INFRASTRUCTURE

Stanford expansion plan moves forward but housing caveat remains

SOURCE: Shutterstock
County staff want Stanford to build 4 times more housing than its original proposal.

Stanford University’s massive campus expansion project has advanced to the next phase of review, despite the institution’s objections to conditions requiring it to construct four times more housing units than originally proposed.

After its meeting on the matter last Thursday, the Santa Clara County Planning Commission unanimously endorsed the university’s application for a General Use Permit that would govern its land use over the next two decades.

The matter will now go before the county’s Board of Supervisors for further study. According to the university, the board will commence public study sessions and hearings on the proposal this fall.

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“We appreciate the time the Planning Commission and the staff took to review and provide recommendations on the proposed General Use Permit,” said Catherine Palter, Stanford’s associate vice president for land use and environmental planning in a release this week.

“As evidenced by our US$4.7 billion community benefits offer, we are committed to addressing our region’s most challenging issues, and we want to work with the county in this effort.

“We look forward to the review of the General Use Permit by the Board of Supervisors, and we hope the county will engage with us over the summer in constructive discussions about the community benefits Stanford can provide through a development agreement.”

Santa Clara
The university has put forward a US$4.5 billion package of “community benefits”. Source: County of Santa Clara, California

Palter was referring to the package of new housing and community benefits the university had put forward three days before the county’s Thursday meeting. 

Under that proposal, Stanford said it was willing to spend US$3.4 billion to build 1,307 new housing units–including 575 at below-market rates–US$1.17 billion on transportation improvements and US$138 million in funding support for the Palo Alto Unified School district.

In exchange, the university sought development rights and called on the county to repeal two affordable housing ordinances specific to Stanford that were passed last September–one requiring 16 percent of new university staff housing to be affordable and another requiring affordable housing fees of US$68.50 for every square foot of new academic facilities. 

Last December, the university filed a lawsuit contesting the first ordinance, accusing county officials of unfairly and illegally targeting it to promote more affordable housing on campus.

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Stanford’s offer, however, did not impress the county. According to The Mercury News, county staff “balked” at the multibillion-dollar proposal and disagreed with what the university was calling “community benefits”. 

During the meeting, county executive Sylvia Gallegos reportedly pointed to the 2,600 student beds the university listed among the “benefits” in the US$3.4 billion apportioned for new housing and said: “Those aren’t community benefits. That’s the project application.”

According to Gallegos, the “community benefits” that Stanford was proposing could only be valued at US$168 million. This includes the US$138 million funding boost for Palo Alto schools and the US$30.3 million the university was offering for transportation improvements, including bicycle, pedestrian, and transit and infrastructure projects in San Mateo County and Palo Alto.

“What they want from the public in exchange is the loss of important community protections,” Gallegos was quoted saying.

She told the commission the proposal did not have county staff backing and urged commissioners to recommend that the board reject it. The commissioners did, according to The Mercury News

In it’s November 2016 general use permit application, Stanford laid out plans to build an additional 2.3 million sq feet of academic facilities, 40,000 sq feet of transportation and child care facilities, 2,600 beds for students and 550 housing units for faculty and staff. 

County and city officials, however, are concerned over the lack of housing in the plan, and have accused the university of placing the responsibility of housing on surrounding cities.

In May, the county released a 125-page document listing out requirements the university would have to meet in order to receive approval for its project. Most notably, the county told Stanford to increase staff and faculty housing to 2,172 from the proposed 550, as well as to offer 993 of those units at below-market rates.

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The requirements are mitigation measures to tackle a growing housing crisis that’s forcing residents in California’s Bay area, including university employees, to live farther away and take on longer commutes to and from home and work. 

This exacerbates the region’s traffic conditions, another area of concern raised by the county against Stanford’s development plans. As a countermeasure, the county also proposed capping the increase of reverse-commute trips to 2 percent and daily traffic to 3 percent. Failure to meet this requirement would impede future phases of the university’s expansion plans.

Palter, however, said some of these conditions were “unreasonable” and “infeasible”. The traffic caps, in particular, were nearly “impossible” to meet, especially when factoring in the amount of additional on-campus housing being sought by the county. 

Commissioners at the meeting were reportedly sympathetic of this, calling on the matter to be further analysed and more options to be put forward for the board to consider.

Palter also insisted that Stanford had in its US$4.7 billion package committed to “all mitigation measures” put forward by the county. 

Stanford campus masterplan
A side-by-side comparison of Stanford’s community benefits package and Santa Clara County’s original list of requirements. Source: Stanford University

“Our offer is the start of a conversation, and it is a conversation that needs to begin soon,” she said.

“We believe we can find a path to delivering the best possible project – a project that is truly capable of delivering the extraordinary benefits that we can achieve together.”