While Palo Alto struggles to address its severe housing shortage, Stanford University is swiftly moving ahead with an ambitious plan to add housing for graduate students at Escondido Village.
The project, which the city's Planning and Transportation Commission discussed Wednesday night, calls for about four new buildings, ranging from six to 10 stories and containing 2,000 beds for Stanford's graduate students. If things go as planned, the new housing and surrounding amenities will be open for occupancy 2019.
Because Stanford is located on Santa Clara County land, rather than the city's, its development is guided by a 2000 agreement with the county. The agreement, known as the "general use permit," allows the university to build 3,018 housing units, of which all but 581 have already been constructed. If the county approves Stanford's proposal, the new development at Escondido Village would exceed the county's allocation by 1,450 units.
In discussion of the project Wednesday, the planning commission acknowledged that the city doesn't have the authority to either approve or deny the project and that its influence is limited to issuing comments for the county to consider. But after hearing the presentation from Stanford, the commissioners had mostly praise for the development and its potential impacts on both the student population and the city.
For one thing, because the housing would cater to a population that already spends its day on the campus, it would be a rare example of a housing project that actually improves traffic conditions. And by offering students housing options, it would also alleviate some of the pressure from Palo Alto's increasingly unaffordable housing stock.
Commissioner Kate Downing, who made both of these points, noted that Palo Alto used to be the kind of place where four graduate students could chip in and rent an Eichler home while they study at Stanford. But in today's market, with monthly rent for a three-bedroom home costing upward of $7,000, this option is all but impossible, Downing said.
"When you're a student and you don't have a job and are in debt up to your ears, this kind of housing is an absolute lifesaver," Downing said. "In addition, we'll be getting a lot of cars off the road because people will be waking up exactly where they need to be."
Shirley Everett, Stanford's associate vice provost for residential and dining enterprise, called the project one of the most "critically important" initiatives the university has undertaken in the past 25 years. While the university is currently able to house about 55 percent of its graduate-student population, the Escondido Village development would raise that rate to 75 percent. It would entail the demolition of 400 existing housing units and construction of about 2,400, for a net increase of 2,000. Stanford would also build a 1,300-space parking garage, for a net increase of 700 parking spots; add a grocery store, a pub and other amenities; and expand its fleet of Marguerite buses to discourage car ownership, Stanford officials said Wednesday.
"We believe this project is transformative as it will enhance the quality of our graduate students' educational experience as it brings them to close proximity to an abundance of resources on the Stanford campus," Everett said. "Many students work late evenings, advancing study and research, and we want them to avoid long commutes at night."
Catherine Palter, Stanford's associate vice president for land use and environmental planning, also said the project will result in a campuswide decrease in traffic. The exception to this rule would be at the intersection of El Camino Real and Serra Street, the closest gateway from the city to the Stanford campus. The project would add about 200 car trips to this area during the commute hours, though this would not change the intersection's level of service (currently deemed to be "C" on an A-to-F scale).
Stanford also doesn't expect parking to be a problem, with more students these days foregoing cars in favor of other options.
The trend away from vehicles is reflected in Stanford's parking permit sales, according to Brian Shaw, Stanford's director of parking and transportation services. Between 2004 and 2015, the ratio of permits to beds among all graduate students has fallen from 0.65 to 0.55. In Escondido Village, the same trend holds true, he noted. For graduate students at Escondido Village eligible to park in the parking facilities, the ratio of permit purchases to beds has fallen from 0.76 to 0.56 between 2004 and 2015, Shaw wrote in a memo. And the drive-alone rate for students has dropped from 59 percent in 2004 to 40 percent today, according to the memo.
Shaw told the commission Wednesday that Stanford plans to give Escondido Village students further incentives not to own cars. This includes more car-sharing Zipcars; a new car-rental business in the new garage; and new Marguerite shuttles, which will be free and available not just to Stanford students and faculty but to the greater community.
"The program is designed to facilitate people living in these new buildings and the entire Escondido Village area to not need to bring cars to campus at all," Shaw said.
Even so, the garage would increase parking supply by 700 spaces, thus accommodating a ratio of 0.61 permits per bed.
The commission was mostly satisfied with the presentation, with Vice Chair Przemek Gardias noting that the influx in student population on campus will have the added benefit of boosting business for Palo Alto businesses near the campus. The project, he said, "will positively contribute to the wealth of those merchants, and that's a good thing."
Chair Adrian Fine agreed and lauded Stanford for doing a "very diligent job" on the new project.
"I think Palo Alto has a part to play by issuing comments and pushing Stanford for the best project that can happen," Fine said. "There's a lot of commercial and residential potential here. It will be exciting to see what happens."
Now, it will be up to the county's Planning Commission to decide whether to approve the housing plan. Though the county permit only allows 3,018 units, the document also includes a policy that allows Stanford to construct additional housing, provided the university performs additional environmental assessment for the new units.