If Castilleja School moves ahead with its ambitious plan to rebuild its campus and increase enrollment, it may have to do so without adding any new car trips to the neighborhood around its Bryant Street campus under a proposal the Palo Alto Planning and Transportation Commission backed Wednesday night.
During a long and wide-ranging discussion, the commission also signaled that it would support slightly increasing the number of special events the all-girls school at 1310 Bryant St. would be allowed to hold and requiring Castilleja to install equipment that measures real-time traffic data.
The meeting was the commission's second hearing in as many weeks on Castilleja and the first in which commissioners had a chance to fully discuss some of the most contentious issues surrounding the project, which has been going through the planning process for the past four years. Much like at the Oct. 28 meeting, the commission heard from dozens of residents, with many supporting the school's expansion proposal and others urging the city to reject or scale back Castilleja's plan.
The Wednesday meeting focused on conditions of approval that the city would impose on Castilleja as part of its new conditional use permit. While the commission took numerous votes on the conditions over the course of the six-hour meeting, it adjourned at midnight without completing its task and agreed to hold a third hearing in the coming weeks.
The majority agreed, however, that in evaluating Castilleja's proposal, the city should focus less on the number of students and events and more on the actual impacts that these students and events would have on the surrounding neighborhood. Several commissioners, most notably Michael Alcheck, argued that the commission should not micromanage the details of the school operation but focus on these impacts — particularly car trips.
Commissioner William Riggs agreed and suggested applying to Castilleja the same standard that Santa Clara County applies to Stanford University: a requirement for no net new car trips. While two commissioners, Alcheck and Barton Hechtman, argued that the standard is too stringent, the rest of the commission voted to advance Riggs' recommendation.
Riggs and Commissioner Ed Lauing both noted that Castilleja already has a robust transportation-demand management program (TDM), which includes bus lines, Caltrain shuttles and remote parking for employees within walking distance of the campus. The school also requires employees to use alternative modes of transportation at least three times per week. These measures, and others, have helped it reduce peak traffic by 31% since 2013 when the program was launched.
"I think Castilleja is well-intentioned and they have good results so far … The risk goes up as traffic goes up, so managing the TDM in a tight way makes good sense to make sure it happens correctly," Lauing said. "It also helps with trust."
Commissioner Chair Cari Templeton agreed and said imposing the "no net new trips" requirement would make the project "more manageable."
"We'd be managing impacts and not methods," Templeton said before the 5-2 vote.
Alcheck and Hechtman both opposed the requirement, with Hechtman saying he is concerned this would set a difficult precedent for future projects to follow. Hechtman proposed a different alternative that would cap new trips at 9% over the course of the school's enrollment expansion. Applying the stricter "no net new trips" standard would send "ripples" through the community, he said.
While the commission majority took the strict approach when it comes to traffic, they were more lenient when it came to special events. The city's planning staff had recommended requiring Castilleja to reduce the number of special events it holds on its campus from the current level of about 90 to 70 annually. The commission supported raising that to 74, consistent with what Castilleja officials said they would need to fulfill the school's mission.
Alcheck suggested going further and allowing even more. He said he found the provisions in the proposed conditional use permit pertaining to special events "repugnant to the values of the City of Palo Alto" and suggested loosening the restrictions to both allow more events and to permit higher capacity at these events. The definition of a "special event," he said, should be those with more than 120 attendees, rather than 50 attendees, as proposed by staff.
Another alternative, he said, is increasing the number of weekday special events that Castilleja would be able to hold annually from 32 to 40.
While the rest of his colleagues declined to go that far, they agreed by a 5-2 vote, with Lauing and Commissioner Doria Summa opposing, to recommend raising the number of annual events to 74 as part of a broad motion that also called for real-time traffic data.
Both Lauing and Summa both objected to the process, which involved crafting a motion on the fly in the late hours of the night. After the commission took two votes, Summa moved just before midnight to continue the meeting to a later date.
"The worst thing we can do right now from my point of view is rush a process and end up with a project that's not successful," Summa said.
While the commission generally supported Castilleja's plan to increase student enrollment from the current level of 426, both Lauing and Summa proposed a more gradual change than the school had proposed. Lauing said that while he supports Castilleja's plan to expand, he wants to see the school move to 450 students, rather than the 540 it is proposing, and to pursue further enrollment increases after demonstrating its ability to manage the impacts of this growth.
Others had no objections to the school's proposed enrollment increase, a subject of considerable neighborhood debate. Many residents who oppose the project have consistently pointed to Castilleja's history of failing to stay within its enrollment cap. In 2013, the city fined Castilleja $265,000 for exceeding the 415-student cap by 33 students. The school was also required to gradually reduce enrollment.
Many neighbors remain concerned about the school's current plans. At both the Oct. 29 meeting and on Wednesday, critics of the proposal urged the commission to reduce the number of new students, require the school to shuttle its students from remote parking lots and eliminate from the expansion plan a proposed underground garage, a project element that they argue violates the city's zoning laws for single-family neighborhoods.
Mary Sylvester, who lives near the school and who is one of the leaders of the neighborhood group PNQLNow ("Preserve Neighborhood Quality of Life Now), recited on Wednesday a list of negative impacts that the project would bring to the neighborhood, including increased traffic, pollution and the need to remove trees.
"There's little doubt that the school needs modernization," Sylvester said Wednesday. "No one I know is opposed to that, as long as the school has a code-compliant project that is uniformly applied to all applicants to the community and considers the comprehensive needs of Palo Alto, and looks at it in a comprehensive manner. A project that serves the best interests of Palo Alto."
Others suggested that city staff is applying special rules to Castilleja to help it advance the project, including permitting an underground garage in a single-family zone. Planning staff had argued that the code provision banning underground garages only applies to residential projects.
"We have a right to expect that the Palo Alto Planning Department will uphold the laws and not break them," said Ventura resident Rebecca Sanders.
Many others argued Wednesday that the process has gone on for long enough and that Castilleja's plans should be approved. A majority of the roughly 40 people who spoke on Wednesday praised Castilleja as a considerate neighbor and a valuable community institution.
Resident Tony Hughes called the school's plan "an excellent proposal and should be supported" while Kathleen Hughes, founder of Ada's Café, told the commission that the expansion would further the school's laudable mission of educating young women.
"Getting into the high school program in Castilleja is incredibly difficult because there's so few spots. Gradually increasing enrollment … while keeping daily car trips capped will open more opportunities for more girls and many will be from Palo Alto."
Cathy Williams, who lives on Bryant Street, near the school, and pushed back against the criticism from some of the school's neighbors.
"It is beginning to seem like no matter what, they will never be satisfied unless Castilleja moves away," said Cathy Williams, who lives on Bryant Street, near the school. "How sad and disappointing it would be to have these few voices drive away this excellent school."
Mindie Romanowsky, a lawyer for Castilleja, also objected to a request from PNQLNow's attorney to delay the process and consider mediation. She told the commission that the school had already tried that in 2013, going as far as hiring a mediator and holding numerous meeting with neighbors. The school tried to go to mediation again in April 2018, after it had filed its application, but neighbors canceled the scheduled mediation meeting at the last minute, she said.
"We can't help but wonder if it's another opportunity to delay, deflect, distract from a decision that was ripe for consideration," Romanowsky said.
While the school has yet to get formal approval from either the planning commission or the City Council, it did score a major victory in the protracted process on Thursday morning, when the Architectural Review Board voted 4-1 to support its application. The board's Nov. 5 vote followed three lengthy public hearings on the project, during which time board members had asked for revisions to the new buildings' Kellogg Street façade, additional information about landscaping and fencing on the Emerson Street side and a myriad other changes.
On Thursday, the board found that Castilleja has adequately responded to its concerns and voted to move the application forward, while directing a subcommittee of its members to work with the school on some outstanding issues. These include requests that the school consider adding an acoustic barrier at the terrace level and that the school provides updated elevation plans.
Board Chair Peter Baltay, who dissented, said that while he generally supports the project, he believes the full board should continue to work on refining the project's details, rather than refer them to the subcommittee.