Stanford University's plan to build 250 housing units for its faculty in the College Terrace neighborhood scored another victory Thursday, when Palo Alto's architecture panel unanimously approved a new affordable-housing development along one of the busiest stretches of El Camino Real.
The 70-unit development is the second major housing project proposed by Stanford and approved by the city in the past month. On March 20, the Architectural Review Board approved the construction of 180 housing units on California Avenue, which includes a mix of single-family homes and multi-family units.
Both projects are part of the city's 2005 agreement with Stanford, under which the university constructed soccer fields on the corner of El Camino and Page Mill Road and leased them to the city for 51 years for $1 per year. In exchange, the city agreed to grant Stanford the right to build 250 units on the two sites.
The El Camino development drew much praise and little criticism from the board, which voted 5-0 to give Stanford the go-ahead. The development will consist of two wings: a four-story brick west wing with a curved design intended to resemble a "swoosh" and a three-story east wing, known as "cube," with a rectangular shape and cement fiber panels. The two wings would be connected by a transparent breezeway at the upper levels.
Apartments in the new development will range from one to three bedrooms. The taller west wing would include 54 units: 24 with one bedroom, 12 with two bedrooms and 18 with three bedrooms. This wing will also include commercial spaces on the ground floor that would be used by the current tenant, the Vista Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired.
The east wing will include the remaining 16 units, 12 with two bedrooms and four with three bedrooms. It would also include a small cafe on the ground floor.
Despite tiny quibbles about colors and what some saw as excessive simplicity of the cube wing, the board was generally enthusiastic about the development at 2500 El Camino Real, just north of Page Mill Road. Even residents from the adjacent College Terrace neighborhood had good things to say about Stanford's housing proposal, noting that the university had agreed to reduce its construction hours in the evening and offer Eco Passes for VTA buses to building residents.
The one area of contention had to do with bike paths. Several members of the College Terrace Residents Association requested that Stanford build bike and pedestrian amenities in the back of the property, where the project's parking lot would be located. Travis Giggy, who has two sons who attend Escondido Elementary School, argued that many students will use the back route to avoid the busier streets and crosswalks on El Camino and California Avenue.
"I would humbly request for Stanford or the architects to take a second look at building some safe walkways behind the projects so the tenants of this building and the children could have a safe way to walk to school."
Brent Barker, president of the resident association's board of directors, said he and the board "basically like this project" but made a similar plea for pedestrian amenities in the back of the property. Adding a bike path at the 24-foot easement behind the building would make commuting easier and safer for students, Barker said.
Stanford has resisted this approach, arguing that the area next to the parking lot is intended to be primarily for cars and that directing bicyclists to the area would do more harm than good. Christopher Wuthman of Stanford Real Estate said the plan specifically placed amenities for bicyclists and pedestrians on well-used corridors and destinations. This includes El Camino, where the building's setback will create wider sidewalks (consistent with a city objective) and near the soccer fields on the Page Mill corner.
"We are opposed to directing and facilitating bicyclists and pedestrians toward the unsafe vehicle driveway that is patently for vehicles," Wuthman told the board.
The board concurred, with Vice Chair Randy Popp agreeing that directing pedestrians and bicyclists toward the parking lot would be dangerous.
"If my son was riding to school out of this project, I would not let him ride through the parking lot," Popp said.
Though Popp suggested that the evolved design for the project may now be too simple, he joined his colleagues in giving the development a green light. Chair Lee Lippert called it a "terrific project" and board member Clare Malone Prichard said Stanford's team has "done everything we asked them to do." She said she was "very much in support of the project as it is presented." She also lauded it for its treatment of El Camino sidewalks, which are currently about 8 feet wide but which would vary from 13 to 18 feet once the existing commercial buildings are demolished and the new development is constructed.
"The width of sidewalks, with setting the building back, is absolutely matching up with what we've been asking for with all of our zoning changes," Malone Prichard said, referring to a proposed sidewalk ordinance that is now being reviewed by local boards and commission. "I appreciate that."