By Shelby Parks
In mid-December, Santa Clara County released the final iteration of the environmental impact report (EIR) assessing the impacts of Stanford's development through 2035, which will be facilitated through a new General Use Permit (GUP). The purpose of the report is to address environmental impacts and the effectiveness of mitigation measures, as well as to respond to public comments made on the draft EIR.
I am a Stanford student and a member of Stanford Coalition for Planning an Equitable 2035 (SCoPE 2035), and I urge members of the surrounding communities to consider the implications of Stanford's development plans.
In examining the final EIR, it's imperative to recognize its limitations. As stated in the report, "issues regarding affordability of housing are socio-economic in nature, and not physical environmental impacts," and are thus outside of the scope of the EIR. Though a plethora of comments expressed anxiety over the project's potential to exacerbate the housing crisis in the area, the EIR is not designed to address this type of issue. The county cannot be blamed for this, but problems arise when housing concerns and the socio-economic landscape are isolated from traffic and emissions concerns because these matters are closely intertwined.
Unfortunately, the narrative around the development plan has framed construction of adequate affordable housing on campus as a mutually exclusive opponent of sustainable development. The EIR proposes two alternatives, each involving construction of more on-campus housing than the original plan. Alternative A, in which Stanford would build housing on campus for the majority of its new hires, was conjectured to have a severe environmental impact. This conclusion is based on an analysis of projected "vehicle miles traveled" (VMT).
There are many reasons to believe these analyses are flawed. For example, the EIR asserts that undergraduates (of which there are 8,317 total) make over 6,000 trips off campus every day. I cannot see how that number could possibly be correct, especially considering that freshmen aren't permitted to have cars.
Additionally, the VMT analysis pertains only to Stanford's land, not the region as a whole. Moving more people to campus may mean a slightly increased VMT number on campus, but it will almost certainly decrease VMT in the larger area. With the high and increasing costs of living in Palo Alto, it's hardly a stretch to infer that a sizable portion of Stanford's 8,000-plus hires wouldn't be able to afford housing close to campus if the housing alternatives are rejected. Their long commutes would be a significant addition to the overall VMT.
It's difficult to compare emissions between scenarios without updated information regarding the number of employed individuals per household, spouse's workplaces, and the proximity at which these families could afford to live. Stanford should be held accountable for conducting a more robust examination of projected VMT sources before the housing alternatives are jettisoned on account of increased emissions.
In addition, though many commenters demanded that the university take steps to alleviate traffic conditions in the area before expanding, concerns around any existing circumstances aren't within the confines of the EIR. The university counts the number of commute trips during peak traffic hours in the morning and evening to report the efficacy of its Transportation Demand Management (TDM) programs. There are concerns around the accuracy of these measurements, because they only monitor commutes for hour-long "peak periods," though traffic peaks certainly exceed an hour in reality. Longtime Palo Alto residents attest that traffic has only worsened in recent years. The extent of Stanford's contribution to congestion should be questioned. It's disconcerting that the equivocal plan to simply scale up TDM programs is getting the green light while Stanford's neighbors are sitting in standstill traffic.
The commenting period for the Final EIR closes January 24th, and there will be public hearings around the report as early as March. Information on these and other meetings can be found at tinyurl.com/SCCmeets.
Shelby Parks is a Stanford student and a member of Stanford Coalition for Planning an Equitable 2035.