As Stanford University approaches the final few months of county review of its proposed new general use permit, which seeks approval of a whopping 2.3 million square feet of additional academic-related development between now and 2035, a new county analysis of housing needs is throwing a major and unexpected monkey wrench into the process.
The university was hoping that its proposal, which included the construction of 3,150 new housing units or beds for a combination of students, faculty and staff, would satisfy the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors and housing advocates even though they would be insufficient to meet the housing needs related to the academic expansion and growth in students being requested.
But the county planning staff, much to Stanford's chagrin, wisely decided alternatives with more housing needed to be considered and directed that a revised environmental-impact report (EIR) examine options of creating up to 5,700 new units or beds on campus.
The resulting recently re-issued EIR has opened up a healthy debate over housing obligations and is sparking an unusual alliance between Stanford, which doesn't want to provide more housing than it originally proposed, and those Palo Alto residents who oppose the magnitude of the university's expansion plans. Meanwhile, housing advocates are generally delighted to see Stanford pushed to provide more housing, including for lower-paid workers who generally commute long distances.
Stanford's objections to providing additional housing have thus far been cast in vague terms that amount to resistance to the idea that it should be responsible for using its land to fully meet the housing needs caused by its academic expansion. While it has not yet officially responded to the revised EIR, the university's director of land use and planning told residents attending a county-sponsored informational meeting Tuesday night that providing more housing was "inconsistent with Stanford's balanced plans for its campus" and warned of the increased traffic problems it would create for Palo Alto.
She was referencing the traffic analysis in the EIR, which concluded that the more housing built on campus the greater the traffic congestion would be on streets in Palo Alto — more than if the housing were built out of the area and students and employees had to commute to the campus.
This may seem counter-intuitive, but a commuter to Stanford typically creates one trip in and one trip out each day, while a resident living on campus is potentially making multiple trips on local streets to buy groceries, make other purchases, meet friends, transport kids to activities, etc. And a spouse employed off-campus creates additional commute traffic. The EIR projects that the total number of commute trips would decline by about 700 per day with the larger number of housing units on campus, but an additional 2,100 trips would occur during commute hours by residents living on campus.
This estimate prompted the citizens group Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning and others to warn against pushing Stanford to provide more housing.
The potential requirement for additional new housing has also heightened concern for the Palo Alto school district, which was already agitated about the prospect of needing to educate an estimated 275 additional students based on the original proposed 3,150 new housing units. With 5,700 new housing units, the school district would see an added 1,500 students, according to the EIR.
The annual cost of educating 275 new students from newly developed Stanford housing would be about $5.3 million, while the cost of absorbing 1,500 students could total almost $30 million a year. As school trustee Todd Collins pointed out at Tuesday's meeting, these costs would not be offset by new property-tax revenue because the new Stanford housing would be exempt from property taxes under current state law.
These questions over the benefits of more housing, the traffic impacts it would cause and the need for a funding source for educating kids living in tax-exempt housing will now become the subject of intense negotiations between the county and Stanford over the next six months. (Palo Alto has no official role to play since the university's core campus is in unincorporated county land and subject to county land-use control.)
We support the principle that Stanford (and any other developer) should provide the housing needed to offset the anticipated increase in new employees and students resulting from its desired expansion. The projected traffic impacts identified in the environmental report must legally be mitigated, most likely through expansion of the Marguerite bus system and other transportation innovations such as bike- and scooter-sharing programs. And the school financing issues need to be resolved, either through a negotiated financial agreement or a change in state law, so that other residents of the school district aren't bearing the cost of new students coming from tax-exempt Stanford housing.