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Stanford University backs off massive expansion plans

Nov. 4, 2019
The university has withdrawn its 3.5 million-square-foot expansion plan that was scheduled this week to come before the Santa Clara County, Calif., Board of Supervisors

After three years of negotiations and rising tensions between Stanford University and Santa Clara County, Calif., officials, Stanford has dropped its 3.5-million-square-foot expansion plan — a surprise move that throws the university’s future growth into question.

The San Jose Mercury News reports that the plan — which would have authorized Stanford to add 2.275 million square feet of academic space and 2,600 beds for new students through 2035 — was set to go before the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors this week for a vote.

But Stanford announced late last week that it had reached an impasse with the county and would withdraw its application.

“We have taken this step with regret, but with a clear-eyed understanding of the challenges before us in achieving a successful long-term permit at this time,” Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne wrote.

Stanford and the county have been at odds over the proposal; the county demanded that Stanford take unprecedented steps to make sure its growth did not add cars to the traffic-clogged streets of Palo Alto and beyond or further stress the area's already overburdened housing market.

The withdrawal means Stanford will have to put future development plans on hold, because the university cannot expand its existing footprint without an approved general use permit. The university can build about another 200,000 square feet under its last permit — approved in 2000 — but nothing after that without a new permit. The approval process for a new general use permit likely would take close to three years.

University officials have not yet decided on their next step.

“We don’t have an answer at this moment, exactly,” says Jean McCown, associate vice president of Stanford’s Office of Government & Community Relations. “We’ve learned a lot, we’ve thought a lot about the issues that the region is facing — that we’re facing — and we’re going to take some time to do a fresh assessment of what the future holds.”

Stanford’s decision took county officials by surprise.

“The county, the community and the university have devoted a tremendous amount of time and talent and energy to getting to this point,” says Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian.

Part of the tension between Stanford and the county stemmed from county officials’ demand that Stanford build housing for every new employee who would come to campus as a result of the expansion. That would be 2,172 homes — or nearly four times as many as Stanford had initially proposed.

Stanford agreed to up its housing production, with the caveat that the county give Stanford partial credit for homes already in construction on its campus and in Menlo Park. That was a non-starter for county officials. Stanford this week finally acquiesced and agreed to build or fund the full 2,172 housing units demanded.

But Stanford said complying with the county’s traffic requirements was not possible.

“We might be offered a permit where we knew the conditions were infeasible, and we were not going to accept something we knew we could not deliver on,” says Martin Shell, Stanford’s vice president and chief external relations officer.

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