Just over two years since the City of Palo Alto penalized Castilleja School for exceeding its enrollment cap, the school is proposing a new expansion plan, with promises to wary neighbors that the school will keep traffic and parking at the levels they are at now.
School officials presented the plan Wednesday night to a group of about 30 neighbors and community members, some of whom have been deeply involved in a yearslong, often contentious conversation about how to best address the impact of the school's growth on the surrounding residential neighborhood.
Castilleja is proposing to gradually increase enrollment to 540 students over a four-year span, adding 25 students each year. The private, all-girls middle and high school currently enrolls 438 students. It is struggling to meet a growing demand, however, with an acceptance rate Head of School Nanci Kauffman said she doesn't like to brag about: The school is now accepting only one in 10 girls who apply for a spot in the freshman class.
"This is a moment where I make a promise to you," Kauffman told the crowd gathered at the Bryant Street campus, "that promise being that any future growth that we would propose for approval by the city, we would propose it happening over time; we would propose that there would not be an increase in the impacts that you have become accustomed to and that we would be held accountable for in some very direct ways."
This accountability would come in the form of annual audits conducted by an outside firm, bi-annual traffic and parking count conducted twice a year by an independent firm, limits on the number of special events the school hosts and reports that document the impact of those events, Kauffman said.
If the city grants Castilleja the conditional-use permit (CUP) school officials plan to apply for, the city would also monitor the agreement and would likely have in place penalties if certain thresholds are exceeded.
Accountability and monitoring are crucial for Castilleja's neighbors, some of whom are still smarting from the school's 12-year-long violation of a previous conditional-use permit. The city required the private 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.
One longtime neighbor, Vic Befera, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1968, put his views succinctly: "Five hundred and forty students over my dead body."
"I don't feel we should be awarding any increase in enrollment for bad behavior," another man said. " I don't trust the school can absorb all of the traffic and parking onto the site. I don't trust this proposal. I don't feel this is going to be validated by the city."
Months before the city's notice of findings in 2013, 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.
Neighbors did acknowledge Wednesday night the efforts Castilleja has made in recent years to mitigate the traffic and parking impact on its neighboring streets, which one man described as going from "horrible" to "bad."
Over the last three years, Castilleja has built a robust transportation demand management (TDM) program: a new bus route that brings students to the school, a daily shuttle service to and from the downtown Caltrain station, remote employee parking within walking distance of the school, event parking on a school field and a requirement that all employees participate in the TDM program in some way.
These efforts are paying off, staff said Wednesday night. Peak morning trips have dropped from about 1.18 trips per student in the spring of 2012 to 0.85 in the fall of 2015, according to Robert Eckols, a senior associate at Fehr & Peers, a transportation and engineering firm working with the school. (The school is proposing to maintain that decline alongside the proposed enrollment increase, with a goal of 0.80 trips per student in year four of the expansion plan.)
In 2012, the majority of students (48 percent) were dropped off at school by themselves, 26 percent were dropped off as part of a carpool and only 10 percent walked or biked to school, according to Eckols. In the fall of 2015, single-student drop-offs fell to 41 percent; carpool drop-offs to 14 percent; 10 percent of students were walking to school, 11 percent were biking and 14 percent were taking advantage of the school's new shuttle service.
Kauffman described a shift in culture at the school where awareness, excitement and participation in the transportation-management efforts are high.
Others, though, said the current level of traffic congestion is still unacceptable.
"The idea that the traffic level now is acceptable is not going to fly with the neighbors," said neighbor Bruce McLeod.
To keep traffic and parking down as enrollment increases, the school is planning to add two additional bus routes, an afternoon shuttle service to accommodate after-school activities, another shuttle service to and from a remote parking location, an expanded parking program, a reduction in the number of food-service deliveries and a new underground parking garage that would give the school 66 off-street parking spaces. Eckols said it and a second firm working with the school, Nelson Nygaard Consulting Associates, is confident Castilleja can both increase enrollment and meet the transportation-management needs.
All of this would be done with "very stringent sets of benchmarks" and "pretty rigorous oversight," Kauffman said.
"We think accountability is essential to actually having this work and we don't think we should grow if we don't meet the metrics," echoed Ken Hirsch, chair of the school's board of trustees.
Others in attendance Wednesday probed school officials on other details of the plan how they will measure and mitigate the impact of events, if a potential parking garage would really offset the current parking demand, how the school plans to physically accommodate an increase in students, if the school has considered what it will do if the city's Residential Preferential Parking program expands to the area.
Neighbor McLeod, one of the members of a smaller working group that has been meeting with school officials and a professional facilitator for many months, stressed the importance of the neighbors, school and city to continuing to collaborate genuinely as they move forward. He said he hopes the working group "continues to be an important part of the process rather than an afterthought."
Hirsch said he sees the working group as "the starting point where trust will be built."
Castilleja has put its new CUP application on hold while it conducts a study with the City of Palo Alto on the impact that Embarcadero Road can absorb from several different scenarios, from creating a "slow-down" lane into the school to providing access from Embarcadero onto Bryant and Emerson streets with immediate access on to campus on each block. Fehr & Peers was hired to conduct the analysis, and is aiming to present its findings to the city in March, Hirsch said.
Tom Shannon, who has lived across from the school on Kellogg Avenue since 1989 and is a member of the smaller working group, seemed cautiously optimistic about the school's promise to increase its transportation-management efforts in what he called "TDM 2.0."
"The proof is in the pudding of their promises," he told the Weekly after the meeting.