When I was a candidate for City Council in 2016, a Palo Alto High School friend called me about my opinion on Castilleja School's plans. I told him that during the construction his neighborhood would be negatively impacted, but when it was over things would be better. He did not vote for me.
Castilleja was founded in 1907 and has been located at its current location ever since. My father, Leonard Ely Jr., was a major supporter as well as a member of the Castilleja Board of Trustees, and my sister graduated from there in 1971. She also worked there from 2005 to 2015.
I have read that one of the major issues that neighbors have is that Castilleja has not been truthful in its past reporting of the number of enrolled students. If I were a neighbor, I would be more concerned with the disruption during construction and the added traffic that additional students would bring to the area.
So let's have a discussion about disruption and traffic, but let's start with an "elephant in the room": what would happen if Castilleja were not allowed to renovate its campus and then feels it must move out of town. What would become of the roughly 6 acres? A park? Not likely. An office complex? Absolutely not!
Well, that leaves housing. And given the current housing "crisis," you can expect a "push" from the city for medium- to high-density housing.
The current zoning is R-1, single-family residential. That means a minimum lot size of 6,000 square feet. So, with some simple mathematics, a developer could put 38 to 42 single-family homes on the site. The number of houses depends on if the city were to require a cul-de-sac off Kellogg Avenue.
Castilleja is not planning on adding even one square foot of additional space, above ground, in its reconstruction. It's going to add a very large underground garage and I would guess additional basement area under the new classroom structure. This construction will take two to three years to complete and will cause major disruption to the neighborhood.
However, the construction of 38 to 40 homes would most likely cause more disruption and for as long, if not longer. I believe that R-1 zoning has 49 percent floor area ratio. Each house could be approximately 2,400 square feet above-ground, with a basement that would take it up to approximately 3,600 square feet.
That means a total of 91,200 to 100,800 square feet of housing above ground (Castilleja's plan calls for 115,849 square feet) and 128,166 square feet in basement, which will include a new garage and a relocated swimming pool. (The basement is not part of the floor area ratio.) We all know that because of the high price of land in Palo Alto anyone building a house is going to build it up to the maximum square footage allowed.
Now let's look at the traffic impact of a housing development on the Castilleja site.
I can't imagine that any housing would actually be built facing Embarcadero Road. That means that all traffic and street parking from the houses will be confined to Emerson Street, Melville Avenue and Bryant Street. If my information is correct — that the average household makes nine trips a day — this means there will be 342 to 378 car trips on nearby streets every day.
If and when Castilleja is allowed to rebuild, most traffic will be confined to twice a day: early morning and when school gets out. The thing that one notices is that if every student who can drive (which they don't) did drive a car to school, there would be less traffic and congestion than if the land became housing.
Parking is another concern that the neighbors see as a problem. If you have been reading the papers recently, you will notice that the City Council is planning on reducing the parking requirement to "entice developers" to build more housing. Those of us that have lived here for a while know how that has worked in downtown.
One of the major causes of on-street parking today is that the families have more than one or two cars per household. Nowadays people don't park their cars in the driveway, and if there are younger drivers in the house that adds additional cars.
Back to simple mathematics, that means that in the new neighborhood there will be, at least, 72-plus additional cars in the neighborhood, 24/7. Where are they going to park? Right in front of their neighbors' houses. Cars at Castilleja, however, will be parked underground, not on neighborhood streets.
The analysis above is based on the current R-1 zoning. The neighbors can protest but if a developer follows the zoning rules the only thing that they can hope for is to slow the inevitable. So let's say that the developer sells single 6,000 square-foot lots. Then there will be construction for multiple years.
Another fact to consider is that because of the pressure on the City Council to provide housing (and some of that housing needs to be "affordable" and/or "low income") it is highly likely that the number of units, residents and cars will be greater than what I have projected, based on current zoning, above.
I am sure that many neighbors will find fault with my analysis. But one of the other things that has not changed in my approximately 60 years of observing the "Palo Alto process" is that most projects do get built, eventually. The "Palo Alto process" may slow them down and change them, but they do get built — and often the only real change is that they cost more. The downtown public safety building and parking structure immediately come to mind.
So I say, "Be careful what you wish for" — because, I believe and history has proved, the alternative may be worse.
Leonard Ely is a longtime Palo Alto resident.