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Residents who oppose Castilleja School's proposed expansion and even some who support the school told Castilleja officials during a Tuesday night neighborhood meeting to hit the reset button on their plans. But in an email to the Weekly on Wednesday, school officials said they won't go back to the drawing board.
Castilleja parent and neighborhood resident Matt Glickman, who supports the expansion, said a "reset" could possibly cut through the morass of accusations and anger over the project, which has sharply divided the neighborhood.
But exactly what a "reset" means is in itself further polarizing the school expansion's supporters and opponents.
The 110-year-old school, which educates girls from all economic backgrounds, says it must rebuild much of its 6-acre campus to modernize and continue providing young women with a high-quality education. But it also wants to expand its student body to 540 students — about 125 more than the maximum allowed under its current city-sanctioned conditional-use permit, which caps enrollment at 415 students.
The school's proposal, and particularly plans to add an underground garage with an entrance and exit onto residential streets, has set off a firestorm of criticism among a group of residents who say their voices are not being heard. Other residents supporting the expansion refute that characterization, saying that the school has given ample opportunities for residents to express their views.
Tuesday's meeting, one of two the school is required to hold annually, was an olive branch of sorts by the school, which allowed the opposing residents to set the agenda and format. It started as a panel discussion with brief presentations by Kathleen Tandy, a school trustee; Kathy Layendecker, Castilleja chief financial and operating officer; and seven members of the opposition neighborhood group Protect Our Neighborhood Quality of Life Now (PNQLNow). The presentations were followed by a Q&A session in which people were to submit questions on note cards.
But the meeting got off to a rocky start: Some residents -- opposed to a question-card format that didn't allow them to speak -- started shouting. Hired facilitator Ellen Cross then diffused the situation by letting people speak to the points they made when their question cards were read.
Some PNQLNow members expressed adamant opposition to any expansion, insisting the school should move or split the campus. Residents said they feel the proposal is being forced upon them without the chance to give meaningful input, which school staff refuted. The administrators and neighbors opposing the expansion accused each other of misrepresenting the facts.
The rancor prompted Glickman to suggest that the only way forward might be to restart the process — this time with full community input — to break the logjam.
"Given all of the work that has gone on, a reset could speed things up. We need to have a comprehensive set of creative solutions" after getting all of the neighbors' concerns on the table, he said.
While it isn't likely that everyone would be happy, Glickman said, "I think we could get at something that a large majority can be satisfied with."
Mary Sylvester, a member of PNQLNow and a panelist, said she agreed that a reset is necessary.
"The neighbors have not had a meaningful role in this process," she said.
Tom Shannon, a Kellogg Avenue resident who was one of four members of a working group that vetted the school's plans for more than two years, had previously called for a reset during an interview last month with the Weekly.
But Castilleja officials said on Wednesday that they don't plan to restart the process.
"Castilleja followed the (meeting) format that was proposed by ... PNQLNow and shortened our own presentation to allow more time for the neighbors to participate in Q&A. We did this as a good-faith gesture in the hope that we would learn how neighbors would like to move forward," Layendecker said in a follow-up email to the Weekly.
"They did not offer a clear definition of what is meant by 'reset,' and to the extent that definitions were offered, they were inconsistent. The interest in a reset in the absence of any sense of a willingness to compromise or offer suggestions as to how we move forward feels more like a delay tactic than a genuine desire to work toward a compromise."
Gerry Marshall, a supporter of the Castilleja expansion who lives directly across the street from the current school entrance on Bryant Street, praised Glickman's proposal. If that means resetting the conversation to be open and hearing all sides, she approves. But she and other supporters said they oppose requiring Castilleja to rescind the plans it submitted to the city and to start over.
Marshall called the situation "disappointing."
The school's opponents are "so demonstrative they had me back on my haunches (at the meeting)," she said of her reticence to speak out Tuesday. "There is no progress, no compromise. I don't know what it (takes) to take that veil off their hearts to see that we can work together."
Marshall added that people are jumping too far ahead when they demand for the school to pin down every aspect of the project, including construction staging. All of those issues will be addressed with the city as the process moves forward, she said.
Jeannine Marston, a 40-year resident who lives on Waverley Street and also is a Castilleja teacher whose children attended the school, is also opposed to forcing the school to start over because of the time and money already spent on the plans.
But Marston also said she appreciates the frustration of people who live in Old Palo Alto, given the constant construction of homes in the neighborhood.
Since traffic and parking are major issues for those opposing the expansion, Marston said that those residents should consider the school's track record in reducing those problems, which, she said, show the school has been listening.
The biggest disappointment she felt at Tuesday's meeting was that those opposing the project didn't recognize those efforts and accomplishments through the school's transportation management demand program, which has led to a 23 percent reduction in traffic during peak school arrival and departure hours since the program's inception in 2012, according to a traffic consultant's report. As an insider, she said the school's efforts have resulted in a shift away from the car culture; she herself no longer drives to campus.
"If even a single speaker said, 'We want to acknowledge the school's efforts to make traffic reductions,' at least it says 'I'm listening and I'm noticing,'" she said.
To get to a reset of any kind, Marston said that all sides would have to agree to its definition.
Mary Sylvester, on behalf of PNQLNow, said in an email that "reset" means starting over.
"The school met with a very small group from one street only for a couple of years, upon which they base their claim to have reached out to the neighborhood. They didn't reveal the specifics until plans were completed. In fact, those folks, as you heard Tuesday night, felt they were not listened to and they are opposed to the expansion plans," she said.
"The school needs to start over, first by making a coordinated effort to involve the immediate neighbors in coming to consensus on what the neighborhood can bear and then by being honest brokers," she said.
To illustrate the point that many residents were left out of the process, PNQLNow member Nelson Ng, whose Emerson Street home would have directly faced the garage exit under a prior proposal, asked at the Tuesday meeting for a show of how many residents were school neighbors. Then he asked how many had been aware of the master plan, which showed the garage plans and the exit on Emerson Street, prior to the school's submittal on June 30. About six people remained standing.
But Castilleja fought back against residents' characterization that the school hasn't been forthcoming with the neighborhood about a garage. In an email to the Weekly on Wednesday, Layendecker said the school has many documents dating to 1999 with references from neighbors regarding a garage.
Some residents confirmed to the Weekly that they did support the concept of a garage if it had an entrance and exit on Embarcadero Road, as initially proposed. But they said the school didn't tell them it had switched to an Emerson Street garage exit after city officials nixed the Embarcadero Road idea until the Castilleja was ready to submit the plans last June.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story had the wrong last name for Kathleen Tandy.