Stanford University's plan to build more than 2 million square feet of academic facilities and 3,150 housing units by 2035 has Palo Alto officials raising fresh concerns about the impact of the new construction on the city's public services, traffic conditions and recreational facilities.
These concerns, as well as others, are outlined in a comment letter that the City Council approved last week in response to Stanford's recent application for a new General Use Permit. If approved by Santa Clara County, the permit will allow Stanford to gradually expand over the next 18 years while setting a series of conditions to mitigate the impacts of this growth.
While some of the concerns and suggestions outlined in the city's letter to the county -- most notably the ones pertaining to parking and traffic -- have been the subject of much discussion in recent weeks, others are just now starting to surface. These include a request that Stanford consider paying for acquisition of new parkland, analyze the impact of construction on air emissions; evaluate the university's use of groundwater; and provide "detailed information" about the number of new students, staff and residents that would accommodated on and off campus by the proposed development between now and 2035.
The city's letter to the county's Planning Office reflects in many ways the council's anxieties about Stanford's long-term impact on a region already reeling from traffic congestion and a housing shortage. While Stanford is committing to continue its policy of not adding any net new car trips during peak commute hours (a policy that made its debut in the 2000 General Use Permit), the city is hoping for more data and analysis about the university's plan to achieve this.
"Members of the Palo Alto community appreciate the University's focus on reducing commute trips to/from campus by single occupant vehicle (SOV) during peak commute hours but are increasingly skeptical that the University's trip reduction programs are living up to their promise," the letter states. "We would ask the County to take a hard look at how the 'no net trips' goal is structured, starting with the baseline, and including the methodology, reporting, peer reviews, and penalties for not achieving the promised result."
In addition, the city is asking the county to demand that Stanford include in its Environmental Impact Report for the permit a host of detailed analyses relating to traffic. These include transportation-related
construction impacts, the expansion's effect on transit performance and impacts to emergency-response times.
Some council members are also concerned that limiting the "no net new" trips policy to peak commute hours fails to capture the significance of Stanford's traffic impacts. During the council's Feb. 27 discussion with Stanford officials about the new permit, Councilwoman Karen Holman said she had observed westbound traffic on Page Mill Road back up well before the typical evening commute hours.
The city requests that Stanford "identify peak travel periods for the campus based on vehicle volumes collected across an entire day."
"Due to the University's unique land use mix, the city is interested in understanding how travel patterns may differ from typical morning and afternoon peak periods," the letter to the county states.
Recreation is another area of concern. Stanford's analysis concluded that its proposed expansion would not lead to substantial deterioration in local parks. The university estimates that the growth levels proposed in its permit would add a minuscule increase in usage of Palo Alto parks. This includes about 41 new daily visitors to Foothills Park, 32 visitors to the Baylands Nature Preserve and 27 to the Pearson-Arastradero Preserve. Given the large amount of space in these nature preserves (Foothills Park is 1,400 acres; Baylands is 1,940 acres and Pearson-Arastradero is 622 acres), Stanford noted that the average "visitors per acre" is zero. Stanford's analysis also shows that the four small parks in the College Terrace neighborhood would collectively see a growth of 37 daily visitors.
Palo Alto, for its part, is challenging the idea that the large size of the city's open space preserves makes Stanford's impact negligible.
"The City of Palo Alto disagrees with these statements because -- although the open space preserves are large -- the areas where people actively recreate are a very small percentage of the entire preserve area," the letter states. "The impact of concentrating more people into these areas should be studied and identified impacts should be addressed with appropriate mitigation."
The letter also notes that visitation to parks by Stanford campus residents is not limited to the four College Terrace parks (Cameron, Mayfield, Weisshaar and Werry). Thus, appropriate mitigation should include a larger area, the city argues.
"Please consider whether provision of funding for acquisition of new parkland (in addition to funding to address impacts on existing parks) would address identified impacts," the letter states.
While the council reached a consensus on most of the points in the new letter, which it approved unanimously on March 6, there were a few disagreements. Holman's proposal that Stanford analyze the demand for housing that its growth would generate outside the university's boundaries prevailed by a 4-3 vote, with Mayor Greg Scharff and Councilmen Greg Tanaka and Adrian Fine dissenting. The university's expansion, Holman said, would create jobs and more housing demand.
"It would be an impact on Palo Alto or Menlo Park or some other community if it has a housing-demand impact," Holman said.
Emergency response is another concern. The Palo Alto Fire Department has been providing services to Stanford since 1976 (the city and Stanford are in the midst of prolonged negotiations over a new fire contract). The letter states that the department has been "challenged" to meet the response-time performance standards laid out in the 1976 contract and in Stanford's 2000 permit.
"The primary reason for response time performance challenges have been due to increased calls for service, the frequency of simultaneous calls for service, the location of the fires, speed limits, and the frequency of detours and lane closures due to construction activities," the letter states. "The DEIR (Draft Environmental Impact Report) should assess how the 2018 GUP will affect response times and provide appropriate mitigations."