As part of the review process, Peninsula cities, residents and agencies, including the Palo Alto Unified School District, asked the county to press Stanford not only for more information related to everything from transportation to housing to schools — but also for more promised action. Stanford's application for a "general use permit" (GUP) would allow the university to build up to 2.275 million square feet of academic space, 3,150 new housing units or beds (this includes 550 that would be available for faculty, staff, postdoctoral scholars and medical residents), and 40,000 square feet for child care centers and transit hubs by 2035.
But while the Final Environmental Impact Report devotes hundreds of pages to analyzing traffic impacts (as well as everything from noise and water quality), the county showed itself to be noncommittal on most proposed solutions.
County staff rejected calls to encourage Stanford to build satellite parking lots in Menlo Park to ferry employees to the university's campus and to revise Stanford's existing "No Net New Commute Trips" traffic policy, which currently applies only to campus-related trips in the commute direction during the busiest hours of the morning and afternoon (8-9 a.m. and 5-6 p.m.).
The policy, which was introduced under Stanford's last general-use permit in 2000, has been the county's strongest tool to ensure Stanford's growth does not result in overwhelming traffic. It has spurred Stanford to, among other things, expand its Marguerite shuttle program, increase parking fees and introduce car- and ride-share programs. As a result, Stanford's rate of solo drivers has dropped from 69 percent in 2003 to 43 percent today, according to the county.
But while Stanford's traffic-reduction programs are generally viewed as a gold standard in the region, many are skeptical that they will continue to hold up in the face of millions of square feet of new development.
A letter from East Palo Alto, signed by former Mayor Ruben Abrica, states that the city is "gravely concerned about traffic," especially given that 84 percent of the peak-hour traffic on University Avenue are commuters and that Stanford's proposal would add about 5,000 new jobs.
Palo Alto expressed similar concerns and asked that Stanford be required to monitor traffic over a broader commute period — 4-7 p.m., for example, rather than 5-6 p.m. It asserted that Stanford commuters drive to and from campus just before or just after the "peak period" and thus are not being counted. To support this position, the city hired a consulting firm, Hexagon, which cited its own count data as evidence that the morning peak hour frequently occurs after 9 a.m. and the afternoon peak frequently occurs after 6 p.m.
"One of the likely reasons why there appears to be a disconnect between Stanford's achievement of the 'no net new trips' standard and the community's experience of increasing level of congestion may be that there are higher levels of Stanford-related trips throughout the day or during much longer periods during the morning and evening than was true in 2001," the Hexagon letter states.
The county, however, was not swayed. It offered its own data, measured twice yearly, to show that in every year since 2014, the pattern of traffic during the broader peak hours remained consistent, directly contradicting the Hexagon assertion.
"Focusing the no-net-new-commute-trips standard on the peak hour has not pushed trips to the shoulder hours or encouraged peak-hour spreading," the county's response states.
Palo Alto also urged the county to demand more details from Stanford about how it plans to ensure traffic does not get worse, including proposed programs. But the county's analysis instead emphasizes the "flexibility of accountability" approach that was the bedrock of the 2000 permit, in which Stanford can establish its own programs, provided that they meet the goal of not adding new commute traffic during peak hours.
That said, the FEIR identifies several transportation-related programs that Stanford has proposed to implement as part of its growth plan. These include new dedicated bus lanes and express bus services, dynamic real-time carpooling apps like Scoop, the use of parking rates to discourage driving, financial incentives for non-drivers and increased use of telework and flexible work schedules, according to the FEIR.
The one change that the county did institute in response to community concerns was a requirement that Stanford pay a "fair share" for improvements at intersections that are expected to see an increase in reverse-commuters. These include the El Camino Real and Ravenswood Road intersection in Menlo Park and the Alma Street and Charleston Road intersection in Palo Alto. The precise share is based on the number of reverse-commute trips that would be attributable to the Stanford project.
When it comes to housing, Palo Alto argued that the county should require Stanford to actually build housing and transportation improvements before it constructs new academic space. The environmental analysis does not propose such a policy, noting that the issue is better suited for a policy debate by the Board of Supervisors than an environmental analysis by staff.
Separate from the environmental-review process, the county board last year aggressively pursued new policies requiring Stanford to contribute more money for housing. These include a higher "affordable housing fee" in which Stanford will pay for each square foot of new development $68.50 (up from $20), effective July 1, 2020. The other requires Stanford to designate 16 percent of new units to affordable housing, known as inclusionary zoning.
Stanford, however, last month filed lawsuits in federal and state courts challenging the new fee, which it argues violates the "equal protection" clauses of the U.S. and California constitutions. It also plans to legally challenge the new inclusionary-zoning requirement.
Another topic on which the new analysis is bound to disappoint many Palo Alto residents is Stanford's responsibility when it comes to Palo Alto schools. In recent months, Palo Alto Unified School District board members, staff and parents became increasingly vocal about the need for Stanford to commit funding to educate the additional students who would result from the university's new housing. The board also requested that Stanford dedicate land and funding for a new elementary school.
However, the final EIR makes no such recommendations. Instead, it states that existing district schools could accommodate the new students. Furthermore, it asserts the district has "multiple options to explore before building a new school, including reactivating existing school sites such as Cubberley, Greendell and Garland, and utilizing properties currently leased to private school providers."
In addressing school impacts, the final EIR recognizes its own limitations: The county "does not have authority to require Stanford to pay additional fees, dedicate land or comply with any other requirements associated with increased school enrollment."
That said, supervisors have one tool that they can use to require Stanford to contribute to local schools. The board recently kicked off negotiations with Stanford on a first-of-its-kind "development agreement," which is giving both sides the opportunity to request concessions and amenities that fall outside the purview of the environmental-review process.
Simitian last month told the Weekly that the school district will be a key topic of negotiations.
Stanford staff lauded the new analysis, which the county board expects to review and approve by this summer. Catherine Palter, Stanford's associate vice president for land use and environmental planning, said the FEIR confirms that "almost all environmental impacts of new academic and residential facilities can be appropriately prevented or mitigated."
"The result of that process is a proposal that balances the needs of the university and the community while addressing potential impacts over the life of the permit," Palter said in a statement that Stanford released just after the report was issued.
This story contains 1349 words.
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