Castilleja School has a new solution to a years-long battle over increasing enrollment and thus traffic in the surrounding residential neighborhood: build an underground parking garage.
Independent all-girls school Castilleja sent a letter to the City of Palo Alto on Friday, Jan. 30, to request its support for the proposal, which will begin with the school embarking on a master planning process possibly rethinking the layout of the Bryant Street campus and conducting a feasibility analysis for the construction of an underground parking garage. After these processes and further engagement with the community over the plan, Castilleja plans to apply for a new Conditional Use Permit (CUP) from the city.
The city required the middle and high school to submit plans for a new CUP after finding in October 2013 that Castilleja had exceeded its city-imposed enrollment cap for 12 consecutive years. The city ordered the school to reduce the number of students it admits, pay a $300,000 fine and cut back on the car traffic it generates.
Castilleja has come under fire for many years for what neighbors described as a traffic nightmare that descends during morning pick-up and afternoon drop-off hours. Months before the city's notice of findings, the school had sought the city's blessing to gradually increase enrollment from 445 students to 515. Criticism from neighbors and a letter from city planners lead to the school backing off from that plan.
Since then, the school has hosted several neighborhood meetings, facilitated by a conflict-resolution professional, to gather feedback and ideas for specific changes the school could implement to reduce its traffic impact. Consensus emerged, the school said, around several changes, including an underground parking garage and a master-planning process designed to include input and collaboration from neighbors, the city and other Castilleja stakeholders. Other suggestions include relocation of a delivery loading dock, improved parking and circulation around campus, additional parking and traffic-impact reduction measures and evaluation metrics and an evaluation of the current campus layout.
"We have multiple interests going on here," Head of School Nanci Kauffman told the Weekly. "We're a school that wants to provide the best education we can for the students; we also want to meet the growing demand on the Peninsula for places in schools; we want to have the best program that we can have, which we believe is a good-sized high school; and we want to make sure that we don't negatively impact our neighbors."
Alan Cooper, who's lived across the street from the school for 30 years and was one of a small subset of neighbors that two Castilleja board members and the professional facilitator has met with, said neighbors support the garage as one piece of the solution.
"The proposal for the underground parking is one of the alternatives that neighbors desire and is part of the neighbor's list to reduce the impact of parked cars on the surrounding neighborhood," Cooper wrote in an email. "So, there is support for this underground parking garage, if it is large enough to handle the additional cars and significantly decrease the street parking."
Neighbors also proposed an alternative to achieve the same goal, he said: off-site dedicated parking.
Kauffman noted that the school began in the fall of 2013 several transportation-management efforts that have continued and expanded. The school operates a morning shuttle that serves an average of 40 to 60 students from Woodside and Los Altos, and has added parking spaces on campus and dedicated staff members to monitoring school traffic in the morning and throughout the day.
There is also now a shuttle that picks up staff and students who take Caltrain into Palo Alto. New internal polices encourage employees to reduce personal car trips by 20 percent through the use of public transit, walking, biking or carpooling instead of driving at least one day a week.
In the 2013-14 school year, with 448 students enrolled, the school reduced peak trips by 18 percent to a number lower than the peak trips experienced when 385 students were enrolled, according to the school.
A transportation survey conducted in April 2014 indicated that 32 percent of students walk, bike, shuttle or take transit to school compared to 25 percent of employees who do so. Ten percent of employees carpool, and after the new internal incentives, employees who drive to school were averaging four days a week with another form of transit one day per week.
This year, enrollment was cut to 444 students. Next year, that will be reduced by an additional six students, Kauffman said.
The master-planning process is expected to take several months and will conclude with the creation of a formal plan and CUP application that will be submitted to the city in mid-2015, the school said.
"Despite the school's past CUP violation, the willingness our neighbors have shown to allow us to take steps to regain their trust through consistent improvements and transparent communication is much appreciated and critical to our long-term success," Kauffman wrote in an email sent to neighbors on Friday, Jan. 30. "As we look ahead to the future, I am confident that together we can address the impact that population growth has, and will continue to have, on our streets and on our local public and private schools."
Cooper said though there is a "wide range of opinions within the neighborhood regarding the future impact of Castilleja on the neighborhood, based on prior experience and current actions," he's optimistic that the school is moving in a more "constructive direction."
"I personally am optimistic that the school governing bodies will work with neighbors on a fair and honest basis going forward," he said.