BY PRIA GRAVES
While the public and elected officials are focused on Stanford’s 2018 General Use Permit (GUP) application and their proposed Development Agreement, there is another, quieter, aspect to the university’s expansion going on behind the scenes.
Over the past few years, though few people are aware of it, Stanford has been buying up numerous properties in our community. They have particularly focused on the College Terrace and Evergreen Park neighborhoods, where the current count is about 30, with no end in sight.
Why does this matter? These neighborhoods have always been home to many faculty members and students, who are a vital and treasured part of our community.
So what’s different about this?
The answer is that once the university owns these properties, they are only available to Stanford employees and will never again be accessible to the rest of the public. As with the faculty housing on campus, when Stanford “sells” these houses, it is on a ground lease basis, in which the university retains title to the land and the “purchaser” acquires the building and the right to use the land. If it is resold at some future date, it must again go to an eligible Stanford affiliate and so on down the years.
This means that folks who work in the Stanford Research Park or at one of our many Palo Alto tech companies and startups, at our local grocery stores and other local businesses cannot buy or rent these houses ever. They are permanently removed from the Palo Alto housing pool.
To make matters even worse, the university has been leaving many of these charming homes empty for months or even years, creating a “ghost house” environment in our neighborhood. Some blocks have as many as four vacant houses. This not only erodes our community cohesion but it makes us less safe since we have fewer “eyes on the street.”
And when they finally do take action, their typical choice seems to be to demolish these unique homes, many of which are over 100 years in age. Even though they claim that they are designing “sensitive” replacements, the new houses cannot possibly have the patina and history of the original homes being demolished.
For example, one home slated for demolition is a charming 110-year-old Craftsman Shingle Bungalow. It has lovely old wood paneling in the living and dining areas, has been freshly repainted, has a nearly new roof and a recent high-end kitchen makeover. Yet all this is destined for the landfill. And another that has already been scraped was a much-loved Cape Cod style house with an interesting garden.
All this demolition and construction in our densely populated little neighborhood is creating a nightmare for nearby residents but most importantly, it is a tragic truth that we are losing the special quirky character that makes College Terrace so appealing to many of us.
Loss of tax revenue
Stanford’s ownership of all these properties also has potential tax consequences for the community. While the houses are empty or even rented, no property tax is being collected. Thankfully the situation improves somewhat when they are “sold.” Although the purchaser pays less than market value (since the university retains title to the land), the assessor determines a “fair value” for the tax base, typically twice the price paid. But since the university is setting that price, it may not reflect the value of the house on the open market.
It’s not clear what can be done to stop this quiet land grab but perhaps the upcoming negotiations with Stanford regarding the 2018 GUP and their proposed Development Agreement might provide an opportunity for some leverage.
Our elected officials should insist that the university halt these unnecessary demolitions and require that any home they own should be kept occupied. Stanford is by no means the only one doing this, but given the number of properties they have acquired, their apparent desire to erase our history is terribly disturbing.
In the 1800s when Gov. Leland Stanford was buying land for the creation of the university, he tried to purchase the 120-acre parcel that is now College Terrace. The owners refused to sell, and in 1887 that land was subdivided. It now seems that the university is bent on completing the purchase where their founder failed!
Pria Graves is a botanical artist, sometime community activist, and former software engineer. She is currently serving as the College Terrace Residents’ Association Stanford Observer. She and her husband have lived in their historic College Terrace home for more than 30 years.