Yet in a relatively short period of time, community attitudes toward the need for more housing in our city seem to be changing.
I first heard the shift two years ago, when a politically correct candidate for City Council raised the then-politically incorrect question of whether our city really needs to continue to provide more and more housing to fill the jobs-housing imbalance (too many jobs in Palo Alto, too few houses to enable all those workers to live here).
We are almost built out, he said.
Similar questions surfaced recently because of a new state housing "allocation" issued through the Association for Bay Area Governments (ABAG) that Palo Alto must provide 3,505 more housing units to take care of our share of the region's anticipated population growth.
The mantra for years has always been we need more housing, more affordable housing -- we have to balance the imbalance.
But now the conversation has turned to realities: additional houses mean additional schools, parks and libraries for the anticipated 9,463 new residents in the 3,505 new units.
Yet the continued refrain from the council seems to be the need for more housing in the city.
Take the case of Stanford's plan to expand the two hospitals and the medical center by 1.3 million square feet. The council is talking about asking Stanford to provide housing either on or near the campus for a portion of those 2,000 new workers that would be here once the expansion is completed a decade or so from now.
It feels to me like city has been on a drive to see what it can extract from Stanford. For example, a couple of months ago City Manager Frank Benest suggested the council require Stanford to pay a housing development fee. Council approval was necessary because nonprofit hospitals, including Stanford, are exempt from such a fee. Cost to the hospital: an estimated $16 million, according to Stanford spokesperson Jean McCown.
Stanford argued at the time that agreeing to the fee would be unfair, since many items need to be negotiated before a development agreement is completed and even the EIR will not be completed until spring. Nevertheless, four council members voted for the fee (Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto, Peter Drekmeier, John Barton and Jack Morton); two voted against it (Bern Beecham and Judy Kleinberg). Three council members (Larry Klein, Dena Mossar and LaDoris Cordell) had to recuse themselves because they or their spouses work for Stanford, City rules require five votes for passage since this is a nine-member council. Four is not five and the fee imposition failed.
But still on the council discussion table is the notion that Stanford should provide housing for its employees. Also on the table is expansion of the Stanford Shopping Center, a for-profit entity. The center will be asked to pay the housing development fee, but at this point it is not being asked to provide any housing for an anticipated 900-plus new employees.
Some principles are at stake here for me:
Should a city demand that only one employer in town, the university, provide housing? Palo Alto does not ask this of Hewlett-Packard, Google, Wilson-Sonsini or any other employer in town.
Since existing law acknowledges that nonprofit hospitals are exempt, why try to impose the fee? Sure it's a way to fill the city coffers, but is it a fair way to go?
Why add additional costs to a hospital by requiring it to provide housing? Who will eventually pay for that housing? The patients?
Isn't a non-profit hospital a community benefit since it provides medical services for local residents? I think we all benefit from this nearby medical facility, if not now, then later.
Housing is not the only request being made of Stanford. Indeed, the Planning and Transportation Commission at one of its recent meetings thought of a lot of things it wanted Stanford to give to the community.
Some of the suggestions from commissioners included providing for Palo Alto's entire shuttle system, developing the costly Intermodal Transit Center at the train station, or even building a performing arts center for Palo Alto residents. One commissioner thought it would be nice if Stanford turned Hoover Tower into a hotel. And a resident who is concerned about flooding in the Crescent Park area wanted Stanford to fix the problem by controlling flooding in the foothills.
I am certainly not suggesting that Stanford should not accommodate the city's concerns about increased traffic and parking problems. There are mitigations the university must provide. But many of the suggestions so far have no correlation to expansion of a medical facility.
Keep in mind that the two hospitals are independent and separate entities and do not receive any financial support from the university. Both hospitals have their own boards of directors and are self-sufficient.
I don't think the majority of residents here want to make such demands on either the university or the hospital. We don't want the medical center to be our community Sugar Daddy.