Officials of Castilleja School unveiled revisions to a proposed expansion on Thursday, hoping that changes to an underground parking structure and tree preservation will appease nearby residents who have opposed the project.
School administrators are seeking a new conditional-use permit that would increase campus enrollment to 540 students over four years. Under the permit, middle and high school classroom buildings would be overhauled. But an underground-parking garage, to be built for students and employees, has been among the most concerning aspects of the school's proposal. The garage would replace two single-story homes owned by the school, and cars would exit directly onto Emerson Street.
Residents are concerned that already troubling traffic problems will only get worse. In February, more than 70 households within 600 feet of the project asked the Palo Alto City Council to require Castilleja to roll back its student population to 415 students, a cap required by its current conditional-use permit. The school currently has 438 students; it paid a fine and agreed with the city to reduce its enrollment after admitting it had exceeded the cap for several years.
School officials said the garage was the outgrowth of previous community meetings with the neighborhood to find solutions to noise, trucks, buses and vehicles during peak school hours that currently enter and exit the campus on three sides: Bryant Street, Kellogg Avenue and Emerson. The garage would put most of the traffic in parking underground, which would circulate under the center of campus.
The redesign would set back the garage exit on Emerson and move it toward Melville Avenue, near an existing driveway feeds into parking lots. The existing lots and driveway would no longer be there, Chief Operating Officer Kathy Layendecker said.
But the traffic pattern would remain the same as in the previous proposal. Human monitors would prevent traffic from driving up Melville and traffic would exit mainly to the right toward Embarcadero Road, they said.
The revised proposal would also add more greenscaping features to screen the concrete facade, and it would retain more mature trees, architect Robert Steinberg noted. A new roughly half-acre public pocket park on land owned by the school would focus pedestrian awareness away from the garage exit with trees, lawn and other amenities, Layendecker said.
School officials claim the garage and drop-off area would not increase the number of vehicles traveling to and from campus. The school's desired enrollment expansion from its current 438 students would address traffic increases through more traffic management programs, including adding an afternoon shuttle, they said. The school currently has a traffic-management program that includes van pick up to Caltrain, carpooling, a morning shuttle and staggered bell times.
The school's current traffic-management plan has reduced the total number of peak hour vehicle trips by approximately 23 percent since 2012, before the school had a traffic-management program, according to an April 2016 study by consultants Fehr & Peers. The proposed management plan would further reduce the current vehicle trips by 12 to 22 percent to maintain no trip growth if the school, is allowed to increase its enrollment. The new plan would include an off-site "kiss and ride" stop for parents who want to drive their children to school, expanded shuttle service, bike station and other alternatives to vehicle trips.
Castilleja would also regulate itself if it exceeds maximum enrollment or fails to keep traffic at its current level of 440 peak trips. The first and second violations would require the school to increase its traffic-demand-management efforts; the third violation would force the school to reduce enrollment by five students each year until the number of peak trips drops below the limit.
The school has redesigned its new building and garage to avoid trees that cannot be relocated. The plan will result in a net addition of 22 trees. Nearly 90 percent of the trees will be retained on campus and 70 percent will remain in their current locations. Nine palm trees would be relocated off campus and five trees would be removed, Layendecker said. A sixth tree, a 100-foot-tall redwood, was removed after a consulting arborist and the city's urban forestry department agreed the tree was diseased and hazardous. Some neighbors dispute that assessment, however.
Neighbor Nelson Ng, whose home directly faces the garage opening in the original proposal, said he is "a bit relieved" that the exit has shifted so that traffic won't be coming directly at his front door.
However, he said, "There will still be impact of traffic coming out on Emerson and Melville. I still don't understand why Castilleja can't invest in alternate solutions such as shuttling and satellite parking lots to really reduce the traffic instead of stubbornly push their garage agenda.
He also said there is concern for Paly and Jordan students, who bike through the area.
"The garage traffic flows through the critical intersection of Embarcadero and Bryant Street, the bike boulevard," he said.
Kimbverley Wong, Ng's wife, said that they have told school officials the garage "is a non-starter," she said in an email update on May 2.
"Many of the citizens have said that we do not want the garage. But in the updated plans the overall scheme of things is still the same. Homes are taken down and neighboring trees "moved" to make way for a conciliatory Emerson Park and a garage underneath. There are are still many years of construction, many impacted and upset neighbors and an underground garage for a very modest increase in net new spaces," she said.
Castilleja is also downplaying the contributing and historic aspects of the Lockey House, one of the two homes proposed to be demolished, she said. The home on Emerson Street, which is owned by the school and is part of the campus, was considered by consultants Dames and Moore study to be a potentially historical home on the California Registry.
"So what has changed the except the angle of the garage exit, potentially saving a few more trees, and reducing the number of parking spaces below?" she asked.
"The slight changes to the plan do not change the fact that building a garage and 'squishing' more students onto a small campus is a good idea. Schools of the future should be trying to reduce their carbon footprint and serving to lead the way in reducing traffic reduction instead of increasing traffic congestion," she said.
School officials plan to submit the revised proposal to the City of Palo Alto on Friday.
The Master Plan, including the garage, will be thoroughly reviewed through an Environmental Impact Report currently being developed under the direction of the Palo Alto Planning Department. The comment period on the EIR’s scope ends May 12.
Documents related to the Castilleja proposal can be viewed here.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated one of the streets bounding the school as Kingsley Avenue.