Sand Hill Road
Sand Hill Road has become the world's most noted address for venture capital firms and the site of one of the Bay Area's most disliked traffic bottlenecks. From Interstate 280, traffic flows easily down a four-lane Sand Hill Road until it crosses Santa Cruz Avenue, where it squeezes into two lanes, passes a narrow bridge, and soon abruptly dead-ends in the Stanford Shopping Center parking lot. For well over two decades, there have been efforts to make the commonsense solution (favored, in an independent poll commissioned by the Palo Alto Comprehensive Plan Committee by 80 percent of the public) of extending Sand Hill Road to El Camino Real. Indeed, three times during this period, the Palo Alto City Council approved such an extension, but these approvals were never implemented because of disputes over who would pay for the road improvements or because legal challenges by road opponents raised costs until the effort was abandoned.
The core problem in fixing Sand Hill Road in the past has been economic. Extending a city street to a state highway (El Camino Real) is a governmental function, as is the necessary widening of Sand Hill Road to accommodate public traffic. In an earlier time, such improvements would have been paid for by tax revenues. But local governments have increasingly used their powers of approval to coax concessions from private developers. In the case of Sand Hill Road, all sides have been waiting for someone else to pick up the check.
Stanford has two compelling reasons to address the bottleneck: (1) Access to Stanford Medical Center, including the Stanford Hospital and clinics and the Lucile Salter Packard Children's Hospital, is directly affected by the Sand Hill Road bottleneck. Easy routine and emergency access is essential if the Stanford Medical Center is to continue to serve patients from the community and to provide effective emergency services. (2) Were congestion to worsen, viability of the Stanford Shopping Center could be compromised. None of the center's competitors has such poor traffic circulation. The shopping center is part of Stanford's endowment, and income from the center supports Stanford's educational and research mission. Future traffic projections by the Association of Bay Area Governments--which are official data used by all public agencies--and other government sources show substantial increases in area traffic having nothing to do with activities at Stanford. The current situation can only be expected to worsen.
Contemporaneously, Stanford has explored other projects on the Sand Hill corridor. In the mid-1980s, the university proposed and the city council approved 1,100 units of rental housing on a site known as Stanford West, a 48-acre parcel of land between the Oak Creek Apartments and the old Children's Hospital. This project was never executed because of a disagreement over conditions attached to the approval. Also in the mid-1980s, Stanford began to explore the possibility of converting the old Children's Hospital, which was abandoned when it was replaced by the Packard Children's Hospital, into a senior housing community. And the management of the Stanford Shopping Center sought new revenue-generating space.
Before I arrived at Stanford, these strands of problems and opportunities in the Sand Hill corridor were merging into a single idea for which Stanford Management Company took responsibility within the university: Stanford would pay for most of the much-needed Sand Hill Road extension and improvements, provided that the cost could be borne by a package of projects that met university and community needs: a senior housing community on the site of the old Children's Hospital, rental housing (primarily for Stanford employees) on the Stanford West site, and a 12 percent expansion of the Stanford Shopping Center. To defray the costs of the public road improvements, Stanford requested that the City of Palo Alto contribute $2 million toward the road improvements, drawing the money from additional tax revenues provided by the new shopping center space.
The city's response was encouraging but noncommittal--except for private signals that the notion of the city paying anything for the road was not politically feasible. After reviewing the matter with senior staff, we concluded that the entire package was a sound one, that it contained many substantial benefits that would result in citizen support in the community, and that we could probably win the approval of the Palo Alto City Council. But we knew there would be determined opposition from some quarters--a high likelihood that any approval would end up on the ballot and, if passed, that opponents would launch a lawsuit. At that point, I was told that a final decision would take two years--which seemed to me, a babe in the woods used to the gentle politics of Chicago, an excessively long time. It has, instead, taken five years to reach the ballot stage, and each step of the way has required intense work by Stanford staff and has taken much of my time and the time of the board of Stanford Management Company as well as the Board of Trustees.
Based on public input from a community outreach program that involved more than 1,000 Palo Alto and Menlo Park residents in seven large public meetings and many smaller ones over six months, Stanford redesigned its projects and submitted revised applications in the fall of 1994. The City of Palo Alto then contracted with EIP Associates, a major environmental consulting firm, to conduct, under the city's direction, a thorough Environmental Impact Report (EIR). The final EIR for our projects was published in eight volumes--the most intense and thorough review of any project in the history of Palo Alto. After intensive work between Stanford and city staff, the Palo Alto City Council held the largest and longest series of hearings in Palo Alto history--from January until August of this year, in twenty-one full, open sessions--to take testimony and to deliberate on these projects. The Council instructed the city manager to insist on further modifications of the university's application.
Curtis Feeney and Larry Horton negotiated with a city delegation led by the city manager. Our two dedicated and able negotiators met weekly, sometimes daily, with the provost, Trustee John Freidenrich, and me to explore what, if any, further concessions were feasible. The Board of Trustees had authorized me to make final decisions.
The outcome was a substantial modification of our projects, substantially increasing the university's costs. In final consideration of the entire package, the Council voted unanimously, 9-0, to approve the projects and signed a development agreement the size of a small telephone book.
The final package agreed to by Stanford and the City of Palo Alto includes the following elements:
This would appear to be a happy ending. But, as I write this, the story is not over. Our earlier anticipation of a lawsuit has come to pass: after first voting 3-2 not to sue, the City of Menlo Park reversed that decision by another 3-2 vote and has sued the City of Palo Alto and Stanford, claiming inadequate environmental review. Palo Alto and Stanford will defend themselves in court, and we believe that the extraordinary record of environmental review of our projects will stand up quite well.
Our expectation of either a referendum or an initiative fell a bit short: we have both. The City Council put the Development Agreement on the ballot for the voters' approval as Measure O in the November 4 election. Opponents of the projects gained signatures for an initiative, Measure M, which purports to be an alternative road and housing solution but is recognized by most as a thinly disguised poison pill to destroy Measure O. By the rules set by the Council, whichever measure passes by a majority and gets the most votes, wins.
I describe all this both because it has been a costly and time-consuming issue and illustrates the complexities of caring for a university. I often encounter people who think that a university president, provost, deans, staff, and faculty concern themselves solely with academic issues, perhaps student parties, and otherwise enjoy three-month summer breaks to read and reflect. Dream on!
Stanford's record for environmentally sensitive development is excellent, and our dedication to preserve space is singular. Two-thirds of our lands remain open space or very lightly developed--the Dish, for example, is considered to be a lightly developed area. Setting aside 1,190 acres for the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve is itself evidence of a unique commitment to conservation and serious study about conservation. Maintenance of our academic physical plant and retention of flexibility in the responsible use of our lands for academic purposes is a high priority. The Sand Hill Road story is an important indication of the difficulties in development, even in development with broad public support and with generous public benefits attached. How this story ends will have profound implications for Senator Stanford's legacy.