STANFORD — Nestled at the base of oak-studded foothills, Stanford University attracts some of the country’s brightest minds to a place where the high-tech firms that drive Silicon Valley are mere minutes from hiking and horseback riding.
But the future of those foothills is unclear. The university has agreed reluctantly to protect them for the next 25 years, while a Santa Clara County supervisor wants them to remain undeveloped for the next 99 years. Environmentalists are demanding permanent protection of 1,000 acres of serene grassland, home to the threatened tiger salamander.
Stanford officials worry that if the campus cannot expand, some of the university’s 14,000 students and 1,640 faculty will be priced out of the area. Although university officials say they have no plans to build on the surrounding hillsides, the current housing crunch adds pressure to expand.
In nearby Palo Alto, the average price of a house is almost $460,000. The university wants to build more than 3,000 additional low-cost housing units on campus in the next decade to ease the strain on students and staff.
“We are at a competitive disadvantage with our peer schools – the Dukes, the Northwesterns - because people can’t afford the rents here,” said Andrew Coe, Stanford’s director of community relations.
Stanford’s 10-year growth plan includes adding two more stories to two-story graduate student housing and building more housing and academic facilities on open areas within the campus boundaries.
Santa Clara County supervisors are reviewing the 10-year plan and will vote on it Monday.
The university proposes protecting up to 1,000 acres for 25 years, though the university could protect less space if it constructs under 2 million square feet of new buildings. Stanford owns a total of 8,180 acres.
Supervisor Joe Simitian, whose jurisdiction includes the university, said he will oppose the plan unless the university protects 1,000 acres for the 99 years. Stanford has threatened to sue the county if the supervisors opt for the 99-year period.
“We cannot accept that,” said Larry Horton, Stanford’s director of government and community relations. “We don’t believe that we can, with any accuracy at all, predict the future 99 years from now. We think it’s irresponsible to think that we know what our needs and the needs of our society are (in the future).”
Other supervisors disagree with Simitian’s 99-year plan. Chairman Don Gage has said the board and the university can reach other compromises. Supervisors report receiving letters evenly divided in support of the 99-year protection plan and in support of Stanford.
“Stanford’s plan will have a tremendous impact on our community. There will be a lot of traffic; there will be noise,” said Peter Drekmeier of the Stanford Open Space Alliance. “There are 17 intersections in the surrounding community that will be heavily impacted. You have degradation of air quality. Many people are worried about storm runoff in San Francisquito Creek.”
This is the first time Stanford has had to submit a detailed growth plan in its 115 years, and Drekmeier said it is receiving preferential treatment.
“Permanent preservation is not a new concept,” he said. “The message here is if an applicant complains a lot and threatens a lawsuit, they’ll get their way, and that’s a terrible precedent to set.”
Drekmeier said the university’s plan could see county officials readjust the protection boundary if Stanford runs out of space set aside under the 10-year plan. If county officials approve it, Stanford could then build on adjacent hillsides before the 25-year protection expires, said Drekmeier – a scenario environmentalists want to prevent.
But Stanford officials say they are following the same rules everyone else is, noting that local officials review every piece of open space set aside by any developer.
The expansion would let Stanford house 70 percent of its student body, and would allow the university to build academic buildings, including an eagerly awaited facility that will house researchers studying the intersection of biology and other disciplines like physics and engineering.