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After years of fighting for its approval, Stanford withdraws General Use Permit application from County

The 11th-hour decision leaves the future of University development unclear

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The University withdrew its General Use Permit (GUP) application from Santa Clara County on Friday, revoking a 16-year expansion plan that would have added 2.275 million square feet of academic buildings and 3,150 additional affordable housing units to Stanford-owned land. The decision comes in the final stages of the approval process, just ahead of a final public hearing by the County Board of Supervisors scheduled for Nov. 5 in San Jose.  

The University informed the County Board of Supervisors earlier this week that it was willing to meet the County’s ask of 2,172 housing units for faculty and staff — 933 of which would been made available at below-market rate — as part of a development agreement accompanying the permit, according to Jean McCown, associate vice president for community relations. The agreement would stipulate that Stanford provide certain benefits to neighboring communities in exchange for the protection of predictability regarding the land use regulations to which it would be subjected. 

But the University received no indication that a majority of the Board would delay GUP hearings in order to engage discussion on an accompanying development agreement, McCown said, leading Stanford to withdraw the application.

County Board of Supervisors President Joe Simitian said the withdrawal was a surprising decision ahead of what he believed would have been “a good outcome” at the Nov. 5 meeting. He was anticipating that the Board would be able to approve all 3.5 million square feet of development requested by the University — “while simultaneously requiring full mitigation of any adverse impact.”

“I think that would have been a real win-win,” Simitian said. “I certainly respect their right to withdraw their application, but … apparently the expectation of full mitigation was something the University was unprepared to accommodate.”

Simitian acknowledged that Stanford had agreed to accommodate the full housing amount required by the County, but only if the County was also prepared to negotiate a comprehensive development agreement. For Simitian, it wasn’t particularly compelling, “given the fact that the housing requirement was something the County indicated that it could and would require unilaterally.”

While the Board of Supervisors approved discussions for a development agreement to accompany the GUP in October 2018, the County abruptly suspended those discussions in April. Simitian claimed that the University had violated ground rules in a separate negotiation with the Palo Alto Unified School District over a community benefits package. The University maintained it had not, though it ultimately withdraw its agreement offer from the school district

When the University first undertook the GUP application process in the spring of 2016, they estimated that the review process would take “approximately two years.” More than three years later, the long-term land use permit has remained the subject of a tug-of-war between the University and the County. Debates over environmental impact and housing affordability have taken center stage at dozens of public hearings, community meetings, campus protests and rallies, with critics demanding that Stanford mitigate the potential harmful effects of its continued expansion on the Bay Area housing crisis and workers’ commute times.

Despite having been critical of the GUP and central to student engagement on the issues of University expansion, the Stanford Coalition for Planning an Equitable 2035 (SCoPE 2035) wrote in a Facebook post that they are “saddened and frustrated to learn that Stanford has decided to withdraw its General Use Permit application.”

“It is shameful that Stanford would rather throw away its entire plan, rather than engage in substantive discussion on what providing housing for workers on campus could look like,” the post reads. “Stanford walked away from the table — a final failure to support the needs of their students, postdocs, staff, workers, and community members in this process. “

Vice president for development and chief external relations officer Martin Shell told The Daily that the withdrawal of the permit is by no means an indication that the University is lessening its commitment to the external or internal community.

“I think one of the things we are looking at now will be actively accessing what available options we have for highest priority needs … towards the University’s teaching and research mission,” Shell said. Those priorities include a “focus more on people and programs, rather than facilities.” 

This article has been updated to include comment from Joe Simitian, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors. It has been corrected to reflect that the expansion plan would have added 2.275 million square feet of academic buildings, not 2,275 million square feet. The Daily regrets this error.

Contact Elena Shao at eshao98 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Elena Shao '21 is from Suwanee, Georgia. At The Daily, she is a Managing Editor for News. Outside, she's studying political science. She also enjoys learning foreign languages and is hoping to pursue a career as an investigative and data journalist. Contact her at eshao98 'at' stanford.edu.