After years of frustration and animosity between Castilleja School and its neighbors, with almost no progress toward finding an acceptable middle ground, the school's proposal to rebuild its campus in Old Palo Alto has finally landed in the laps of city officials.
Reconciling the conflicting viewpoints will be a major test for new City Manager Ed Shikada and a City Council that struggles at building consensus through compromise on controversial community issues. If they choose to follow the normal review process of major projects, with long public hearings that become an exhausting contest to see which side can turn out more bodies wearing buttons or holding signs, then we are destined for a divisive and bitter battle that isn't worthy of our community.
Shikada and Mayor Eric Filseth need a plan for how to steer Castilleja's application toward an outcome in which interests are respected, compromises made and advocates on both sides get their most important needs met. And with the draft environmental-impact report (DEIR) now out and the formal reviews beginning, all the details and impacts have now been laid before the public.
Unlike other complex city issues — such as how to eliminate railroad grade crossings, redevelop the old Cubberley High School property in south Palo Alto or find good sites for new housing — the debate over Castilleja's desire to redevelop its site is unusually localized. It's not a public facility, but it is a valuable and respected community institution.
While most Palo Altans will not be significantly affected, those living within a few blocks will be greatly impacted, especially by what is expected to be more than three years of construction, followed by significant traffic congestion thereafter. The biggest traffic impacts will be from the proposed traffic patterns on Embarcadero Road and Bryant and Emerson streets, which the DEIR concludes will create substantial problems. And the analysis didn't even take into account the traffic volume yet to be felt on Embarcadero from the opening of the new Stanford Hospital and the graduate student housing at the university.
As it stands now, the proposal faces rough sledding unless it is revised to reduce its impacts. But rejecting the plan isn't a good or likely solution either. Preventing Castilleja from improving its facility or forcing it to move are not, in our opinion, in the best interests of the neighborhood or the broader community. Both the school and its neighbors would be well-advised to not depend on the City Council to create the best solution.
Neighbors, in order to achieve a successful outcome, will need to let go of their hostility toward Castilleja that stems from its past violations of their use permit and accept that the council will undoubtedly end up approving some redevelopment plan, even though it may be one that significantly reduces the size of the project.
The focus needs be on negotiating three things: a better traffic mitigation and parking plan, tough benchmarks that tie any future increases in enrollment to maintaining or reducing traffic counts from current levels, and limits on the number of evening and weekend events that are permitted on campus.
For its part, Castilleja will need to accept the additional traffic mitigation measures proposed in the DEIR and explore alternatives to the traffic patterns currently proposed for Bryant, Emerson and Embarcadero and its underground garage proposal.
To its credit, the school has already agreed that its enrollment in the future be contingent on its ability to prevent any increases in traffic. And Castilleja will need to work in good faith with neighbors to reconcile whether the proposed underground garage is better or worse than continuing to use surface and street parking, or if reducing the size of the garage is a viable option.
One of the difficulties of the garage controversy is that it has a major impact on only a few property owners on Emerson and Melville Avenue. The council is not likely to give too much weight to their protests, so they should be looking for other mitigations and be open to a down-sized garage and conditions that reduce its impact.
To thrash out these issues, we urge Shikada, Filseth and the council to form an ad hoc committee of two or three council members and charge them with working with the school and neighbors, with a skilled mediator, to find compromises before the full council begins its review.
Both groups risk a lot by trying to muscle the council to adopt their point of view. The council will want to split the baby, and both Castilleja and the neighbors are likely to fare much better working together than attempting to marshal their supporters to show up at council meetings or put pressure on individual council members.
Let's see if we can model a better approach to problem-solving this time, one where people leave their baggage from the past at the door and don't simply try to find four votes on the council.