlo Park, which Menlo Park City Council members voted unanimously to approve last week.

The new 8.4-acre mixed-use project will include 215 rental apartments intended for Stanford faculty and staff, along with office and retail space and a publicly accessible plaza.

Diane Bailey, executive director of Menlo Spark, an independent nonprofit working towards climate neutrality, voiced specific concerns at last Tuesday’s Council meeting about the unrevised proposal’s ability to meet recently updated green building standards for Menlo Park’s Bayfront and Bell Haven regions, as well as its ability to match the high sustainability standards to which Stanford holds its buildings on campus. She also cited a Menlo Park Environmental Impact Report which stated the project would add over 2,600 additional car trips per day in the area and said the project fell short of the sustainability measures incorporated in a nearby development, before the proposal was altered in response to community feedback.

“The disappointing thing for us was [that] Stanford University is this incredible intellectual bastion of knowledge, sustainability and green building, and they certainly have the expertise to build to the very highest green standards,” Bailey said. “What we were hoping was that Stanford would match what they were practicing on campus with what they were building in Menlo Park.”

Dan Sakaguchi ’16 M.S. ’18, second-year graduate student in Earth Systems and member of the Stanford Coalition for Planning an Equitable 2035 (SCoPE 2035), echoed Bailey’s sentiments, expressing the difficulty of enforcing a standard of high sustainability measures across the University’s various developments.

“The [Middle Plaza Project and buildings on Stanford’s main campus] are all under completely different regulatory frameworks,” he explained. “On campus, Stanford’s buildings are developed under the regulation of the General Use Permit, which only applies to buildings in Santa Clara County. [The Middle Plaza Project] is in San Mateo County … so there [are] a different set of requirements [to which] the buildings are held.”

Stanford’s on-campus buildings are held to the equivalent of a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold certification, which is a standard set by the United States Green Building Council to evaluate green building performance. Via this standard, buildings acquire a certain number of points depending on how many LEED requirements they satisfy and are then awarded a certification of Certified, Silver, Gold or Platinum.

Since the Council Meeting last week, Stanford has agreed to build the project to the LEED Gold-equivalent sustainability levels that are met on campus and to institute a set of transportation initiatives to reduce its carbon footprint. Previously, the University’s Middle Plaza plans required meeting a LEED Silver rating.

According to Bailey, although the University manages an exemplary Transportation Demand Management (TDM) program on campus, it failed to address such measures in the suite of TDM measures initially proposed in the Middle Plaza Project. On campus, Stanford has reduced single-driver rates by charging for parking and paying for free transit passes. However, these two measures were missing from the proposed TDM measures for Middle Plaza. Bailey noted that another nearby project called Station 1300 does meet such standards and that positive environmental effects have resulted from their implementation.

In a written statement to The Daily, University spokesperson E.J. Miranda addressed these concerns, stating that Stanford “[has] an extensive transportation demand management plan that also was considered by the City Council and includes measures to promote bicycling, transit, walking and car-share.”

“When available,” Miranda added, the University “will purchase renewable energy.”

However, this plan does not currently include paid parking, a tactic which has been shown to reduce single driver rates on Stanford’s main campus.

Although Stanford has promised to take action to meet the sustainability concerns raised by Menlo Spark and SCoPE, some issues with the potential socioeconomic impacts of the development linger for critics.

The University will not be required to pay property taxes on the faculty and staff apartments as part of the development, which raised concerns amongst the Menlo Park City School District. In a public statement made in August, Superintendent Erik Burmeister expressed the worry that educating the children living in Stanford’s apartments would incur major costs to the district, since it is funded by property taxes, and California does not provide per-student funding allocations. He estimated that the development will add an additional 39 new students to the district, costing as much as $660,000 over one year.

In response to community pushback on the issue, University administration officials argued that Stanford already possesses several for-profit properties in Menlo Park that generate upwards of $9 million in annual revenue for the city.

While some local residents express concerns over Stanford’s expansion into neighboring areas, many city officials have been receptive to the University’s growth: Last May, for example, as Stanford celebrated the working development of 35 acres of University facilities off Highway 101 in Redwood City, Mayor John D. Seybert extended his welcome to Stanford, predicting that the Redwood City campus would achieve “an incredible ‘ripple effect’” for both the University and the city.

However, Sakaguchi and fellow SCoPE member Forest Peterson M.S. ’07, a graduate student in Civil and Environmental Engineering, expressed concern over the fairness of the new Plaza development for Stanford employees who may be relocated off-campus. Despite the benefits gained by working at newly built facilities, they worry that the relocation may pose an inconvenience for some.

“The one thing I have heard from the administration’s viewpoint is that the administration cannot put any more facilities on Stanford campus,” Peterson said. “They’ve built it out.”

During last Wednesday’s town hall, President Tessier-Lavigne acknowledged that beginning in the early to mid-2000s, “given the growth limitations on campus and [projected needs for academic buildings] … [the University was] going to have to seek solutions beyond building on campus.”

According to Miranda, Stanford believes that Middle Plaza will be a “significant enhancement” for the Menlo Park community on the whole, replacing the “abandoned car lots” in the area.

“We have done extensive work over the last five years with the city and the community to incorporate their feedback and ensure it is a great project for Menlo Park,” said Miranda.

But concerns regarding the Middle Plaza Project have not abated as final approval of an accompanying development agreement for the Middle Plaza Project is set to occur at the Menlo Park City Council meeting this Tuesday.

“Time and time again, we see Stanford acting as a powerful developer of real estate projects in the Bay Area, from our very own campus to the University’s recent expansion into Redwood City and Menlo Park,” Sakaguchi wrote in an email to The Daily on behalf of SCoPE. “As we learn more about Stanford’s development projects, we want to continue elevating those affected — the workers, local residents and neighboring communities — and ask who these projects benefit and who they harm.”

 

Contact Claire Wang at clwang32 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

 

This article has been updated to clarify that residents’ concerns about LEED environmental standards cited early in the article were met in a revised version of the proposal, as well as to incorporate additional quotes from University spokesperson E.J. Miranda on the expected impact of the Middle Plaza project on the community.

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