Palo Alto Weekly

News - April 12, 2013

Hundreds of homes to be built along California Avenue, El Camino

College Terrace neighbors worry about upcoming years of traffic, construction

by Sue Dremann

Long-awaited plans to build 250 homes for Stanford University faculty and low-income Palo Alto residents are expected to have their first airing before the city's Architectural Review Board in May, university officials said on Wednesday.

The 180 single-family homes and condominiums and, separately, 70 affordable-housing units, were proposed eight years ago as part of the Mayfield Development Agreement between Stanford and the city.

In the 2005 agreement, the university leased land at Page Mill Road and El Camino Real to the city for $1 per year for 51 years in exchange for permission to demolish several buildings in the Stanford Research Park along California Avenue for the faculty and staff homes. In addition, three office buildings along El Camino Real at California Avenue between Wells Fargo Bank and the Bank of America building will be demolished for low-income housing.

But as the university gears up for the demolition and construction, the carefully crafted agreement could have an Achilles' heel. The city has yet to approve Stanford's construction-management plan — the one thing not spelled out in the Mayfield document, residents of the adjacent College Terrace neighborhood said.

That's significant because they want the city to guarantee that trucks and equipment won't constantly rumble down California Avenue during the estimated three years of demolition and construction about to start.

Residents also said they might ask the city to require a new traffic study, saying the first was flawed and that conditions have changed since the Mayfield agreement was signed.

Stanford officials and the College Terrace Residents Association have met to discuss the project. The university plans to divert some traffic onto a makeshift road, but some traffic would still enter and exit the construction site from California Avenue and use Hanover Street to reach Page Mill. Much of the soil planned for removal might be used on site, which would cut down on truck trips, said Jean McCown, Stanford's director of community relations.

Residents have asked Stanford to make the temporary road permanent for use by the new residents. But McCown said the permanent road would not be acceptable to Stanford. Residents would then travel through the research park and would bisect the properties. About 75,000 square feet of commercial space will be built on that site. Having a road from the residential area through the commercial site not consistent with the concept of a residential development, she said.

On the face of it, there would seem to be little that residents or city officials could do to impose additional measures to ease traffic problems, Mayor Greg Scharff said at a March 23 neighborhood association meeting.

But attorney Bill Ross, a College Terrace resident, said during a neighborhood association board meeting that nothing in the agreement or project's environmental-impact report defines how to deal with traffic from construction or demolition. Since the Mayfield agreement, conditions in the area have changed — namely, higher density projects to the south of Page Mill Road have added traffic to California Avenue and the surrounding area. The added traffic could necessitate a new traffic study under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

Neither City Planning Director Curtis Williams nor Chief Transportation Official Jaime Rodriguez returned a request for comment.

But McCown said new traffic studies are not necessary or allowed under the Mayfield agreement.

"CEQA applies only to a public agency's discretionary decisions. Under the Mayfield Development Agreement, Palo Alto deliberately limited its future discretion over the housing projects to issues such as aesthetics and equipment noise, not traffic. Also, the city committed not to add any new mitigation measures (traffic or otherwise) unless they are required by non-CEQA state, regional or federal law," she said in a email.

"There would be no reason to prepare a new traffic study even if there were no Mayfield Development Agreement. As the 2005 (environmental report) explained, the upper California Avenue housing will cause an enormous reduction in the traffic generated at these sites. If traffic on neighboring streets has worsened since 2005, that would just make the upper California housing more valuable in ameliorating local conditions."

If Stanford receives the green light from the city, demolition and site preparation could begin in mid-2014, said Project Manager Chris Wuthmann. But the shuffling of companies and leases will be a factor in the actual start time, he said.

Theranos, which currently leases 1601 S. California Ave., will move into another building that is undergoing construction on the corner of Porter Drive, McCown said.

Many details for the development were worked out eight years ago, such as the number of units and parking spaces, frontage setbacks, building heights and limitations on the city's design review. Stanford officials hope that work will facilitate the process, McCown said.

But removing hazardous materials known to exist at some of the building sites could create some snags, Wuthmann and McCown said, including asbestos from buildings and volatile organic chemicals in the soil.

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at sdremann@paweekly.com.

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