Seeking to bridge the yawning gap between Castilleja School, which is looking to rebuild its Bryant Street campus, and a vocal group of neighbors who vehemently oppose the school's plan, Palo Alto city staff is proposing a compromise that would allow the project to advance while imposing stricter limits on school events and traffic impacts.
If approved by the Planning and Transportation Commission, which began its review of the proposed conditions on Wednesday night, Castilleja would be allowed to meet the main goals of its ambitious project: modernizing the campus, constructing an underground garage and gradually raising enrollment from the current level of 426 students to 540 students.
It would also require Castilleja to reduce the number of events it holds on its campus, a topic that has generated significant neighborhood concerns. The school has already lowered the number of annual events on its campus from more than 100 to about 90. Staff is proposing restricting the number to 70 events, despite Castilleja's assertion that it would need to hold at least 74 to accommodate its academic and social interest.
If approved by the commission and, ultimately, the City Council, the conditional use permit would also require regular monitoring of vehicle traffic around the school. If Castilleja exceeds the permitted trip level on two measured thresholds — average daily traffic and traffic during the morning peak hour — the school could be required to pay fines or institute more stringent rules. If Castilleja misses these targets and generates more than 1,296 daily trips and 440 morning peak trips to its campus over three consecutive reporting periods, it would have to reduce student enrollment in the following academic year. There would be two to three reporting periods a year, according to the conditions.
The list of conditions also includes a suite of transportation-demand-management (TDM) programs that Castilleja would have to adopt as part of its proposed expansion, including shuttle services, a carpool program, mandatory ride-sharing and events that encourage bicycling. Chief Planning Official Amy French called the proposal "one of the most comprehensive programs that the city has considered for TDM."
To ensure that Castilleja complies with the enrollment limit, the city's proposed conditional use permit would require annual reviews by an independent auditor who would submit written reports to the city every year attesting to the number of students enrolled for that academic year.
The city's conditions aim to address many of the concerns that the project's opponents have cited over the past four years, while leaving others largely unresolved. Some of the project's opponents, including members of the neighborhood group Preserve Neighborhood Quality of Life Now (PNQLNow), have urged the city to limit Castilleja's enrollment increases, reject its proposal for an underground garage and require it to launch a robust shuttle program for students, obviating the need for additional parking.
Some indicated Wednesday that the city's proposed compromise is inadequate. Leila Moncharsh, an attorney representing PNQLNow, suggested that the conditional use permit drafted by city staff attempts to micromanage the school while not doing enough to address its impacts on the surrounding neighborhood. Some of the proposed conditions, she said, are too specific, while others are too vague or fail to actually account for impacts.
She challenged, for example, the city's decision to measure special events by the number of attendees, rather than the number of cars that these events bring to the neighborhood. The city's proposed permit allows up to 70 special events (which, by the city's definition, would have more than 50 attendees) and specifies that 37 of these events can have more than 100 attendees.
The city's proposed rules also limit Saturday events to five per year and ban Sunday events altogether.
"This is about how the school and the neighborhood is going to coexist," Moncharsh told the commission. "And 'coexist' doesn't mean coming back to the city consistently with complaints and problems for the city to use its expensive process for solving."
The city released the conditions last Friday and Moncharsh was one of many speakers who supported delaying the decision to give residents more time to review the materials. The majority of the commission shared that view. Led by Commissioner William Riggs, the commission agreed by a 6-1 vote, with Commissioner Bart Hechtman dissenting, to limit the Wednesday hearing to public comments and to defer most of its deliberations to Nov. 4.
In discussing the conditions, both the city and the project's critics pointed to the school's less-than-stellar history in following local regulations. In 2013, the city fined Castilleja $265,000 for exceeding its enrollment cap of 415 students. The school was also ordered to gradually reduce its enrollment from 448 students back to 415, which it has been doing since and has yet to achieve.
That violation continues to cast a shadow over the protracted and highly polarizing approval process. French noted Wednesday that a lack of trust and the city's history of enforcement against Castilleja have prompted more involvement by community members in suggesting conditions of approval, leading to a more stringent proposal.
Nanci Kauffman, Castilleja's head of school, also acknowledged that trust between the school and neighbors remains an outstanding issue and pointed to the school's recent efforts to mitigate the impacts of its operations.
"Actions speak louder than words and I'm keenly aware that trust is not quickly re-established," Kauffman said. "As such we have gone beyond the requirements of our current CUP by reducing events each year and by decreasing traffic by 31% as a way to prove our ability to succeed with trip reduction.
"Yet despite these efforts, we know that trust is not enough. Going forward, we will be an under ever-present microscope, including electronic monitoring, to make sure we comply with stringent trip thresholds and to ensure compliance by a third party."
Many attendees to the virtual meeting said they support Castilleja's expansion and urged the commission to advance the project. Some praised Castilleja as a responsible neighbor, others emphasized the high quality of its education, while others spoke more broadly about the need to support STEM education for women.
Glowe Chang, a Bryant Street resident who lives across the street from Castilleja, called the school an "incredible neighbor" that has "succeeded in running the school without disrupting a residential neighborhood." Jason Stinson, who lives near Palo Alto High, also said he supports Castilleja's project and suggested that some of the city's conditions — including its demand that the school reduce its special events by 22% —go too far (Kauffman said the list of events includes parent-teacher conferences, dance recitals and showcases of student projects).
"This seems like an undue burden to place on a well-established school that's already done so much to reduce neighborhood impacts," Stinson said.
But other residents suggested that the proposed enrollment numbers are too high and urged the city to take a harder line with the school. Under Castilleja's phased plan, the number of students would go up to 490 once it completes building its garage. It would then steadily increase to 540 once its new academic buildings are in place.
Hank Sousa, a neighbor who is involved with PNQLNow, said most members of his group wouldn't object to a more modest enrollment increase. The school's existing conditional use permit, which dates back to 2000, allowed an 8% increase in enrollment, bringing enrollment from 385 to 415. A similar increase today would bring enrollment up to 448 students, he noted.
"We lived with that before, we can live with that again," Sousa said.
Sousa pointed out that with the more modest enrollment increase, Castilleja would have enough parking spots to accommodate the entire student population without a need for the garage. He and other neighbors also suggested that Castilleja consider a program in which parents drop off students at satellite parking lots and allow shuttles to bring them to school.
"It would knock off 600 to 800 car trips daily so it would really make the neighbors happy and reduce the whole environmental impact," he said.
Approval of the conditional use permit is a critical step in both facilitating Castilleja's plan to modernize its campus, which kicked off more than four years ago, and in reassuring residents about the potential impacts of the school's expansion. Castilleja has already made numerous revisions to its project, including reducing the size of the proposed garage and adopting and agreeing to preserve two homes that were previously slated for demolition. And it scored a victory last month, when the Planning and Transportation Commission approved the final environmental impact report for the proposed expansion.
Even with these revisions, the project continues to split the neighborhood. Resident Bill Schmarzo, who spoke against the proposed permit on Wednesday, alluded to the high number signs in his neighborhood in support of Castilleja.
"We see lots of signs in the neighborhood supporting women's education. That's good. But not a single sign supporting Castilleja's proposed expansion and impact on traffic," Schmarzo told the commission.