The Quad is the center of Stanford's bucolic campus. The communities around Stanford are increasingly calling on the university to do more about housing, traffic and school funding in the region. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)
After three years of back-and-forth with Santa Clara County, Stanford University pulled a shocker last week by dropping its bid to build another 3.5 million square feet of academic facilities and student housing over the next 15 years. What happened?
In a statement explaining their decision to pull out of applying for what's called a general use permit, Stanford officials wrote that "feasibility" was a big issue and obliquely referenced a tug of war with county supervisors over how to mitigate the consequences of future growth.
"While we are stepping back from this permit process, we will be launching a new phase of engagement with our local communities," the statement said. "We hope to gain deeper mutual understanding of the challenges facing our region, how Stanford can best enhance its contribution to addressing those challenges, and what the implications are for our longer-term campus development."
At the heart of this conflict is the impact Stanford's size has on the region. Increasingly, surrounding communities are asking whether the university should do more to address its role in Silicon Valley's housing crisis.
Stanford was far and away at the top of the list in terms of property value. More than that, the value of the university's holdings was greater than those of Google, Apple and Intel combined last year. The data reflects not only Stanford's standing as one of the world's top universities, but also as a commercial and residential landlord and employer.
"The general use permit is a special case. It’s unique, in fact, in Santa Clara County planning," said Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, who led the county's negotiations with Stanford. "It’s an opportunity for the university to plan longer term, over a 15-20 year horizon. But the challenge is always going to be the same with any developer out there. The applicant always wants what they want, and they want to give up as little as possible to get it."
Perhaps 20 years ago, when the last general use permit was approved, 3.5 million square feet and 9,610 more faculty, staff and students would not have caused much of a stir in Santa Clara County offices. But times have changed, and the 9,610 comes on top of a Stanford community numbering near 34,000 people, including undergraduates, graduate students, postdoctoral scholars, faculty and staff.
Who Owns Silicon Valley?
That makes Stanford as big as some of the tech titans of Silicon Valley, and like those major employers, Stanford finds itself engaged now in a new public conversation about its physical footprint in the region.
In June, the county's planning commission unanimously voted to recommend that the supervisors approve Stanford’s application, but if and only if Stanford agreed to certain changes. One of their top demands would have been a requirement that Stanford quadruple the amount of housing it was originally proposing to build.
That's one example of the “full mitigation” county officials were demanding, insisting the university offset all of its expected impacts to local housing, traffic and schools.
So, for instance, at a recent public meeting in Palo Alto, Stanford senior Amulya Yerrapotu spoke on behalf of SCOPE 2035, a student group lobbying Stanford to house more of its own service workers and other staff. "The question here today is not whether Stanford is a good school," Yerrapotu said. "It’s about who gets to reap the benefit of development and who has to bear the costs."
In its press release last week — Stanford declined to comment beyond that — officials said they'd come around to delivering all of the housing the county asked for. But that followed months of back- and-forth, including a well-publicized counterproposal and at least two lawsuits brought by Stanford, one of which was thrown out.
As for traffic mitigations stipulated by the county, Stanford concluded in its press release they were simply unfeasible.
Stanford’s Footprint in Silicon Valley
"I’m writing a book about the 1960s," said Lenny Siegel, former Mountain View mayor turned housing advocate. "I dug out a flyer about how Palo Alto had more than twice as many jobs as employed residents."
Today is a different story. Off campus, the region around Stanford has grown crowded in the last half-century. Nobody blames Stanford entirely for today’s housing crisis, but Stanford does get a lot of the credit for launching Silicon Valley back in the 1950s.
Boom after Silicon Valley boom has packed the Peninsula with people, creating traffic jams and a housing crisis the likes of which California has never seen before.
Silicon Valley’s tech boom has displaced many of those making less money, but that doesn't necessarily mean they've stopped working in the region. They just have to commute from farther and farther away. That includes Stanford workers.
Visit the Stanford campus on any given day, and there are several construction sites going. Stanford maintains a website with a map of what’s happening where. The last general use permit, approved in 2000 and effective until 2020, allows the university to build about 200,000 square feet per year on land within Santa Clara County's borders.
The university has also been expanding in San Mateo County in recent years, especially in Redwood City. San Mateo County officials have watched with interest over the last three years, as their counterparts in Santa Clara County bargained hard with the university.
"It’s worth noting that in the 128-year history of Stanford University, the university has never had an application denied by Santa Clara County," Simitian said. "If you’re batting 1,000 over the course of more than a century, you ought to feel pretty good about how well you’re being treated."
A couple of weeks ago, Simitian suggested it would be up to Stanford officials to decide if they want to accept the county’s terms or walk away. It looks like they've decided to walk away, at least for the time being.