With Stanford University pushing back against Santa Clara County's plan to require more housing as part of the university's expansion plan, residents crammed into Palo Alto City Hall on Thursday night to demand more protection from the impacts of the proposed expansion.
More than 250 people, including dozens of graduate students and city leaders from throughout the Peninsula, filled the Council Chambers for the county Planning Commission's hearing on Stanford's application for a new general use permit (GUP), the first of three public hearings on the expansion proposal. While some spoke in support of Stanford's plan, the vast majority urged commissioners to support — and, in some cases, exceed — the conditions for approval that the county's planning staff is recommending.
The biggest bone of contention is housing. Stanford has proposed to build 2.275 million square feet of academic space, along with 2,600 student beds and 550 housing units for staff and faculty. County planners, meanwhile, are proposing that Stanford be required to build 2,172 units, of which 933 would be designated as below-market-rate housing.
County planners are also proposing that at least 70% of the units get built on campus. The rest would have to be constructed within 6 miles of the campus unless the Planning Commission finds that doing so would not be feasible.
Geoff Bradley, the county's project manager for the GUP review, said Thursday that the proposed housing requirement is based on a study that the county commissioned last year, which analyzed the impacts of two new growth scenarios, each with more housing than Stanford had proposed. The study was commissioned during the environmental-analysis period after the county received an outpouring of public comments about the housing shortage.
He also noted that the requirement for having more housing on campus would, over time, "allow for a more balanced mix of on- and off-campus housing."
Stanford, for its part, is pushing back against the proposed housing mandate. In a May 9 letter to the Planning Commission, Catherine Palter, the university's associate vice president, argued that the county's proposed conditions to address housing would "result in significant detrimental environmental impacts to our neighbors and would impair Stanford's use of its academic campus."
Palter reiterated the university's concerns on Thursday when she questioned whether the university can ramp up housing on campus while, at the same time, complying with stricter traffic-reduction requirements. Stanford, she said, is being asked to add more than 2,000 residents, many with spouses and other household members who don't work at Stanford.
"But these new residents won't be able to use a car to make routine trips associated with any household — drive away from the campus in the morning, come home at night, and run any number of errands during the day," Palter said. "This is just not feasible."
Dozens of university graduate and undergraduate students, however — some speaking as individuals and others organized in groups — argued that Stanford's planned expansion should include housing that is both plentiful and truly affordable. Some also called for Stanford to provide more child care facilities.
Alexa Russo, a graduate student in anthropology, noted that if a large share of graduate student apartments are designated for "moderate" incomes (which in Santa Clara County amounts to about $66,000), most graduate students would be priced out.
"It is virtually impossible that any graduate student on campus would make enough," Russo said. "What is the purpose of housing designated for graduate students if the graduate students cannot afford to live in them?"
Elected officials from Palo Alto, Menlo Park and East Palo Alto also attended the meeting and, while their concerns varied, their request was generally consistent: "full mitigation." Menlo Park City Councilwoman Cecilia Taylor stressed the importance of having "good governance" in Stanford's expansion.
"That means full mitigation for Stanford workers, full mitigation to our housing, full mitigation for environmental impacts, full mitigation of traffic and transportation," Taylor said.
Lenny Siegel, a former Mountain View mayor, also emphasized the need for Stanford to build housing, particularly on its campus. He was less thrilled that the county potentially could allow Stanford to build housing 6 miles away from its campus, a radius that includes a portion of Mountain View.
Siegel said he and his neighbors are concerned that allowing Stanford to meet its housing requirement by building in Mountain View would make it harder for the city to improve its jobs-to-housing imbalance, and it would create new traffic problems.
"Don't make it harder for us by letting Stanford dump more housing on us," Siegel said.
For Palo Alto Councilman Tom DuBois, traffic was a central concern. DuBois suggested that Stanford consider the problems that additional housing would cause at Palo Alto intersections, particularly along Alma Street.
While planning commissioners didn't indicate on Thursday whether or not they support the proposed conditions of approval, their comments suggested they share many of the public's concerns. Commissioner Aaron Resendez commented on the worsening congestion on highways and roadways in and around Palo Alto.
"To me, (traffic) is going to be a huge impact. ... We have to look at this deeper than what we're talking about," Resendez said.
Commissioners also offered some suggestions for revising the housing requirements. Commissioner Vicki Moore wondered if there is a way to ensure that rent for graduate students does not exceed 30% of their incomes.
Others said they would like to see the county restart its negotiations with Stanford over a development agreement, which would allow the university to offer benefits beyond what the county can mandate through the environmental-review process. While the Board of Supervisors agreed last year to move ahead with these talks, negotiations collapsed in April after the university announced a separate agreement with the Palo Alto Unified School District. That agreement was contingent on the county approving a development agreement with Stanford, a condition that prompted supervisors Joe Simitian and Cindy Chavez to halt the talks.
Stanford has consistently maintained that a development agreement is a critical piece of the application. On Thursday, Palter asked the planning commission to delay its review of the conditions of approval until such an agreement is in place so that the application can be evaluated as a "comprehensive package."
"The project before you is simply not ready for your thoughtful deliberation," Palter told the commission.
County staff firmly rejected this argument.
"We don't need a development agreement to process this application," Deputy County Executive Sylvia Gallegos told the commission.
She also noted that even though the negotiations are suspended, "there are communications occurring between the county and the university about the conditions under which negotiations may resume."
Both Commissioner Bob Levy and commission Vice Chair Marc Rauser said they continue to favor a development agreement process. Levy embraced Stanford's position and said it would be best to consider the conditions of approval and a development agreement in concert. He also wondered whether it's truly possible to fully mitigate the impacts of Stanford's growth, as many have called for.
"We're trying to (bring) all impacts to zero, but with all the growth we're looking at, is that even feasible?" Levy asked. "Is it even a sustainable plan? Or do we need to step back and say: What is really sustainable?"
The second and third Planning Commission hearings on the Stanford GUP will be held at 1:30 p.m. on June 13 and June 27 in the Isaac Newton Senter Auditorium at the County Government Center, 70 W. Hedding St., San Jose.
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 new podcast.