If the Palo Alto City Council was gung-ho months ago about requesting that Stanford University build more housing on campus as part of its proposed expansion plans, a recent draft environmental analysis has dumped cold water on hopes that doing so could come without significant problems.
On Monday, council members wrestled with an analysis that indicated Stanford's plan to expand its campus by constructing more than 2 million square feet of academic space could result in 135-foot residential buildings going up on El Camino Real and worsened conditions at local schools, parks and traffic if the university were required to build enough housing to accommodate its growth.
The study was performed as part of Santa Clara County's review of Stanford University's plan to expand its campus by constructing 2.275 million square feet of academic space, 40,000 square feet of child care facilities (and other support space) and 3,150 housing units by 2035. The county is now in the process of reviewing Stanford's application for a 2018 General Use Permit, which would allow the expansion.
The council had initially released the environmental-impact report (EIR) for the Stanford expansion last fall. But after an outpouring of public comments, county planners agreed to explore two additional scenarios, each of which includes more housing. One, known as Housing Alternative A, would provide 5,699 units (or beds for students), enough to house the expanded campus population. The other, known as Housing Alternative B, would result in 4,425 units or beds.
For the council, the analysis creates an unusual dilemma. Council members have made housing their top priority for the year and are moving ahead on a housing work plan that aims to encourage more residential construction. In addition, the city's prior comments on the General Use Permit urged Stanford to either scale down its building plans or add more housing to avoid exacerbating the city's gaping jobs-to-housing imbalance.
And yet not everyone was thrilled about the impacts detailed in the new environmental analysis. Councilwoman Karen Holman said that while she has no problem with greater residential density on the Stanford campus, building heights are a different matter. Allowing buildings that are more than 100-feet tall is "going to be problematic with the whole community and it will have environmental impacts (on) vistas, viewpoints and compatibility."
Mayor Liz Kniss, a strong advocate for more housing, said she was somewhat startled by the "dramatic changes" associated with the new housing scenarios. She said she can't imagine Stanford would end up with 130-foot-tall buildings on El Camino, across from Town & Country Village.
Holman also expressed concern about new housing developments exceeding the city's setbacks rules on El Camino, a sentiment with which Councilman Tom DuBois agreed.
DuBois, who tends to favor slow-growth policies, nevertheless said the new housing scenarios make sense. He largely focused his comments on traffic conditions, which the study showed as worsening. He said the analysis offers the city an opportunity to reiterate its need to Stanford for transportation mitigations, including Stanford's assistance in the city's long-term effort to redesign its rail crossings to better accommodate increasing Caltrain service.
"With additional traffic that housing on campus would create, we should maybe ask as one of the conditions that Stanford perform an updated circulation study around grade separations," DuBois suggested.
If some on the council were more skeptical of the impacts of new housing, Councilman Cory Wolbach, a staunch advocate for more housing, praised the newly analyzed scenarios. He said he favors either of the two additional-housing options over Stanford's original proposal.
He also questioned the environmental report's finding that the two new scenarios would add traffic to local streets. The study indicated that Housing Alternative A would result in more than 2,100 additional trips by residents during the morning and evening commutes, even as it would reduce the number of commuter trips by about 700. It noted that unlike a commuter, a campus resident travels between the campus and other destinations for a wide variety of reasons, including shopping, socializing, exercise and recreation.
Wolbach downplayed the EIR's findings on traffic problems and suggested that the rise of personal motorized vehicles such as electric scooters and electric bikes would give campus residents new ways to get around town.
"I think addressing the housing issues is really critical," Wolbach said. "Because any housing not built by Stanford to address their job growth and student growth as well -- it's going to force more people into Palo Alto, Mountain View and Menlo Park."
Like Wolbach, Councilman Adrian Fine argued that Stanford's proposed expansion will have some benefits for the area.
"When we talk about open space and facilities and local retail and all that stuff -- Stanford is doing it," Fine said. "And it's doing much of the growth at lower transportation impact than other areas."
But whether or not these scenarios ever come to fruition, the report drew plaudits from several council members for delineating in detail the impacts of adding more than 1,000 units of housing. Vice Mayor Eric Filseth said the new analysis "cuts to the core of Silicon Valley and the whole issue of the costs of economic expansion." With the new study, the county has performed a "great service," Filseth said.
"You're talking about 130-foot towers on El Camino Real, big increases in traffic -- because in reality you can't add people without adding cars -- and stress on schools and parks and infrastructure and so forth," Filseth said, "I like the honesty here. I like the dose of reality in this."
One of the lessons of the environmental analysis is that Palo Alto will have to wrestle with increased traffic and other problems whether Stanford opts to build new housing on campus or off. The re-circulated environmental-impact report also considers the prospect of Stanford building housing off-campus and concludes that construction and operation of off-site housing would result in significant off-site problems, particularly in Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Mountain View.
The report notes that any Stanford-built off-campus housing would "disproportionately affect these jurisdictions compared to other communities in the Bay Area that house Stanford affiliates." Some of these impacts could potentially be eased, but any attempt to do so would necessarily fall on the individual cities where the housing is built, according to the EIR.
"Given uncertainties in the specific location and type of off-campus housing that may occur under this option, it is also uncertain if feasible mitigation would exist to reduce all significant environmental impacts to a less than significant level," the EIR states. "Further, the county cannot require or guarantee that local governments would implement mitigation measures for off-campus housing included in or required by General Plan EIRs."