As Santa Clara County prepares to adopt a new plan to govern Stanford University's growth, Palo Alto officials are pushing for more housing, expanded shuttle services and a seat at the table in the coming negotiations.
The county Board of Supervisors is scheduled to start reviewing next week the proposed update to the existing Stanford Community Plan. The 2000 document, which aims to encourage compact development, created a "housing linkage" policy that requires Stanford to construct housing concurrent to or prior to academic development.
The updated version would significantly firm up this requirement by requiring that most of the new housing be built on Stanford's campus or on contiguous Stanford-owned lands in Palo Alto. The requirement was prompted by concerns from surrounding cities about the university buying up properties that are then rented exclusively to Stanford affiliates.
On Monday, as the City Council heard a presentation from county consultants about the ongoing update, the issue of where Stanford would be required to build the housing and who would be allowed to live there loomed large in the discussion. Geoff Bradley, principal at M-Group, which is leading the update, noted that the university has only built 60 housing units for faculty and staff since the current Stanford Community Plan was adopted 22 years ago, even as it added about 4,400 student beds over that span.
The university also added 1,023 dwellings outside its campus since 2000, much of it in Palo Alto and Menlo Park. This does not include its recent purchase of Oak Creek Apartments, a residential complex on Sand Hill Road with 759 units, Bradley said.
"However, this amount of on-site housing provided for faculty, staff and other workers is too low and going forward the county plans to seek more housing actually on campus to meet future needs," Bradley said.
Palo Alto officials and residents have long expressed concerns about Stanford buying up housing, an increasingly rare and valuable commodity. In an October letter to the county, Mayor Pat Burt said the city is concerned about the "prospect of Stanford owned housing within the City being exempt from property taxes despite additional impacts of those residents on our public schools and city services."
"Palo Alto seeks full disclosure by Stanford of University owned properties within the city limits, their status, and a calculation of tax revenue lost," the letter states.
To land-use watchdogs, the county's effort to update the Stanford Community Plan has a familiar ring to it. Three years ago, the Board of Supervisors was considering Stanford's contentious proposal for a new general use permit that would allow the university to add 2.275 million square feet of academic space and 2,600 student beds by 2035. The permit application inspired the county to put forth new policies such as requiring the university to house its staff and count reverse commutes in measuring traffic impacts. These policies in turn inspired Stanford to abruptly withdraw its application in November 2019.
Then, as now, the debate over Stanford created some friction between town and gown, with cities demanding significant contributions from Stanford to mitigate potential growth impacts. Burt argued Monday that the city deserves to have a more prominent role in the negotiations and pointed the 1985 Land Use Agreement between the county, Stanford and Palo Alto. The document states that any party can request a three-party discussion about "any proposed change in general County policy governing unincorporated lands."
"Palo Alto and Stanford further recognize that each has a legitimate interest in planning decisions made by the other, to the extent that the actions of one entity may impact housing supply, traffic, parking and utility systems in the other," the agreement states. "For this reason, each will continue to provide notification, at the earliest possible date, of any projects or proposals that may affect the other."
Palo Alto, Burt said, is not "just another community that has interests."
"It's not a two-party agreement and Palo Alto … is being asked to comment on it occasionally. It's a three-party agreement," Burt said. "And we really need to move forward with that as a foundational relationship to the negotiations, with us recognizing that in the end, it's the county's agreement with Stanford on behalf of the city and the county."
The city already expressed some concerns about the proposed update, including the county's proposal to allow up to 30% of the new housing to be built on Palo Alto land, contiguous to the campus. For Palo Alto, this creates a dilemma: though city officials like the idea of requiring Stanford to build housing before it could expand its academic buildings, they would prefer to see it on campus.
Some suggested Monday that if Stanford builds housing on Palo Alto land to mitigate the impacts of its academic expansion, this housing should be open to the broader public and not just people affiliated with the university. Council member Greer Stone said he was concerned that the strict restrictions on who can live on Stanford-owned houses could lead to some of these units being unoccupied.
"Whatever the county can do to force that housing stock to be actually filled, if it's not from Stanford affiliates, would be helpful," Stone said Monday.
The new Stanford Community Plan would also remove an existing provision that allows the university to sidestep the housing requirement by paying an in-lieu fee. And it would beef up transportation rules by extending the existing "no net new commute trips" requirement for new developments to reverse commutes. Stanford has resisted these changes, suggesting that it may not be feasible given the high level of housing growth that the county would also require.
Erin Efner, associate vice president for land use and environmental planning, wrote in an October letter to the county that "creating a trip counting system that is feasible and achievable is crucial for both the County and Stanford to achieve our mutual housing goals."
"Residents who live on campus may take trips off campus to support their family life, attend to other personal needs, and participate in community life," Efner wrote. "It will remain important to balance the need to reduce trips with the ability to produce housing where people become part of the community."
One amenity that both council member Tom DuBois and Burt lobbied for is an expansion of the university's Marguerite shuttle to places outside the campus. Burt noted that Stanford staff includes residents of nearby communities, including East Palo Alto, and suggested that extending the shuttle system to East Palo Alto would create a "really valuable lifeline at a far lower cost than direct housing provision on campus for the service workers."
DuBois also suggested that any Stanford growth plan should include fees paid by the university to neighboring communities for municipal services and amenities such as parks and stormwater management. Given Stanford's tax-exempt status, this payment could be classified as an in-lieu fee, DuBois said.
"Ultimately, I think that's where we should be heading: some kind of payments in lieu of tax and coming up with ways in which the fees can be divided between the agencies providing the services," DuBois said.
The county Board of Supervisors is set to discuss the proposed changes to the Stanford Community Plan on Dec. 13. The county is also working on an environmental analysis of the updated plan, which is expected to be completed next year. The plan will then return to the county's Planning Commission and board for formal adoption.