Finding gaps in the draft environmental-impact report for Castilleja School's proposed expansion, Palo Alto's Planning and Transportation Commission is seeking more specific details that might help answer many residents' questions.
The commission's Wednesday night meeting, which drew hundreds of people to City Hall, was the first public hearing about the proposed Castilleja School redevelopment project in light of the environmental analysis.
The school — located at 1310 Bryant St. in the Old Palo Alto neighborhood and bounded by Embarcadero Road, Kellogg Avenue, Emerson Street and Bryant — is proposing to demolish seven buildings, including two residences and 84,572 square feet of campus buildings, and construct one larger, three-story academic structure with 84,238 square feet above ground and 46,768 square feet below. The development would also include a 50,000-square-foot parking garage, new underground swimming pool with a sound wall, and underground delivery and trash and waste-pick-up enclosures.
The school is also seeking to expand its enrollment from 415 students to 540 students, with 27 new students added each year.
The draft environmental-impact report (DEIR), written by consulting firm Dudek, found the campus project would cause "significant and unavoidable" traffic problems, even with a new transportation-demand-management program aimed at encouraging students and staff to use alternative forms of transportation. The study also found that a section of Emerson between Melville Avenue and Embarcadero would be heavily used by cars exiting the new underground garage, which would require right-hand turns onto Emerson and Embarcadero.
Dudek considered alternatives that would spread the traffic over adjacent streets, but those did not reduce the problem; they only shifted traffic to other streets, the consultant found. The report recommended keeping the proposed project but stated that Castilleja must adopt all of its transportation-demand-management program proposals. It might also need to do more, including possibly staggering bell times and holding events to encourage biking, carpooling, walking and transit use, the consultant said.
Commissioner Doria Summa criticized Dudek's analysis of the traffic problems that the expansion could potentially create.
"The traffic issues need to be explained better. It's not clear that it was studied well enough. It would be especially helpful to understand how the right turn out of the garage would be enforced," Commissioner Doria Summa said.
She also wanted to see the consultant study an alternative plan without a parking garage.
"I was under the impression that a no-garage alternative was going to be considered. That would answer some of the public's questions," she said.
Commission Chairman William Riggs said he wanted more information regarding the exposure bicyclists would have from cars entering and exiting the garage.
During Wednesday's public-comment time, residents likewise said that the report has multiple deficiencies. Former planning commissioner Arthur Keller said on behalf of the Palo Alto Neighborhoods group that the document is insufficient because it doesn't factor in the impact of the Stanford University's proposed expansion, which would also add to the city's traffic woes.
Jeff Levinsky, chair of Palo Alto Neighborhoods' committee that oversees zoning compliance, said the group is also concerned about other development that will now be allowed following the city's recent removal of the limit on downtown commercial development. That growth, he said, would generate more Embarcadero traffic.
The report looked at projected 2030 conditions using a Santa Clara County model, but it needs to look 10 years out and factor in local trends and patterns, he said.
Levinsky also said the report is not consistent with a zoning rule that requires garages in single-family residential areas to be counted as floor area.
"The proposed underground garage is not being counted that way. The project description in the (draft) EIR should be corrected, and that part will need a variance to allow the excess 50,500 square feet of floor area in the garage.
On another zoning issue, he said: "We've heard that one or both of the two residential sites proposed to be merged into the larger Castilleja parcel are presently being used for school functions rather than as homes. If true, they need a conditional-use permit for that school use in the R-1 single-family home zone. I checked and didn't find any such permits, so there's a potential violation to the law there."
Rob Levitsky, whose home is adjacent to Castilleja, expressed concern that the analysis does not list the impact of the redevelopment on trees and offers no alternatives to their removal. The report's land-use chapter does, however, include the proposed mitigations for tree removals.
Commissioner Carolyn Templeton as well as Summa said they want to know more about the impact of removing mature oaks and redwoods, which are protected in the city. Templeton asked if the trees would be removed because of the underground garage and also said she'd like information on other properties in the community that have underground garages.
In addition to increased traffic, the project would also create a "significant and unavoidable" land-use impact, the report states. Being located in a residential neighborhood, it would "create land use incompatibility or physically divide an established community." The project would increase noise in the neighborhood during special events, increase traffic and add noise levels that could exceed the city's municipal code. The noise could be reduced to a less-than-significant impact by mindful placing of loudspeakers, for example, consultant Katherine Waugh of Dudek noted Wednesday night.
If the City Council wants to approve the project, it would need to adopt a "statement of overriding considerations," which would find the benefits of the school's modernization are so great they would compensate for the significant impacts.
Commissioner Ed Lauing said the public needs to see the benefits of the expansion, such as how many of the new students would be from Palo Alto. He also suggested the study should add more alternatives other than the current three so that there wouldn't be an "all or nothing" choice.
Mindie Romanowsky, a land-use attorney representing Castilleja, said the school will address the two significant traffic impacts cited in the draft study and will take them "very seriously." Regarding the third significant impact, which said the project physically divides the neighborhood, Romanowsky said it is a conclusion in the draft report that is not supported with sufficient data.
She plans to submit a detailed comment to the city in the next few weeks, she added.
Despite criticism of the report, many neighbors and Castilleja students said the school has made great strides to reduce its traffic impacts and that the enlarged campus would have a negligible impact because the transportation-demand-management plan would be even more robust than it is now. That plan is working, they said.
Stephanie Norton, who supports the expansion, said she has checked out the traffic during bell times.
"There was not one backup," she said. More students were walking to school than cars were driving to the campus, she found.
But resident Monica Yeung-Arima submitted photos to the commissioners of accidents she has seen at various intersections near Castilleja in the past month. At Lincoln Avenue and Bryant, the number of accidents has increased, she said: On average, "there is one accident or more each week."
Former students said that Castilleja's efforts to reduce traffic have been successful. Anjali Jotwani, a 2008 graduate, said when she attended Castilleja only 2% of students took public transportation to school. Now 20% take buses or other public transportation.
David Fields, a principal at the firm Nelson\Nygaard, which consulted the school on its original transportation-demand-management program, said he believes Castilleja will continue to keep its traffic impacts at a less-than-significant level.
Castilleja should be able to implement a similar plan for the larger school population that would have at least a commensurate impact, he said.
Considering the many questions that still need to be answered, Summa said another public meeting should be held.
"My preference is to do some more work on this DEIR and get it out with more answers to the questions," she said.