When Castilleja School in Palo Alto first unveiled its plan in 2013 to expand student enrollment and reconstruct its Bryant Street campus, criticism from the neighborhood came hard and fast.
The redevelopment, residents argued, would overwhelm their quiet neighborhood with more noise and more cars; endanger bicyclists on the city's pioneering bike boulevard; and make parking harder to find.
More importantly, one critic after another argued, allowing the project would reward bad behavior on the part of the private girls' school: For 12 consecutive years, Castilleja had exceeded its city-designated enrollment limit of 415 students — a violation that prompted the city in 2013 to issue a $265,000 fine and demand a gradual reduction in its student population.
Now, six years later and with project plans still winding their way through the Palo Alto process, the school is entering a critical phase of the application review with the city's July 17 release of the much-anticipated draft environmental-impact report (EIR) for the project. The analysis' release followed months of delays and hiccups, including the city's scrutiny of the school's enrollment figures and queries over technical issues like height limits and bike plans.
Neighborhood opposition is every bit as vociferous as it was when the plans first surfaced.
Stan Shore, who lives near Castilleja, wrote in a May letter to the council that the school has "willfully violated" the 415-student limit and has "made a mockery of the Palo Alto (conditional-use permit) process."
"Castilleja should NOT be rewarded, for 17 years of violations, with more students," Shore wrote.
Castilleja leaders have consistently argued that the "modernization" project is necessary for the school to carry out its mission of creating the leaders of tomorrow. Lorraine Brown, the schools' director of communications, said the foremost reason for the project is Castilleja's belief in "the unique transformational power of an all-girls education" and the school's desire to give more young women the opportunity to learn and pick up leadership skills.
But while Brown has pointed out that many of their neighbors support the school's project, Shore is hardly alone. As the Castilleja project has evolved from an abstract concept to a formal application, residents formed a group called PNQLnow.org (which stands for "Preserve Neighborhood Quality of Life") to oppose the expansion. Dozens of signs, both supporting and opposing the project, sprang up around the school. There were followed by accusations and counter-accusations of vandalism and sign-thievery, as well as a restraining order from Castilleja against one neighbor who admitted to taking several pro-Castilleja signs.
Now the debate will take place fully in the public eye: The release of the draft EIR kicked off a 60-day review period that will include meetings in front of the city's Planning and Transportation Commission (Aug. 14) and the Historic Resources Board (Sept. 12).
The document, published by the consulting firm Dudek, is also sure to provide fresh ammunition for both sides of the debate. It concluded that the campus project would cause significant and unavoidable traffic problems, even if Castilleja adopts an aggressive new "transportation demand management" system as part of the campus expansion. Specifically, the analysis found that the project would increase traffic at several intersections and roadway segments. It would conflict with existing traffic-management systems that encourage students and staff to use alternate forms of transportation.
The report also finds that the redevelopment would create another "significant and unavoidable" impact in terms of land use, concluding the project — located in a residential neighborhood — would "create land use incompatibility or physically divide an established community."
Specifically, the project would potentially heighten conflict between the school and its neighbors by "increasing the disturbance to neighbors associated with special events, increasing traffic volumes in the project vicinity and generating noise levels that could exceed the Municipal Code standards" (though the noise impacts could be mitigated and reduced to less-than-significant levels, the report found).
While these findings could fuel criticism of the project, the EIR also concluded that the school's modernization would not significantly affect neighborhood aesthetics, air quality, geology or demands for services, issues that were raised during public meetings and in written comments prior to the report's release.
The analysis also concluded that the proposal is consistent with Palo Alto's Comprehensive Plan, including its broad policy of maintaining and prioritizing the city's "varied residential neighborhoods while sustaining the vitality of its commercial areas and public facilities."
"The project would enable the school to redevelop its facilities for increased safety, sustainability and programmatic space to better serve its student population," the report states. "The project would also include features to minimize existing school-related disruptions on the surrounding neighborhood with regard to traffic and noise. ... In addition, the project would provide amenities that would benefit the community, including the landscaping, the preservation of mature trees, and construction of a 0.33-acre privately owned open space area."
The report's findings mean that for Castilleja to win approval, the City Council would have to adopt a "statement of overriding considerations," indicating that the benefits of the school's modernization project are so great that they compensate for the significant impacts that Dudek identified.
The council may also require Castilleja to downsize its ambitions. The report offers the city and Castilleja a path toward compromise by analyzing two other alternatives for the school's expansion. Under both of these scenarios, the maximum number of students would be capped at 506 rather than 540. In one of them, however, the school would only provide 52 parking spaces in its underground garage, potentially reducing the footprint of the controversial facility.
On Wednesday, Brown highlighted the report's determinations that the Castilleja project is consistent with the city's Comprehensive Plan and that the underground garage is consistent with city zoning (notwithstanding the report's conclusion that it would significantly impact the Emerson Street block where the exit is located).
"We are pleased that the report validates many aspects of our proposal," Brown said.
She acknowledged, however, that the report's findings about the three "significant and unavoidable" impacts indicate that the school still has more work to do when it comes to preventing traffic problems and designing the garage. The school will also consider in the coming weeks other alternatives for its modernization project, she said.
"We will continue to look at what is the enrollment number and what is the design that we need to pursue in order to have a plan that does not have a negative impact," Brown said.
Four phases of redevelopment
If Castilleja's project is approved as proposed, it would occur in four phases. First, the school would demolish two residences on the north side of the campus and construct an underground parking garage, with an entrance from Bryant Street and an exit to Emerson Street.
Second, it would establish a temporary campus by installing portable and modular classrooms above the garage. In the third phase, the school would demolish the Fine Arts building and build a below-ground swimming pool. Finally, Castilleja would demolish the existing Campus Center building and the at-grade pool and construct a new classroom building. It would also build a new half-acre neighborhood park and remove the temporary campus facilities.
For Castilleja, the pending plan is "comprehensive in that it reflects the school's plans for growth and modernization for the foreseeable future," Head of School Nanci Kauffman wrote in a Jan. 9 letter to the city. It calls for a new conditional use permit that would allow enrollment of up to 540 students. It also includes a traffic-management plan to ensure the school's growth doesn't bring more cars into the neighborhood.
Ironically, the one element of Castilleja's redevelopment that school staff believes will be most effective in driving cars away from neighborhood streets is the one that is now causing the most community consternation: an underground garage.
Brown said that, during the school's outreach meetings, many neighbors expressed an interest in an underground garage.
"They gave us feedback that they want to see cars removed from neighborhood streets," she said. And we believe the garage can help us in terms of our plans to be better neighbors."
Some residents, however, don't see it that way. In January of this year, PNQLnow members Rob Levitsky, Andie Reed and Mary Sylvester submitted a letter lambasting Castilleja's proposal. One of their objections is what they call a "massive concrete underground garage exit" that would be next to the proposed neighborhood park.
The facility, they wrote, "would also contain the exhaust chimney for the garage, spewing exhaust from more than 400 cars a day, plus events."
The garage design, the residents wrote, is "seriously flawed, with one entrance on the Bryant Bike Boulevard and the exits dumping directly into the neighborhood." They also argued that parking is not an issue around the school.
"Castilleja states there would not be an increase in car trips with the expansion," the letter states. "Then why build a garage? Because it lays the groundwork for more expansion."
Nelson Ng, who lives next to Castilleja, called the garage a "clear example that Castilleja is ignoring and misrepresenting what the neighbors want."
"The real issue impacting the neighborhood is traffic and parking is just a byproduct," Ng wrote to Kauffman in June 2018. "The focus should be on reducing traffic to Palo Alto and our neighborhood instead of building a garage that could invite more traffic."
The neighbors also took issue with other components of the application, including its request for variances relating to setbacks on Embarcadero Road and its "floor-area-ratio" calculations.
The Castilleja proposal calls for demolishing five buildings that add up to 84,572 square feet (the Fine Arts building, a maintenance building, the "Campus Center," the classroom building and the pool equipment building) and constructing a modern three-story building with 84,238 square feet above grade and an additional 46,768 square feet below grade, according to an application the school submitted in April.
While the application would keep the level of above-grade development relatively steady in terms of square footage, opponents have characterized the plan as one that would remove five modest buildings and replace them with one "Walmart-sized" structure.
Castilleja notes that for all the talk about an "expansion," the school is in fact not increasing its above-ground footprint. The project, Brown maintained, would address many of the existing concerns from neighbors. This includes moving the swimming pool below grade and installing a sound wall.
"We appreciate that we are in a residential neighborhood, and we really want to honor and respect the personal lives of the families who chose to live around Castilleja," Brown said.
Just about every significant development proposed in Palo Alto must contend with public outcry about potential traffic, noise and parking impacts as well as the city's litany of design guidelines and zoning regulations.
For the Castilleja redevelopment, the typically lengthy approval process has been further compounded by skepticism over the school's enrollment figures, the school's complex phasing plan and intense scrutiny from the vocal opposition — factors that prompted the city to repeatedly delay the release of the draft EIR, according to documents obtained by the Weekly through a Public Records Act request.
As part of the review, City Manager Ed Shikada and Planning Director Jonathan Lait had repeatedly asked Castilleja to verify its student enrollment by hiring an independent auditor, which the school did. In March, the firm Vavrinek, Trune, Day and Co. LLP, submitted a letter on behalf of the school confirming Castilleja's enrollment of 434 students — 16 fewer than it had in 2012.
During the verification process, school leaders emphasized their recent efforts to regain the community's trust. Kauffman acknowledged in an April email to Shikada that when she came forward in 2012 to report the school's over enrollment, the school "initiated a process that brought about a high level of distrust of Castilleja School." The increase, she added, took place at a time when the school's previous leaders were increasing each incoming sixth-grade class from 60 to 64 students to account for attrition at higher grade levels. The intent was to retain the graduating senior class at 60.
"However, attrition diminished over time, and in the course of seven years, this led to an inexcusable over enrollment of 30 students," Kauffman wrote.
Despite the history, "current leadership of the school has paid all fines, abided by all requests, and recently paid an auditing firm to verify our enrollment," she wrote.
"Since my tenure as Head of School, I have never falsified a report nor misrepresented our enrollment, and I never will," Kauffman, who assumed her role in 2012, wrote on April 14. "It is my hope that over time, Palo Alto staff and community members will begin to recognize our myriad efforts to regain trust."
Kathy Layendecker, Castilleja's chief of finance and operations, confirmed in a separate email two days later that the school plans to enroll 430 students in the 2019-2020 school year, consistent with the city's 2017 directive that it reduce enrollment by four to six students annually.
The school will continue to reduce annual enrollment until such time as the city approves its new conditional-use permit (CUP), Brown said.
"Our hope is to put the new CUP in place that stems the decline, but we will continue to abide by the drops in enrollment until we have a new CUP in place," she said.
Yet even as it is reducing its student population in the near term to comply with city requirements, Castilleja is also planning to significantly expand it in the long term to 540 students. That number, Brown said, is consistent with the schools' traffic analysis, which indicated that the school can get to 540 students without worsening traffic impacts, provided it institute an aggressive transportation-demand-management plan.
Brown underscored that Castilleja's application explicitly ties enrollment figures to traffic impacts.
"What's in our proposal is that we cannot increase enrollment if car counts increase," Brown said.
Since the violation was publicly disclosed in 2012, Castilleja already instituted some programs to reduce traffic: two morning shuttles to bring students in and staff-directed traffic control around the school to maintain a smooth traffic flow and discourage parking.
A transportation-demand-management plan that the school adopted in 2013 also calls for the school to encourage carpooling and biking (the latter effort is made more difficult by the fact that only 27% of students in 2013 lived in Palo Alto and 12% in Menlo Park).
These efforts have led to a 22% drop in vehicle trips, according to 2016 report from Nelson/Nygaard, a consulting firm that helped put together Castilleja's transportation plan. In addition to the measures adopted in 2013, the school has introduced a Caltrain van service and an offsite parking area for faculty and staff members, about 70% or 80% of whom drove alone to work in 2012.
Beginning in the 2015-2016, employees were required to use alternative travel modes at least three times per week, park remotely five days per week, or monitor student drop-offs and pick-ups two days per week, according to the Nelson/Nygaard report.
The efforts have borne some fruit. According to Castilleja's traffic counts, the total number of daily trips in and out of the campus has dropped from 511 in May 2012 to 396 in April 2016, according to traffic surveys, a 23% decrease, the report states.
Even so, Castilleja will need to reduce trips by 11% to meet its goal of generating no new net trips while enrolling 540 students. To do that, the 2016 transportation-demand-management plan suggests a suite of new programs, including two new morning shuttles to serve students and employees from San Francisco to San Jose; a late afternoon shuttle that would depart Castilleja at about 5 p.m.; and off-site stops where parents drop off students about 15 minutes before school starts so that shuttles can take them to school. A program of this sort would not eliminate the trips, the consultants note, but it would "re-distribute them out of the neighborhoods immediately adjacent to Castilleja and reduce the school's vehicle trip count."
The new plan also recommends an expanded carpool/trip planning program, with a designated transportation coordinator offering personalized trip-planning information and a parent representative contacting households to help foster new arrangements. Under the proposed program, the school would take a more proactive role in identifying carpool matches, in contrast to merely providing parents with a link to the website and leaving the matching to them.
Other measures in Castilleja's TDM plan include a cash program that gives employees financial incentives to not drive; "ZIP code parties" in neighborhoods with high concentration of Castilleja families to encourage stronger community relations (and, ideally, more carpooling); and a program in which students are dropped off at a designated location off campus and then walk to class with a chaperone.
If these programs don't reduce the traffic counts to the desirable levels, the TDM plan suggests more stringent and expensive measures: buying Caltrain GO passes for all employees and purchasing several bicycles for a "bike share" program. The most ambitious and potentially controversial proposal is a mandatory requirement that all students arrive by carpooling, van, transit, walking or biking (with special exemptions for those with disabilities or for other extenuating circumstances). As a variation, the school can only allow certain students to drive alone to school.
"For example, seniors could be designated as the only group of students who drive alone as a 'bonus' for their last year at Castilleja," the report states.
The environmental-impact report makes the case for adopting all of the measures in the TDM plan — including mandatory ridesharing and transit passes for staff — and adding a few more, including potentially staggering the bell schedule to reduce queues of cars on Bryant and bicycle-safety education for students, parents and staff.
The report also calls on the school to host events to encourage biking, walking, carpooling and transit use to reinforce "active transportation" as a community-held value.
Even so, the analysis concludes that the transportation impacts would be significant, specifically when considering the high number of vehicles that would be added to Emerson, between Melville Avenue and Embarcadero, because of cars exiting the parking garage and turning right onto Emerson.
Consultants analyzed the potential impact of cars being allowed to turn left, right or go straight out of the garage instead, but they determined that this would shift traffic to other blocks and would not appreciably reduce traffic problems.
The report also concluded that Castilleja's proposed TDM measures would not ease the conditions on this section of Emerson or bring the level of impact down to a "less than significant" level.
In addition, the traffic analysis concluded that the project would add traffic to the intersection of Alma Street and Kingsley Avenue during peak commuting hours. While this problem can be eased by adding a traffic signal, it would be up to the city to decide based on a variety of factors.
Given the uncertainty of whether the signal would be added to the city's capital-improvement plan, "the impact would remain significant and unavoidable," the report states.
When asked whether the report lends credence to neighbors' complaints about the new garage, Brown said that the report gives Castilleja an "an opportunity to work with the city, to think about how we can modify our plan to reduce those impacts."
"There is an opportunity for us. We ultimately want to find a solution that meets our objectives for educating more young women and for reducing the impact in the neighborhood," Brown said. "Further study needs to be done."
Agreeing that they disagree
During the many years that they have sparred, about the only thing that the two sides have agreed on is their shared belief that the city is unfairly biased against their respective positions. Castilleja staff have pointed out they are the ones that first brought the violation to the city's attention and that, since then, they have done everything the city had asked for to make things right, including reducing the enrollment.
The school has already hosted more than 30 meetings with neighbors, including one that involved a facilitator, wrote Mindie Romanowsky, an attorney representing Castilleja, in a June 7, 2017, letter. Yet at every step, Castilleja was asked to pause the process to address specific requests, which it had tried to do.
"To date, Castilleja has concerns that the city's handling of the (conditional-use permit) application may be unfair and inefficient," Romanowsky wrote. "At every step, the school has been faced with an unreasonable heightened degree of scrutiny, while it appears that detractors have been given extreme deference by the city.
"Throughout the process, Castilleja has endeavored to provide truthful, fact-based data. However, the school has grave concerns about the city's reliance on misinformation disseminated by members of the public."
Residents, meanwhile, have argued that the city, if anything, has been too lenient toward Castilleja. In a January interview with the Weekly, James Poppy and Reed of PNQLnow.org said they were very concerned about the city's failure to enforce its conditional-use permit with Castilleja, which governs enrollment figures and the number of major events the school is allowed to host every year. Poppy said neighbors had taken to complaining to the city through the 3-1-1 website about unauthorized events. One recent event, he said, began at 7 a.m. on Saturday and lasted all day.
"It's been a systematic increase in violations of the CUP without any repercussions from City Hall," Poppy told the Weekly.
Reed noted the zoning exceptions that Castilleja had requested, including variances relating to floor area and to encroachments associated with the underground garage. While she, Shore and other neighbors have lauded Castilleja for its record in educating young women, Reed said she and others are concerns about the zoning concessions that the school is expecting to get from the city.
"We feel there is a general bias with the city to allow these plans to get as far as they have when you're so non compliant with code on many different levels."
In the coming months, it will be up to the city's various commissions and, ultimately, the council to reconcile the competing views. To date, the council has not had any meetings about what is shaping up to be the city's controversial land-use project. The closest members had come to discussing Castilleja was on April 8, when Vice Mayor Adrian Fine asked members of the Palo Alto Youth Council for their take on the latest developments.
Divya Ganesan, then a sophomore at Castilleja, said she sees a "culture of fear" developing around the project. It's hard, she said, for a student to go to school and see signs everywhere calling for a halt to the expansion.
"I think the heart of it is a lack of clear communication between neighbors and the Castilleja community," Ganesan said. "What I hear from both sides are two very valid arguments but arguments that don't align with each other.
"It's almost like people are talking at each other but not talking with each other in terms of the same information. So, I think what needs to happen is a very clear communication forum where people have the right sense of what's gonna happen and what are the complaints that we need to address if that's gonna happen."