Amid drama, county staff takes firm positions on housing needs and open space protections related to Stanford’s expansion

June 18, 2019 – Palo Alto Matters

Despite recent drama and uncertainty over whether Stanford and Santa Clara County will return to negotiations for a development agreement to govern the university’s expansion project, the County Planning Commission continues to move forward through the traditional review process for Stanford’s General Use Permit application. On May 23, county staff released detailed conditions of approval proposing requirements Stanford would have to meet to proceed with its project, along with associated amendments to the Stanford University Community Plan that provides a policy framework to guide Stanford’s growth.

The most notable element of the proposed conditions of approval is a requirement that Stanford build a minimum of 2,172 units of housing (not counting student beds), including 933 affordable units – far exceeding the 550 units proposed in Stanford’s application. 70 percent of the units in each income category must be constructed on campus. At a May 30 County Planning Commission hearing held in Palo Alto, housing dominated discussion and over 250 people turned out, most of whom urged support for the recommended conditions of approval. Stanford, for its part, opposes the proposed housing requirements and is seeking amendments to get credit for housing already in the pipeline and to eliminate the on-campus requirement by allowing 70% of market rate units to be constructed within 6 miles of campus “or along transit corridors.”

Key among the staff-proposed Stanford Community Plan amendments, is a requirement that Stanford refrain from development outside of the academic growth boundary (AGB) for 99 years. Established as part of Stanford’s 2000 GUP, the AGB essentially preserves Stanford land west of Junipero Serra Boulevard as open space, with development outside the boundary only permissible with support from four out the county’s five supervisors. The original AGB requirement is set to expire in 2025. A 2018 study commissioned by the county concluded that Stanford could triple its density, accommodating up to 44 million square feet of campus development, without breaching the AGB and still maintain a floor area ratio at the low end of the range at comparable universities.

Stanford and others continue to urge return to a development agreement process that allows negotiation of community benefits that cannot be mandated through the traditional, environmental review process. Chief among such benefits could be school mitigations that are strictly limited by the state under the traditional process. Ironically, a separate agreement announced in April between Stanford and the Palo Alto Unified School District is precisely what triggered suspension of negotiations because the school mitigations were conditioned on approval of a development agreement, seemingly contrary to established ground rules between the county and the university.

That apparent Stanford/PAUSD deal spurred new drama last month when the Palo Alto Weekly reported on emails, obtained through a Public Records Act request, that suggested Stanford and PAUSD had “worked together to circumvent county ground rules” and raised questions about the transparency of their discussions. Contemporaneously with that reporting, Stanford called a halt to further action on the tentative agreement with PAUSD and asked the county to delay public hearings on the GUP and return to development agreement negotiations. On May 14, the school board voted to suspend consideration of the tentative Stanford agreement. With the agreement suspended, recused board members Ken Dauber and Todd Collins both returned to the dais to comment on the agreement. Dauber sharply criticized County Supervisor Joe Simitian for having “killed” the agreement due to his objections to its constraints on the broader county negotiations.

Whether the parties will return to development agreement negotiations and the fate of the Stanford/PAUSD school mitigation agreement remain uncertain. However Deputy County Executive Sylvia Gallegos indicated at the May 30 Planning Commission meeting that “there are communications occurring between the county and the university about the conditions under which negotiations may resume.” Meanwhile, the County Planning Commission will continue its work along the traditional path, possibly making a recommendation at the final public hearing scheduled for June 27 at 1:30 pm in the Issac Newton Senter Auditorium at the County Government Center at 70 W. Hedding St., San Jose.

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