Pushing back against Stanford University's assertion that building more than 2,000 housing units would transform its campus into an "urban apartment complex," Santa Clara County planners have identified four locations that they say could comfortably accommodate the additional residential development.
Now, it will be up to the county's Planning Commission and, ultimately, the Board of Supervisors, to decide whether requiring Stanford to construct the additional housing is a necessary measure to mitigate the impacts of its ambitious campus expansion or a costly burden that will exacerbate traffic problems on and around campus.
The question of how much housing Stanford should provide as part of its new general use permit (GUP) has become the most glaring wild card in the contentious process, with Stanford officials and county planners presenting starkly different visions for campus growth. The Planning Commission is scheduled to weigh the two sides and make its decision on June 27, its third meeting on the Stanford application.
The issue loomed large at the commission's June 13 meeting, in which Stanford offered a compromise proposal: constructing 1,307 new workforce units over the course of the life of the general use permit. The university also requested credit for the 1,300 graduate-student apartments it is currently constructing as part of its Escondido Village development and for the 215-apartment development in Menlo Park known as "Middle Plaza."
While Escondido Village is aimed at graduate students and not the workforce, Stanford argued that it would enable many students to move to campus, freeing up "hundreds of workforce housing units in the community," according to Catherine Palter, the university's associate vice president.
Stanford is requesting credit for 650 units at Escondido Village and for 215 units at Middle Plaza. When combined with 1,307 new units that it plans to build, this would add up to the 2,172 units that the county is insisting Stanford build.
Stanford also asserted last month that the county's proposed conditions of approval call for "transforming a college campus into an urban apartment complex."
At the June 13 meeting, Geoff Bradley, the county's project manager for the GUP process, strongly disputed that assertion. He presented to the commission four locations on campus where Stanford can build the new housing — areas that he said are currently vacant or underutilized. Three of these are on the west side of campus, between Lake Lagunita and Sand Hill Road: a 20-acre site surrounding an existing parking lot (known as Lot L-22) near intersection of Campus Drive and Panama Mall; the 13-acre "Searsville block" site on the other side of Campus Drive from Lot L-22; and a 17-acre site by Stanford Golf Driving Range, next to Lake Lagunita.
A fourth site identified by the county is in the "Quarry District," along Quarry Road near the El Camino Real and Arboretum Road intersections, next to the Stanford Shopping Center. (A map of all four locations compiled by Santa Clara County can be found here.)
The four sites can each accommodate between 429 units (Searsville block) and 660 units (Lot L-22). They would also allow Stanford to accommodate the expected growth without the need to infringe into open-space districts.
"This would not result in a transformation of the entire campus into an urban apartment complex, as asserted by (the) applicant," Bradley told the Planning Commission on June 13. "These would be mid-rise buildings with a density of approximately 30 to 40 units per acre, within existing housing-appropriate sites."
While the Planning Commission has not taken a stance on Stanford's latest housing proposal, county staff recommended that it be rejected. Giving Stanford credit for Escondido Village would not be appropriate, Bradley said, because that project aims to address "existing demand" that has already occurred under the existing general use permit, which was approved in 2000. The bottom line, Bradley said, is that Stanford is proposing 1,307 new units while county staff is recommending 2,172 new units, a number that is based on a nexus study planners had commissioned last year.
"The Stanford proposal as currently envisioned is 40% less than the documented demand," Bradley said. "We feel that's the bottom line comparison."
Deputy County Executive Sylvia Gallegos concurred and said the county is not willing to give Stanford credit for housing associated with past development to address the requirements of the new GUP.
"If the Planning Commission recommends to the board the staff recommendation of 2,172 units, we won't solve the current affordability crisis," Gallegos said. "What we will do is avoid exacerbating the current crisis because we'll provide enough housing to meet the new household demand for housing emanating from this development proposal."
If Stanford's proposal is adopted, she added, "we will exacerbate the affordability crisis and further increase that imbalance between jobs and the housing needed to house those workers."
While Stanford had characterized the county's proposed housing requirement as excessive, county officials countered that even if Stanford builds the 2,172 units, the majority of its staff will continue to live off-campus. At one point during the June 13 meeting, Planning Commissioner Marc Rauser asked staff, "Our goal isn't to have like a company town, where everybody works within the borders, right?" Bradley responded that the new housing would accommodate about 23% of the university's workforce.
In setting the requirement, Bradley said, county officials are strictly focused on the new growth that would occur as part of the general use permit. The permit would allow Stanford to build 2.275 million square feet of academic development, 1,600 student beds and 40,000 square feet of child care space and transportation hubs (as well as the required workforce housing).
Despite the county's recommendations, some planning commissioners indicated at the June 13 meeting that they are sympathetic to Stanford's concerns. Commissioner Erin Gil called Stanford the "jewel of the Bay Area" and asked whether any other employers in the area are required to meet the kinds of conditions that Stanford is being asked to meet, including a "no net new commute trips requirement." Palter responded that Stanford hasn't seen any other companies facing such requirements.
Gil also questioned the county's proposal to change its methodology for counting Stanford trips. Today, the policy only considers trips during the peak hour in the morning and in the afternoon. The proposed policy would look at a three-hour "peak period," as well as consider reverse-commute trips and average trip counts. By counting all trips on campus, the county could be creating a disincentive for Stanford to hold concerts and other events that are beneficial to the entire community, Gil said.
Stanford is also opposing the proposed revision to the "no net commute trips" program. Counting reverse trips, Palter said, would "prevent Stanford from building more workforce housing on its academic campus because this standard is unachievable." That's because workforce housing will include family members of Stanford employees who do not work on campus and who would rely on cars to take their children to school and run errands.
These trips, Palter said, cannot be removed through "transportation demand management" programs. She also said the university opposes capping average daily trips because such a cap would "prevent housing and have the unintended consequence of limiting the many programs that Stanford offers to the surrounding community."
Gil and Rauser also said they would still like to see Stanford and the county enter into a development agreement, a negotiated contract that would allow Stanford to provide benefits and extract concessions beyond those that are legally required to mitigate the campus expansion. While the county authorized last year the use of a development agreement in considering the GUP, the county suspended the negotiations in April after Stanford cut a tentative deal with the Palo Alto Unified School District that was contingent on the county's approval of the development agreement — a move that county officials argued gives Stanford unfair leverage in its negotiations with the county.
While Stanford has consistently called for reopening the development agreement negotiations, Gallegos said county officials remain uncertain whether they will ultimately enter into such negotiations with Stanford.
"If and when the county re-enters negotiations, it will be done at a time that's most strategically advantageous to the county," Gallegos said at the June 13 meeting.
• Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian sits down with Weekly staff to discuss the key areas of contention around Stanford University's proposed expansion on "Behind the Headlines." Listen to the discussion now on our YouTube channel and podcast.