Thankfully, the Council voted in June 2012 to review the specific plan in one year and member Kirsten Keith assured us that if problems arose, they could be fixed.
The council's review of the Stanford project should include a focus on elements of the specific plan that has allowed the university to propose a large development that falls under the trigger to negotiate for public benefits.
Secondly, El Camino Real will experience the accumulated congestion from this development plus the Stanford towers at 27 University Ave. in Palo Alto, the expansion of the Stanford hospital, the future developments at the Derry and Cadillac sites and the increased employee numbers at Stanford Research Institute.
Third, the Allied Arts neighborhood with six streets leading to El Camino Real will absorb a worrisome amount of cut-through traffic. If Stanford flipped the commercial and housing buildings, the housing could be integrated with the residential neighborhoods east and west of the project. A publicly accessible plaza would serve the apartment residents, as well as Linfield Oaks and Allied Arts.
Fourth, the city had hoped for a hotel on Stanford's land but hope didn't produce one and the absence of the hotel tax revenue projected in the specific plan will leave a hole in the general fund.
The defining moment that created the main problem facing us occurred the night the specific plan was approved, June 5, 2012. Council member Kelly Fergusson made a case to keep the base floor-area ratios (FAR) at the 2011 levels and to allow increased density if developers agreed to provide benefits. How else, she asked, would the city pay for the public benefits envisioned in the specific plan? Stanford was given greater FAR allowances than the El Camino Real parcels north of Ravenswood Avenue. Ridding the blight on El Camino is not, in itself, a public benefit, and many ask how Stanford could have allowed the run-down buildings to remain for so many years.
Ms. Fergusson warned that the city was giving away its ability to negotiate for public benefits and that developers would soon submit projects enjoying the increased density. Unfortunately, her advice was dismissed due to the enthusiasm to complete the five-year process. Today, the city has no negotiating power to force Stanford to help us achieve the benefits envisioned in the specific plan.
The inequity of Stanford's FAR invites suspicion that the university was treated preferentially. As a stakeholder, it was invited to serve on both the 2008 committee to select the specific plan consultant and the Oversight and Outreach Committee. The firm MSWM (later Perkins & Will) was selected as the consultant, despite its disclosure that it was working as the consultant for Stanford University on its 500,000 square-foot campus development in Redwood City. Today many of the problems with the specific plan are viewed with an unfortunate cloud of suspicion that permeates the five-year process. Did Stanford have an inside track with the consultant and does the final specific plan meet Stanford's desires more than it serves the city's needs?
Early in the specific plan process, the council was advised that Stanford's parcels should be removed from the plan based on the single ownership of the eight-plus acres and location near residential neighborhoods. This request is again before the council. Removing the Stanford parcels from the specific plan would give the council the option to reset the plan's FAR to the 2011 level and return to public benefit negotiations.
In January 2012 the city was sued for not having a current housing element. The settlement required rezoning for 1,900 housing units. Four months later, when approving the specific plan, the council could have rezoned the Stanford parcels for housing only and allowed office development by a conditional use permit. The size of Stanford's office buildings could support approximately 900 employees. The council left the decision to build housing up to Stanford, which has agreed to build 150 units. Unfortunately, this ratio of jobs to housing works out to six jobs to one home and adds to our current housing deficit. The well-paid consultant dropped the ball.
The jewels in the crown of the specific plan were the public spaces on the Stanford parcels. The Caltrain tracks and El Camino Real create a barrier to safe east/west mobility for motorists, cyclists and pedestrians. The Stanford parcels provide the last opportunity to create a safe east/west link. The Middle Avenue Plaza was envisioned as a large space without cars and a bicycle path leading to an undercrossing of the Caltrain tracks for easy and safe passage to and from Burgess Park. The council should mandate a car-free plaza as it is shown in the final specific plan drawings.
While residents are disappointed that the Stanford parcels do not include any senior housing, disappointment turns to dismay that there is no hotel. Without hotel tax revenue, most of the plan's benefits such as the Middle Avenue under-crossing cannot be built. The plan projected two hotels, one with 300 rooms and a small 80-room hotel downtown, producing an estimated annual hotel tax of $2.3 million. This amount represented 60 per cent of the total revenues the specific plan expected.
The smaller downtown hotel was opposed by the downtown merchants and despite a hotel depicted in the plans on Stanford land, the university chose not to include one. The new Marriott Hotel on Glenwood Avenue projects $669,000 in hotel-tax revenue a year, but this amount pales in comparison.
Progress is necessary. Blight is bad. Transparency is imperative. Keeping the city's power to negotiate with developers is crucial. Providing safe east/west mobility is important. Protecting neighborhoods is essential. Let's see what our council can do to fix this problem.