Despite concerns about the region's housing shortage, Palo Alto residents showed little enthusiasm Tuesday for the idea of requiring Stanford University to build enough residential units to compensate for its ambitious expansion.
The question of exactly how much housing Stanford should add to complement the 2.275 million square feet of academic space it plans to construct by 2035 is at the center of a new analysis by Santa Clara County, which is now reviewing Stanford's application for a new General Use Permit. The university has proposed 3,150 units or beds as part of its expansion; the new study considers two alternatives that would require a total of 5,699 (in Housing Alternative A) or 4,425 (in Housing Alternative B) units or beds.
The two new proposals are both evaluated in the recently recirculated Draft Environmental Impact Report, which was the subject of a meeting on Tuesday at the Palo Alto Art Center. More than 50 residents attended to express their concerns both about Stanford's proposal and the newly released alternatives.
No one at the meeting disputed the idea that Stanford's academic expansion would exacerbate the area's housing crisis. The larger question was: What about the costs of addressing that impact by building enough housing to fully support the larger campus population?
From Stanford's perspective, the new study underscores its view that adding even more housing than it has proposed would bring more traffic to the surrounding area. Jessica von Borck, the university's director of land use and planning, said that the university's application is designed to continue the balance of land uses that has occurred in the past.
The two new housing alternatives, by contrast, are "inconsistent with Stanford's balanced plans for its campus" and would significantly affect surrounding communities.
Her view received some support from the new study, which indicated that traffic at several local intersections -- some of which would have "failing" congestion levels under Stanford's version of the expansion -- would not see any improvement if the additional housing were built. Two new intersections -- Stanford Avenue and Bowdoin Street; and Middlefield and Charleston Road -- would now face "significant and unavoidable" impacts, according to the draft environmental analysis.
The draft report indicated that Housing Alternative A would bring in an additional 2,100 trips by residents during the morning and evening commutes, even as it would reduce the number of commuter trips by about 700.
Lesley Lowe, senior environmental planner at Stanford, noted at the meeting that the university already has in place an ambitious transportation-demand-management program, which has resulted in only 43 percent of the campus population commuting alone by car. Stanford believes it can offset some of the new car trips by enticing even more Stanford commuters to get out of their cars. It is less confident, however, that it can achieve its "no net new commute trip" standard under the newly evaluated housing alternatives.
Former Palo Alto Mayor Pat Burt concurred that getting people who live on campus to not drive would require new approaches. This could include better coordination between the university's Marguerite shuttles and Palo Alto's free-shuttle system, he said.
"Those are different programs needed to reduce or fully mitigate these trips," Burt said. "That doesn't mean it cannot be done. They're different measures that require different programs and will require a significant investment on behalf of Stanford to achieve that."
Some residents argued that Stanford's proposal, even without the additional housing, is already too much. Suzanne Keehn, member of the citizens group Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning, was one of several speakers to argue that the planned expansion represents far more growth than surrounding communities can accommodate.
"This area can only hold so many people comfortably and have some kind of livability," Keehn said.
Todd Collins, a member of the Palo Alto Unified Board of Education, highlighted another area of concern: the impact of new housing on local schools. Collins noted that because Stanford's rental properties are tax-exempt, the school district doesn't get any property-tax revenues from the university. Collins said that absorbing the estimated 275 new students who would move in under Stanford's permit plan would constitute an annual school-district expenditure of $5.3 million, without any revenues to offset the cost.
Collins said that with Housing Alternative A, which would bring 1,500 students to the school district, Palo Alto Unified would see $27.8 million in annual unfunded costs.
"This is a huge issue," Collins said. "It has the potential to undermine the quality of schools that the community is based on."
The county is accepting comments on the proposed Draft Environmental Impact Report until July 26. The deadline has some significance for the Palo Alto City Council, which is on break until July 30 and which was hoping to get an extension so that it might discuss its comment letter. When asked by Councilwoman Karen Holman about the potential extension, Geoff Bradley, project planner for the Stanford general-use permit, said that the county decided to stick to the July 26 deadline so that county staff would have plenty of time to address the comments.
This means city staff will draft the letter based on somewhat conflicting directions it had received from the council in June. Councilmen Adrian Fine and Cory Wolbach both said they would like to see Stanford move ahead with one of the new Housing Alternatives, particularly given the university's strong history of handling its traffic. But Holman and Mayor Liz Kniss both raised concerns about the prospect of building 100-foot-tall residential buildings on El Camino Real to meet the housing requirement.
The county plans to issue a final Environmental Impact Report, with responses to public comments, in September. The county's Planning Commission is looking to hold hearings on the General Use Permit in October and November. The issue will then go to the Board of Supervisors, with the goal of reaching a decision by the end of the year, Bradley said.
Comments on the recirculated portions of the Draft Environmental Impact Report should be addressed to: David Rader, 70 W. Hedding St., San Jose, CA 95110, firstname.lastname@example.org.