As Palo Alto struggles to find ways to encourage new housing, Stanford University is quickly advancing a project that city officials believe could help alleviate the housing crunch: a development that would add 2,000 beds for graduate students at Escondido Village.
On Monday night, a City Council that is normally skeptical about dense developments offered words of praise and support for the Stanford project, which is set to be reviewed by the Santa Clara County Planning Commission on Thursday morning, March 24.
Once built, the new development would house 75 percent of Stanford's graduate students on campus (up from the current level of 55 percent) and potentially free up the nearly 2,000 of housing units being rented by students in Palo Alto, Menlo Park and other surrounding communities.
Because the Escondido Village project is on the Stanford campus, which is on unincorporated Santa Clara County land, Palo Alto doesn't have any oversight over the project. The council's power to shape the project is limited to forwarding comments and concerns to the county for consideration.
After hearing from Stanford about the project, the council agreed that the new development is well thought out and worthy of the city's support. The fact that it would actually reduce traffic, rather than generate it, was a major selling point, as well as the fact that it would also free up housing at a time when supply is extremely constrained.
Shirley Everett, Stanford's senior associate vice provost for residential and dining enterprises, called the housing project "one of the most critically important initiatives undertaken on behalf of the university community" in her 25 years on campus.
"What we want to do in Stanford is provide on-campus housing to a great proportion to our graduate students and it's really essential and a really high priority for Stanford," she said.
In addition to adding the beds, the university also plans to add amenities such as a store, a pub and a fitness center to Escondido Village so that "students can enjoy the campus and not have to get into their cars."
Those who wish to leave the campus will have plenty of transportation options, including new Marguerite shuttles, a Zipcar fleet and biking amenities (the development will also include 1,300 parking spaces in an underground garage, a 700 increase over the current level).
"We're trying to build a vibrant community so not only graduate students but the campus community can come together as well," Everett said.
The council proved receptive to Stanford's proposal, which council members suggested could help the city deal with its drastic shortage of housing.
Vice Mayor Greg Scharff noted that the project will "open up other housing opportunities for people who aren't Stanford students."
Scharff also proposed that the city work with Stanford and Santa Clara County to ensure Palo Alto gets some credit for the new housing units under Regional Housing Needs Assessment, a process that requires each city in the Bay Area to plan for a certain number of units.
Jean McCown, Stanford's director of community relations, said the university would be open to having these discussions.
"I think this is a really good thing that Stanford is doing," Scharff said. "I think it will actually reduce traffic, bring people out of other housing, house them on the campus. We'll have minimal impacts on a range of things and a bunch of positive impacts in terms of traffic and congestion and all of that."
His colleagues agreed and unanimously approved a letter to the county supporting the proposal.
Councilwoman Liz Kniss said the project will "make a good deal of difference" in improving the housing situation both on campus and on the Peninsula.
Councilman Greg Schmid said that Stanford has made a "very effective case that building housing on campus will be helpful and have positive impact on traffic."
"I think it would be helpful to support Stanford in this and to also make the case that it's important for us," Schmid said.