Castilleja School, the highly regarded middle and high school that has educated girls for 110 years and around which has developed one of Palo Alto's most desirable and expensive neighborhoods, is doggedly pursuing a major expansion plan that is alienating the very neighbors whose support it needs to head off a contentious community-wide controversy.
The school's strategy of stubbornly pushing forward with a flawed plan has angered and emboldened the neighbors. And without any change in approach, it almost guarantees a divisive political battle when the project and its environmental-impact report come before the Planning and Transportation Commission and City Council later this year.
With a City Council that has shown little capacity this year for compromise and constructive problem-solving, Castilleja's proposal is filled with political risk. The timing of the debate, which will come in advance of the 2018 City Council election when only three seats will be open due to a reduction in the Council size from nine to seven, makes it particularly treacherous.
The brewing conflict is eerily reminiscent of the 2013 proposal by the Palo Alto Housing Corporation to develop an apartment complex for low-income seniors on Maybell Avenue in the Barron Park neighborhood and pay for it by getting the council to approve higher density zoning on the adjacent land so it could be sold at a higher price to a for-profit developer.
The Housing Corporation believed -- correctly it turned out -- it had sufficient clout to hold firm against the neighbors and get the zoning changes approved. But neighbors then organized a citywide political coalition that successfully overturned the council's action in a referendum. The following year that organization helped elect a "residentialist" majority to the council.
Our Aug. 16, 2013 editorial, one of several the Weekly wrote on the Maybell controversy, lamented that the council didn't act earlier in the process to rebuild trust between the neighbors, the Housing Corporation and the city and forge a compromise.
Now, just four years later, we hope history doesn't repeat.
Castilleja is seeking to increase its capacity to 540 students, 30 percent more than the 415 allowed by its current conditional use permit, which it is violating by enrolling 438 students today. It has offered scant details as to why this increase is needed. It is also wanting to re-build substantial portions of the school and construct an underground parking garage, both of which impose large construction impacts on the neighborhood and ill-conceived traffic patterns.
The school points to traffic studies showing that it has achieved a more than 20 percent reduction in peak-hour traffic since 2012 through the use of shuttles and other strategies and says it will prevent any further increase in traffic even when the enrollment rises to 540.
Neighbors say they are not only affected by traffic and parking problems caused by the school's students, but by teachers, service vehicles, charter buses and an extensive schedule of night and weekend events held on the campus that have steadily increased over the years.
Castilleja's leadership needs to carefully study what happened with the Maybell proposal and seek to learn from it. They would be foolish to think that exerting political influence of school parents and alumnae will overcome grassroots political resistance and provide a winning strategy.
Coincidentally, it was current Mayor Greg Scharff who, as mayor back in 2013, led the council through its doomed approval of the Maybell proposal and who tried unsuccessfully to broker a compromise over the weekend prior to the final council vote. By then, all trust had been lost and the council proceeded with its approval of the project and zoning change.
For the next few months, while the environmental report is being prepared, there is an opportunity for Castilleja to seek, with the neighbors, a mediated discussion that would get both sides listening and understanding each other's needs, problems and respective priorities and to understand why the City Council chamber is not a good place to resolve these issues.
Among other things, the neighbors need to agree to set aside their legitimate but unproductive complaints about the school's past violations of its enrollment cap, and the school needs to acknowledge that its transportation plan of forcing all egress from the school northbound onto Emerson Street and then eastbound onto Embarcadero Road, the direction opposite of where all the traffic is ultimately headed, is unworkable, illogical and imposes additional burdens on already congested streets and intersections.
A compromise is possible, but it must start with Castilleja recognizing that the longer it waits to invite that conversation the less likely a successful City Council outcome becomes.