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Land-use permit spat drags on between Stanford, Santa Clara County

Flickr/Jitze Couperus

Much of Stanford’s planned expansion over the next 16 years is hanging in the balance as the University’s 2018 General Use Permit (GUP) application awaits a decision from the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors. 

The 3.5 million square-foot construction plan has already been approved by the county’s professional planning staff and planning commission. Both county bodies recommended that final approval of the plan be conditional on detailed measures Stanford would have to take in order to mitigate the impacts of its expansion on housing, traffic, school districts and surrounding neighborhoods.

“What I’ve said from the start is my hope and expectation is that we’ll have full mitigation for any adverse impacts,” said Joe Simitian, president of the board, in an interview with The Daily. “I don’t believe that’s an unreasonable expectation no matter how worthy the applicant is.”

Stanford agreed to meet the county’s conditions in a board meeting last Tuesday. The recommendations drew from findings in the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) released by the county. The EIR assesses the impact Stanford’s expansion will have on the county.

“Stanford has committed to implementing all of the mitigation measures identified in the County’s Final EIR published last December,” said Catherine Palter, Stanford’s associate vice president of land use and environmental planning, in a meeting with the board last Tuesday.

Several points of contention remain between the county and Stanford. 

“We consider 4 out of the 114 draft Conditions of Approval to be infeasible as proposed,” Robert Reidy, Stanford’s Land, Buildings, and Real Estate vice president wrote in a letter to the Board of Supervisors. “We believe that there are constructive ways that we can work together to modify these four conditions to achieve the County’s policy objective.” 

The four conditions Reidy opposed relate to municipal services, Stanford’s payments to mitigate traffic impacts, the creation of recreational areas on Stanford’s campus and University childcare services. 

Last June, Stanford responded to the county’s calls for full mitigation with a package of benefits valued at up to $4.7 billion. 

“As evidenced by our $4.7 billion community benefits offer, we are committed to addressing our region’s most challenging issues, and we want to work with the county in this effort,” Palter told Stanford News in July. 

The package allocates $3.4 billion for housing development, $1.2 billion for transportation and $140 million for schools, nearly all of it for the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD). Stanford is largely exempt from property taxes, and the payment to Palo Alto schools is meant to help cover the costs of the additional students the expansion will bring to the district. 

Stanford’s $4.7 billion proposal also addressed concerns regarding increased traffic and strains on public school resources. The plan would provide about $15 million each for San Mateo and Palo Alto for transit improvement. 

Simitian has called the package a “nonstarter.” 

“None of the things that are offered are actually guaranteed,” he told The Daily. “They are all contingent on the University having its way on each and every one of the Conditions of Approval and Community Plan Amendments.” 

A major point of contention was the number of housing units Stanford would construct. The impact report estimates that Stanford’s expansion will bring an additional 9,610 people to campus. In a region already shrouded by housing affordability concerns, questions circulate over where these thousands of people will live. Stanford’s 2018 GUP application proposed building 2,600 new student beds and 550 housing units.

“If you’ve got 2,600 students in 2,600 beds, that leaves 7,010 people” to fit into those housing units, Simitian said. 

The county, working with outside consultants, determined that Stanford would need to construct 2,172 housing units to fully offset the housing demand created by the new construction, according to Simitian. 

Not all 2,172 units would have to be built on Stanford land, Simitian noted. Some could be built within a six-mile radius. Others, with a special exception, could be built beyond the six-mile radius. In some cases the University could simply pay a housing mitigation fee rather than build. 

The University’s June 24 proposal reaches the County’s requested 2,172 housing units by counting each of the 1,300 units in the Escondido Graduate Village Graduate Residence as half of a unit. Simitian objected to including the Escondido Village units in the tally because the project was already fully permitted before the GUP application. 

The concern over accommodating the expected increase of people may stem from the local housing crisis. The average Palo Alto home costs $2,830,400 according to real-estate site Zillow. Stories of Stanford fellows renting out accessory dwelling units on their back lawns and trailers lining the Stanford campus have become increasingly common. 

“I am genuinely baffled by the [University’s] resistance on this issue,” Simitian said. “The majority of these units that we’re talking about are market-rate units. The University is not being asked to provide these as a freebie, they’re going to charge and collect rent. This is something that will more than pay for itself.”

Stanford responded to the county’s request for additional housing in last Tuesday’s county supervisor meeting by asking for a development agreement, in which the county and Stanford would sit down and formalize a list of requirements and conditions for Stanford to develop its land. 

“We respectfully request that discussion about housing supply and affordability occur in the context of a development agreement,” Reidy wrote in a letter to the Board of Supervisors. “We recognize that there is an urgent need for housing throughout the Bay Area; we want to provide more housing and we want to provide this housing now…”

“A development agreement is requested to ensure that, after making an extraordinary commitment to provide more housing than we sought in our application, the rules surrounding Stanford’s land use obligations will not change,” he said. 

Palter cited the the predictability a development agreement brings as important to Stanford. 

An “agreement will enable us to satisfy the County’s requests and provide the kinds of significant benefits our neighbors seek,” Palter said. “In return, Stanford receives the predictability that a Development Agreement affords.” 

Stanford has taken its appeals to the public with an advertising campaign and website that allows and encourages users to send an email to the county with just one click. 

“I came back from vacation this summer and picked up a copy of [a local] newspaper,” Simitian said. “There was a half-page or full-page ad every single day for 10 days straight.”

He added that, while “there’s nothing inappropriate” about Stanford’s advertising efforts, he sees them as a tool to create “a political climate that is helpful to them [the University].”

“Throughout the General Use Permit application process, the University has sought to educate the local community about the permit application, its importance to our academic mission, and how it addresses the interests of our neighbors, including through advertising,” wrote Stanford spokesperson E.J. Miranda in an email to The Daily. 

Simitian emphasized that approval of the GUP lay in the county board’s vote. 

“The decision of the board is not a negotiation,” Simitian said. “It is a land-use decision made by the governing body that has the responsibility and authority under state law to approve or deny projects with or without condition. The University has continued to push for negotiations because it thinks it can get a better deal that way.” 

Still, Simitian emphasized the county’s willingness to work with Stanford. 

“During the past six and a half years that I’ve been [on the County Board of Supervisors] Stanford has submitted at least three or four other land use applications and they’ve all been approved unanimously on my motion,” Simitian said. “Some of those were controversial applications. One was opposed by the city of Menlo Park. One was opposed by a number of Stanford faculty members.” 

The University says it is optimistic about its ability to find a viable solution for all stakeholders. 

“We are hopeful this process will yield a plan that serves the needs of our neighbors, the county, and the University, and look forward to the Board of Supervisors’ review process that will unfold later this fall,” Miranda wrote.

Contact Nicholas Midler at midler ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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