10-22 GUP Hearing

November 4, 2019 Newsletter

Coming up this week: City Council will vote on a resolution indicating the city’s intent to mandate all-electric utilities service for new construction effective January 2022, and approve a framework for stakeholder outreach and initial polling related to a potential revenue generating tax measure for the 2020 ballot. The city also will hold a city-wide community meeting to present current rail grade separation options, present mock-ups, and answer questions. For additional calendar items and more details, see Notable Upcoming Action.

The city is recruiting volunteers to join the Historic Resources Board, the Parks and Recreation Commission, and the Planning and Transportation Commission. Board and commission members play a critical role in shaping the future of our community. Apply todayApplications are due at 4:30 pm, November 5, 2019. Click here for more information.

Stanford abruptly withdraws application for 3.5 million square foot expansion

Just days after reportedly agreeing to meet the county’s demand for 2,172 new units of faculty and staff housing, on November 1 Stanford abruptly withdrew its application for a General Use Permit for its planned 3.5 million square foot expansion. The Board of Supervisors was scheduled to take final action on the GUP and conditions of approval on November 5.

Although approval was widely expected, Stanford opted to abandon the application, rather than face a vote on mitigation requirements. The university cited the reluctance of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors to substitute a development agreement for the County Planning Commission’s recommended conditions of approval, as well as proposed traffic mitigation requirements that Stanford deemed infeasible, as key sticking points that led the university to put its plans on hold. 

Conflict over development agreement

A development agreement would have allowed greater flexibility for negotiation of community benefits that the county cannot require under the traditional land use approval process in exchange for leniency around required mitigation of the impacts of Stanford’s growth plan. Stanford has often argued that a privately negotiated, contractual development agreement is necessary to provide certainty that the rules governing their development plans won’t change over the life of the permit. However, the previous Stanford GUP that was approved in 2000 accomplished exactly that without a DA. In its 169 year history, the county has never entered into a development agreement. 

Ironically, it was Stanford’s aggressive pursuit of a privately negotiated DA contract that undermined the prospects for such a deal. This past spring, Stanford made a bilateral agreement with the Palo Alto Unified School District that would have mitigated some school impacts contingent upon county approval of both the GUP and a development agreement. Although a separate agreement between Stanford and PAUSD was appropriate and encouraged, tying it to commitments from the county proved a step too far. By making school enrollment mitigations dependent on county acquiescence to Stanford’s other demands, the move was perceived both to violate the ground rules for DA negotiations and as a cynical political weapon using kids and schools to force county concessions in other critical impact areas. The county then indefinitely paused negotiations, returning instead to the traditional development review process. 

As reported by the Palo Alto Weekly, in response to Stanford’s Friday announcement, Board of Supervisors President Joe Simitian said “The authorization of 3.5 million square feet over 15 to 20 years would’ve been a substantial benefit to the university. But given the requirement for full mitigation, they chose to walk away. I respect their decision, as an applicant, to walk away.” Although he was open to the notion of a development agreement “as an appropriate tool for some narrow and limited benefits” he was not willing to abdicate the county’s police powers and land-use authority.

What impacts and mitigations were at issue?

Community members and public officials from across the region have turned out in droves throughout the public review process seeking mitigation of impacts from Stanford’s expansion plan on housing, traffic and transit, municipal services, schools, parks and open space, air quality and more. Most recently, a public hearing in Palo Alto on October 22 brought an overflow crowd of more than 400 people and was preceded by two rallies calling for full mitigation – one organized by the Stanford Coalition for Planning an Equitable 2035 (SCoPE2035) to insist that Stanford offer more housing and transportation services for employees, and another organized by the Palo Alto Council of Parent Teacher Associations urging Stanford to stand by the spring draft agreement with PAUSD, with or without a development agreement. 

A coalition of elected representatives and staff members from San Mateo County, Atherton, East Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Portola Valley, Redwood City and Woodside also weighed in prior to the hearing calling on Stanford to “pay its fair share” to address the impacts of proposed campus growth, citing the revenue loss already suffered by San Mateo County public agencies due to Stanford’s current $1.2 billion in tax exempt property holdings in the county.

The traditional review process produced a recommendation by the county’s staff and Planning Commission to approve the GUP, but subject to certain conditions designed to achieve full mitigation of negative impacts on housing, traffic and other environmental concerns, including such things as:

  • the addition of 2,172 new housing units for faculty and staff and a housing linkage provision that would require housing construction to move forward concurrent with academic development – that is, Stanford could not build subsequent phases of academic growth until the housing required in the previous phase was complete;
  • a new methodology for counting car trips that considers the entire “peak” commute period rather than a single hour; and
  • long term protection of the foothills from development.  

Under state law, the county cannot require mitigations for school enrollment impacts. However, in order to approve the GUP, the Board of Supervisors would have had to make a legal finding that it would not be “detrimental to public health, safety, and general welfare.” County analysis indicated that PAUSD currently loses $44.5 million in annual revenue due to Stanford’s tax exempt status. The GUP was expected to produce 1,086 new PAUSD students from new tax exempt Stanford properties. Averaging the cost of that enrollment growth across PAUSD’s total enrollment, by 2041 it would result in a $5,050 reduction in funding, for every PAUSD student, every year. County Board President, Supervisor Joe Simitian, indicated on October 22 that absent Stanford contributions to the school district, it could be difficult for the board to make the legal findings necessary to approve the GUP.  

Because of Stanford’s tax exempt status, absent supplemental Stanford contributions to the school district, by 2041 PAUSD would see a $5,050 reduction in funding for every PAUSD student, every year. 

Announcement and reactions

Stanford indicated in its announcement that it will launch “a new phase of engagement with our local communities” and consider the implications of regional challenges for Stanford’s longer-term campus development. The announcement also refers to a poll (commissioned by Stanford) showing that after receiving what the university described as “a neutral description of the [GUP application],” 72 percent of respondents supported Stanford’s expansion plan. 

In a separate letter to the Stanford community, the university again touted the necessity of a development agreement and blamed the Board of Supervisors’ two-member ad hoc negotiating committee for preventing the university from “responding to the many requests for benefits from our neighboring communities.” Stanford also reiterated that mitigating the car trips associated with greater housing requirements would be infeasible and unrealistic and objected to a county proposed study that would have monitored Stanford’s impacts on municipal services. Stanford’s letter says they “will be actively assessing available options for our highest-priority needs” and “will inform and involve the campus community and our neighbors as we determine the next steps.” 

Stanford undergraduate and graduate students behind the influential SCoPE2035 aren’t buying it. In a scathing Facebook post responding to Stanford’s announcement, the group says Stanford’s “reasons for withdrawing the permit are excuses disguising their true motive.” SCoPE2035 argues that the proposed conditions of approval would have provided “just as much certainty as a development agreement” and that “Stanford’s claims of being unable to meet traffic requirements while building new housing are false. The County loosened requirements to make them easier to meet and gave Stanford multiple options and flexibility to meet standards, including unlimited trip credits.” 

The group accused Stanford of treating community pleas for equitable outcomes as mere public relations challenges and posited that the university’s latest move is a “stalling tactic” designed not for further “engagement” with the community but to wait for student activists to graduate, county supervisors to be replaced, and the community to forget.

Members of the San Mateo County coalition expressed both relief and disappointment. It felt like a win that county residents would not soon have to face the problems predicted from Stanford’s expansion plan. But some were disappointed that Stanford opted to withdraw its application rather than confront the cumulative impacts of its long-term growth in partnership with affected communities.

What happens next?

With the application withdrawn, county deliberations on Stanford’s plan come to a full stop. Whether Stanford will submit a new, possibly revised, application for a long-term development permit, pursue piecemeal permits to implement its plans on a project by project basis, or simply pause its development ambitions until the politics are more favorable, remains to be seen. In any case, Stanford still has development entitlements remaining in its allocation from the GUP approved by the county in 2000.

Get Up To Speed

President Hotel back in the news

Even as they hoped to turn over a new leaf and build community confidence, Adventurous Journeys Capital Partners, the owners of the President Hotel, stirred fresh controversy and community skepticism. In advance of an open house last week to unveil their plans for restoration of the historic building and renovations to convert it from housing to its original hotel use, the owners produced a glossy brochure claiming support from respected local nonprofits and touting $2.4 million in community donations. However, a footnote revealed that the donations were “to be confirmed and subject to change” and “contingent upon the hotel being issued a building permit.” 

Having not forgotten the devastating impact of losing 75 units of naturally affordable housing, protesters at the open house carried signs condemning the proposed conversion and handed out flyers criticizing AJ Capital’s attempt to curry favor through supposed charitable donations that appear instead to be mere quid pro quo, calling on the city to hold the project accountable to our laws without exceptions, and urging the owners to pivot and restore housing at the President Hotel.

AJ Capital stimulated a firestorm of public opposition last year when it announced its intention to convert the 75-unit downtown President Hotel Apartments into a boutique hotel and evicted all residents. The outcry led City Council to enact an emergency ordinance requiring relocation assistance for tenants and a new law banning conversion of downtown housing in “grandfathered” buildings (those built before current development standards were adopted) to non-residential use. In March, AJ Capital’s building permit application was deemed incomplete and in violation of numerous zoning laws, including parking requirements. 

In September AJ Capital submitted a new application. Whether they can overcome multiple zoning hurdles remains to be seen. They contend that because all the tenants had vacated before the city’s new ban on certain residential conversions kicked in, the President Hotel ceased to be housing rendering their project not a conversion. A study submitted by AJ Capital concludes that with a valet program parking demand for their 100-room hotel will be just 30-40 parking spaces, though the zoning code for new hotels would call for closer to 200. The President Hotel currently has 10 parking spaces. Current law also limits new hotels to a Floor Area Ratio of 2.0, while the proposed project has a FAR of approximately 5.5.  

Old Palo Alto gets residential permit parking and city takes next step toward ending free parking downtown 

On October 21, City Council unanimously approved a new residential preferential parking, or RPP, program for an approximately seven-block area of Old Palo Alto, on the east side of the California Avenue bicycle and pedestrian underpass, that has been overrun with commuter parking. Under the new RPP, residents within the RPP zone will be allowed to purchase up to five parking permits for $50 each. No permits will be available to non-residents and those parking in the zone without permits will be limited to a maximum of 2 hours. Under the program, several surrounding residential blocks are eligible to join the RPP zone in the event parking congestion spills over onto their blocks.

On October 28, City Council took a step forward to advance extensive reforms to the city’s parking system, including a parking guidance system to display real-time downtown parking occupancy information and development of a Parking Action Plan to implement 35 recommendations presented in the city’s May 2019 Residential Preferential Parking Program Review, including the recommendation to pursue paid parking downtown. Under contract amendments approved on the council’s consent calendar, parking consultants Dixon Resources will plan, manage installation, and evaluate occupancy indicators and data to support the parking guidance system, develop the Parking Action Plan, and support the process to secure council approval. 

In addition to paid parking downtown, the Action Plan will address parking permit management, wayfinding, and Transportation Demand Management measures. The Parking Action Plan will include recommendations about policy and ordinance changes that would be necessary to implement the plan, an outreach strategy, infrastructure and technology recommendations, recommended rate structures and enforcement, maintenance and operations requirements, parking district boundaries, and staffing resources. 

Are you one of the “most people” who don’t know what the rail grade separation debate is about?

The city has spent years and over a million dollars tackling the challenge of how best to redesign our railroad crossings to avoid traffic standstills when more frequent commuter trains soon bring the gates down every three minutes at intersections where the roadway intersects with the train tracks. “Grade separation” refers to separation of the road from the railroad tracks, either above or below the level of the tracks, known as the grade, so that cross-town traffic can flow freely even when trains are present.

Having significantly narrowed the alternatives from an initial list of 30 and ramped up the deliberative powers of an Expanded Community Advisory Panel known as the XCAP, the city plans to select a preferred plan by next spring for what likely will be the “biggest project in Palo Alto’s history” and cost over $1 billion. But despite the magnitude of the challenge and what has so far been a fairly contentious debate, it appears that most Palo Altans either don’t know about the effort at all, don’t understand what’s at stake, or don’t know how the potential alternatives stack up.

The city hopes to change that through a proactive public engagement plan consisting of town hall meetings, resident surveys, newsletters and interactive “transportation talks” tailored to small groups. The city also has launched a blog series to keep the public up to speed and will hold a citywide community meeting where city staff will discuss the current design options in more detail, present graphics and mock-ups, and answer questions: Thursday, November 7 (6:00-8:00 pm, Mitchell Park Community Center)

More information about Palo Alto’s grade separation effort, including background, FAQs, visuals, reports, and updates on the work of the XCAP can be found at the city’s Connecting Palo Alto website.

Notable Upcoming Action

November 4, 2019

Coming Mandate for All-Electric New Construction: City Council will vote on a resolution declaring the city’s intent to mandate all-electric service for new construction effective January 2022. Beginning at 7:30 pm (City Hall). Click here for staff report.

Outreach and Polling for 2020 Ballot Tax Measure: City Council will approve a framework for stakeholder outreach and initial polling related to a potential revenue generating ballot measure and vote to exempt selected consultants from the city’s competitive bidding requirements. Beginning at 9:00 pm (City Hall). Click here for staff report.

November 5, 2019

Board and Commission Recruitment: Deadline for applications to join Palo Alto’s Historic Resources Board, Parks and Recreation Commission, and Planning and Transportation Commission. 4:00 pm. Click here for more information.

November 7, 2019

Grade Separations: The city will host a citywide community meeting about grade separation alternatives. 6:00 to 8:00 pm (Mitchell Park Community Center, El Palo Alto Room). Click here for more information about the city’s planning process.

November 12, 2019 – (Tentative)

The Council Policy and Services Committee is tentatively scheduled to discuss safe parking alternatives for car and RV dwellers, revisions to Council policies and protocols, and hear a report from the city’s State lobbyist.

November 14, 2019 – (Tentative)

The Council Finance Committee is tentatively scheduled to discuss and recommend a 2020 tax ballot measure for City Council consideration.

November 18, 2019 – (Tentative)

City Council is tentatively scheduled to hold a study session on Palo Alto’s water supply reliability during a drought and vote on a resolution approving a partnership between Palo Alto, Mountain View, and Valley Water to advance wastewater reuse programs, hear anticipated appeal of Crown Castle wireless installations, and discuss the possible 2020 tax ballot measure.