With Santa Clara County and Stanford University now ramping up their negotiations over the university's ambitious growth plan, Palo Alto is asking the county to require Stanford to contribute significant funding for improvements to local rail crossings, bike paths, parks and planning efforts for the downtown area.
The laundry list of requests, which will be included in a letter to the county Board of Supervisors, includes a provision that Stanford pay the city affordable-housing fees based on its academic growth (in addition to the fees that the university already must pay to the county), that it help create a new pathway connecting Bol Park to Stanford Research Park and that it consider expanding its successful Marguerite shuttle system to serve a greater portion of the city.
The city is making its request at a pivotal time for Stanford's multiyear effort to secure the county's approval for a new General Use Permit (GUP). If approved, the GUP would empower Stanford to add about 2.275 million square feet of academic space, 3,150 new dwelling units or student beds and 40,000 square feet of child care and support facilities by 2035.
Santa Clara County had released in December its Final Environmental Impact Report for the growth proposal, which the county Board of Supervisors is scheduled to review this spring. Concurrently, a two-member subcommittee of the board is now negotiating with Stanford on a "development agreement," a contract that would give the county and Stanford more flexibility to negotiate. The city letter, which the council approved unanimously, aims to communicate to the county's negotiators, Supervisors Joe Simitian and Cindy Chavez, what the city would like to see in the new agreement.
The city is unlikely to see all — or even most — of its requests fulfilled. The housing fees alone could add up to $82.4 million, if Stanford grows to the level that the new GUP would allow, interim Planning Director Jonathan Lait told the council. And Stanford has fiercely resisted, through both lobbying and litigation, the county's recently passed ordinances to increase housing-impact fees for Stanford and to create a new requirement that Stanford designate 16 percent of its new units as affordable housing. In supporting the development-agreement process, Stanford is seeking to reach a deal that would nullify those ordinances.
With its vote, Palo Alto officials agreed Monday that they believe the city should also get some Stanford funding for housing. Councilwoman Liz Kniss, who as a former supervisor worked on Stanford's prior GUP (it was approved in 2000), called the housing contributions essential. She noted that Palo Alto's affordable-housing fund has been largely depleted, with the city recently committing $10 million toward a 59-unit below-market-rate project on El Camino Real, near Wilton Avenue (the city still has about $3 million remaining in the fund).
"We literally have almost nothing in affordable housing fund," Kniss said.
In making its request for housing assistance, the city is reasoning that about 19 percent of Stanford affiliates live in Palo Alto, according to the environmental analysis. The university's expansion will increase housing demand in a city where supply is severely constrained, according to a report from the Department of Planning and Community Environment.
The report acknowledges that Stanford will already pay housing fees to the county, but notes that this money "is controlled and distributed by the County and may or may not directly benefit Palo Alto."
In addition to the housing assistance, Palo Alto is asking the county to require Stanford to make significant contributions to transportation projects, large and small. This includes "fair-share" funding for redesigning the city's rail crossings (the share would be based on university-bound traffic), expanded shuttle service, the creation of a Bol Park path that would create a new connection between the university and Stanford Research Park and funding for other bike improvements in areas close to the university.
The city is also asking for a contribution of $1 million for design work on a new Downtown Coordinated Area Plan, an intense process that would consider grade separation alternatives for Palo Alto Avenue, the redesign of the downtown Transit Center and other potential changes to the downtown area. This effort is expected to cost about $2 million, Lait said.
In addition to requesting these contributions, the council is asking the county to require that Stanford commit to preserving the foothills from development. The 2000 GUP includes a provision that requires any proposal for development in the foothills to secure support from four of the five county supervisors. The city's letter will argue that this policy should be extended for several more decades, possibly until 2100.
The council also agreed to include in the letter a request that Stanford work with Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and Menlo Park to create upstream detention facilities that would improve flood protection around the San Francisquito Creek.
In addition, the council aligned itself with a request by the Palo Alto Unified School District that Stanford fully mitigate its impacts on the school district.
School board member Todd Collins, who attended the meeting, called Stanford's potential impact on the school system an "existential issue." The school board, he said, has already discussed at two closed sessions the prospect of filing a lawsuit challenging the Final Environmental Impact Report, which the county is set to certify in late spring. The board had also passed a resolution requesting that Stanford provide funding and possibly land for a new school to accommodate an expected influx of students as part of the GUP expansion.
The city and the school district deserve nothing less than "full mitigation" of Stanford's growth impacts, should the General Use Permit win approval, Collins argued.
"The community needs to mitigate the impact of 9,000 people coming to Stanford every day — in terms of housing, in terms of traffic, in terms of impact to schools," Collins said.
Mayor Eric Filseth concurred that Stanford should contribute to the school district. In addition to the comprehensive, wide-ranging letter that the council approved Monday, Filseth signed a separate letter signaling the council's solidarity with the school district.
"The City shares PAUSD's position that Stanford University mitigate any impacts that may occur as a result of an increase in student population, affect desired student/teacher ratios or otherwise diminish the quality of education provided to its students. The University and school district share a commitment to high quality education and both institutions benefit from mutual success," Filseth's letter states.
While the council has already made numerous requests for Stanford to mitigate the expected impacts of its growth, the letter that the council approved Monday is notable for its breadth and ambition. It included every request that city staff had suggested, as well as scores of others that staff had identified as "possible items for deliberations."
Several residents had submitted letters urging the council to be aggressive in requesting transportation mitigation from Stanford. Some focused on the grade separation project, the redesign of four rail crossings so that local roads would no longer intersect with the rail tracks.
David Shen, a resident of Old Palo Alto, was one of several to suggest that the city request that Stanford pay its "fair share" on all grade-separation projects as well as related projects such as the Downtown Coordinated Area Plan, which the council is looking to undertake in the coming months.
Stanford, Shen argued, should also "pay for all transportation projects across Palo Alto, including regular maintenance, new construction and personnel to support."
Southgate resident Rachel Croft had broader concerns about traffic conditions and called the city's response "lacking" when it comes to requesting transportation assistance.
"The traffic in Palo Alto is gridlock during commute times, and is already a or the major concern of Palo Alto residents," Croft wrote. "Addition of this academic space for workers and families will clearly bring more people into the area each day and cause more people to dwell in the area, which will impact ALL traffic throughout Palo Alto."