Promising vigorous scrutiny of every aspect of a proposed expansion at Castilleja School, Old Palo Alto residents have formed a group with the purpose, they say, of holding city and school officials accountable.
Protect Neighborhood Quality of Life Now was started by school neighbors who say they have been negatively affected by Castilleja's policies for 15 years. The all-girls school now wants to expand its campus in a way that would increase enrollment up to 30 percent over its previous allowance, which could increase noise, air pollution and traffic problems, the residents fear.
In an opening salvo, the watchdog group presented a petition with 400 signatures to the Palo Alto City Council on Monday night. The petition, whose signers represent more than 70 households within 600 feet of the project, asks the council to require Castilleja to roll back its student population to 415 students, a cap required by its current conditional-use permit.
Castilleja officials are seeking a new conditional-use permit that would increase campus enrollment to 540 students over four years. Middle- and high school classroom buildings would be overhauled and an underground-parking garage built for students and employees, the school noted in its application.
But mistrust among group members toward the school and the city runs deep, prompted by the school's past violation of its enrollment cap: The school currently has 438 enrolled students; it had 450 in 2012. The council levied a $265,000 fine against the school in 2013 but allowed Castilleja to reduce its enrollment through attrition and a reduction in new admissions rather than slashing the enrollment immediately.
Group members Nelson Ng and Kimberley Wong have lived on Emerson Street across from the back of the school for 20 years. They said they support high-quality education and understand they bought a home near a school. But Castilleja isn't just a school: It is also a business in a residential neighborhood, they and other residents in the group said.
"The school tests the good will of the neighbors," said Ng, whose home will face the proposed exit of the underground-parking garage.
Ng and Wong do not see how the garage for 130 cars would be compatible with their tree-lined street.
Construction would affect 168 trees on the campus and in the vicinity, according to the school's consulting arborist's report. Residents fear the proposal to remove 57 trees and transplant 25 others would irreparably alter the neighborhood's character, although any trees taken out would be replaced in accordance with the Tree Technical Manual, the consultant's report noted.
Ron Levitsky lives on Emerson and his home would be next to the proposed parking garage. To demonstrate the scale and impact of the proposed tree plan, on Monday he showed the council a light-up poster that illuminates the trees' potential fate in red, yellow and blue.
That prompted an email to residents on Tuesday by Head of School Nanci Kaufmann, which showed a revised tree map. Under the new proposal, five trees would be removed, six others would be kept or relocated and 42 would be relocated.
"Castilleja has been a proud member of the Palo Alto community for more than 100 years. Since we began our master-planning process four years ago, we've had numerous conversations with our neighbors that have led us to make adjustments to our plans. These include moving underground our parking, student drop- off, buses, truck deliveries and garbage pick-up to limit street congestion," Kaufmann said in an email to the Weekly on Thursday.
"These conversations will continue, and we expect more compromises down the road to create the best possible plan for all involved. We want to be clear: Our goal is to disrupt as few trees as possible, adjusting building plans and re-locating trees wherever possible," she added. "We hope that as our discussions continue, however difficult, we can all remember that our primary mission is educating young women."
Levitsky said the group will continue its scrutiny.
"However, the garage project isn't dead yet, and houses (owned by Castilleja) at 1235 and 1263 Emerson are still threatened (with demolition), as well as six tall redwoods and some other large oaks," he said.
Levitsky has been studying reports about the health of the trees, criteria for their removal and whether proposed transplanting can be done successfully.
Group members also recently filed a California Public Records Act request for a soils report that was conducted, which could reveal information about the potential impact of the garage excavation on the land and on flooding. The residents will also look for evidence of contaminated groundwater from a Superfund plume originating from Stanford Research Park that might be disturbed by excavation.
Resident Mary Sylvester said the group will also ask that a 24/7 traffic study be conducted -- to supplement the school's transportation-demand management report, which focuses on the school's peak-hour traffic -- to gauge the effects of after-school and weekend traffic from the school's many extracurricular events.
Castilleja officials have said they recognize that mistrust runs deep. At last October's meeting regarding the removal of a 120-foot redwood, Kaufmann acknowledged the past mistakes, which occurred before she was hired by the school. She said she hopes to rebuild trust.
As part of its settlement over the enrollment violations, the school agreed to twice-annual community meetings and a traffic-management plan, which has included a morning shuttle service that serves 40 to 60 students from Woodside and Los Altos and additional on-campus parking spaces, she noted.
But the residents said at a November meeting that their opportunity to voice concerns has been limited; they were largely outnumbered by Castilleja parents at the community meeting.
On Monday the group began its campaign to gather broader neighborhood support, posting the first of 50 lawn signs urging other residents to help stop the expansion and calling for Castilleja to cap enrollment at 415 students.
"We always believed that it is a great school. But what is the price?" Ng said.
Resident Jacqueline Taylor asserted that decisions shouldn't benefit the school only.
"The question on both sides should be, 'How can we co-exist harmoniously?'"
The city's Planning and Transportation Commission will hold a scoping meeting for the project's environmental review on March 8 at 6 p.m. at Palo Alto City Hall, 250 Hamilton Ave.