Castilleja School leaders announced at a community meeting Wednesday night that they plan to file for a conditional-use permit (CUP) with the City of Palo Alto on June 30, kicking off a months-long process that the school hopes will end with greater enrollment, an updated campus and full support from residents who live in the residential streets surrounding the private all-girls school.
As the school has indicated an interest in growth before, the CUP application requests to increase enrollment by 25 to 27 students per year over four years, bringing the school's total student population to 540. This growth would be monitored annually by an outside, independent firm, Castilleja Head of School Nanci Kauffman said Wednesday.
Castilleja also hopes to build an underground parking garage that would have capacity to accommodate all students and employees, including the increase in enrollment, and to entirely rebuild the middle- and high-school classroom buildings. The school will not grow its enrollment until the underground garage is built, Chief Financial and Operating Officer Kathy Layendecker said.
Other aspects of the application address concerns that have been raised over the past several years by neighbors, from building a below-grade loading dock for deliveries to physically lowering the center of campus and the school's swimming pool by 14 to 15 feet to further mitigate noise. Notably, a new master plan also proposes diverting all student drop-off and pick-up to the underground garage to cut back on traffic in the surrounding streets. Parents dropping students off would come in only from Bryant Street, go down through the underground garage and exit onto Emerson Street, forcing a right turn onto Embarcadero Road.
There will also be more trees, a new entryway into campus and even a public bicycle pavilion with shade, water fountains, benches and tools for bicyclists passing by to use.
Castilleja also promises in the plan to reduce the total number of events held on campus and increase neighbors' access to the school through various means.
Castilleja has laid out consequences for itself if it over-enrolls or if it fails to keep traffic at a stated level -- consequences Layendecker said are "more aggressive" than what the city would typically ask for. If the school violates its enrollment cap, it will be fined $500 per school day until the number drops back down. At the school's first violation of the identified traffic level (440 peak trips), it would be required to increase its traffic-demand-management efforts in some way, and again on the second violation. On the third violation, the school would have to reduce enrollment by five students each year until its number of peak trips drop to below the identified limit.
A press release on the new conditional-use permit application notes that Castilleja has reduced the number of car trips into the neighborhood by 23 percent with a robust transportation-demand-management program. The school offers a new bus route to bring some 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 transportation-demand-management program in some way.
At the city's request, Castilleja also recently conducted a study on the impact on Embarcadero from several different scenarios for traffic flow in and out of the school.
The school is considering a two-phased construction process that would start with the underground garage and lowering the pool, both on the Embarcadero side of the campus, and then move to construction of the lower- and upper-school buildings. The first phase is expected to take 12 to 15 months, Kauffman said.
The second phase could be longer. Rob Barthelman, principal at Steinberg Architects, the firm that is designing the school's plans, said buildings of similar size on college campuses can take from 18 to 24 months to build. The school is looking into placing portables on its field to accommodate instruction during the second phase of construction, Kauffman added.
Castilleja and local residents have been engaged in sometimes contentious talks about how to best mitigate the school's impact on the neighborhood since 2013, when the the city fined Castilleja $265,000 for exceeding its enrollment cap. Ire and eroded trust over that time seems to linger, despite the school's best efforts to balance neighbors' concerns with the school's desire to meet what they say is a high demand for the unique education the 6-12 all-girls school offers.
The CUP application did not seem to have the full support of the more than 20 neighbors who turned out for Wednesday's meeting, though not all were critical.
Resident Mary Sylvester said while she appreciates the many meetings Castilleja has held with neighbors throughout the process, the school's plan is still too burdensome on those who live in the surrounding area.
"I'm going to repeat my mantra: I feel that this is way too much to ask of the neighborhood, that Castilleja definitely within the last decade has used up the neighborhood's good will on any number of occasions," she said.
"I just don't see this as a panacea," she said of the new master plan designs. "It looks great but I'm just not sure substantively it's going to deliver."
Resident Debby Fife said the situation reminded her of when years ago the Palo Alto Medical Foundation wanted to expand and eventually left its location in a downtown residential neighborhood to do so.
"I think your goals are admirable and I think the Medical Foundation's goals were admirable (but) that failed, and they were forced to leave," she said. "I think the impact of their expansion was just the neighborhood couldn't tolerate that.
"I feel a bit like this, too. I'm not against Castilleja but you are in our neighborhood and I think all the construction that's going on in Palo Alto the whole character of Palo Alto is changing and I am against enduring for two, three, four years of construction in my neighborhood and expansion of the enrollment here," she continued. "We're the ones who live here and it impacts us."
Glowe Chang, however, expressed support for the new plan in an interview after the meeting. She said she and others who live on Bryant directly across from Castilleja have seen immediate relief in traffic flow and parking on their side of the street since the school started its traffic-management efforts. She appreciated the proposal to lower the center of campus and the pool to absorb more noise within the campus.
While the inconvenience of several years of construction is undeniable, it's justified by the educational opportunities the school will bring to even more young women, the mother of a Castilleja graduate said.
"If we can create some wonderful, young aspiring women for our society, I think that's worth the sacrifice," Chang said.
Continual growth in Palo Alto itself is inevitable, she said, and Castilleja has "gone above and beyond" to address neighbors' concerns about the localized growing pains.
"Of course a quiet neighborhood is everyone's dream, but we are a quarter of a mile from Town & Country (Village). We are that same distance from a public high school, one of two in our city, and the growth is inevitable," Chang said. "I don't think Palo Alto can stay little anymore. It's not Castilleja. I think it's just the city in general."
Kauffman sought to assure neighbors that the school will have rigorous safeguards in place to prevent further traffic and parking impact.
She and school staff also reiterated that the ensuing process with the city will provide ample opportunities for public input and feedback. The school has scheduled a meeting on June 30 to submit the application, which will then be reviewed over a months-long time period by the Architectural Review Board, Planning and Transportation Commission and eventually, the City Council.