Castilleja School eked out a hard-fought and limited victory Wednesday night, when the Planning and Transportation Commission approved a list of conditions that would allow the school to meet its goal of increasing student enrollment to 540.
Over the course of four hours, the commission concluded its monthslong period of deliberations by taking a series of votes that collectively advance the school's bid to modernize its Bryant Street campus. By a 4-2 vote, with Commissioners Ed Lauing and Doria Summa dissenting, the commission endorsed the conditions of approval for Castilleja's new conditional use permit, which will allow it to gradually expand enrollment from the current level of 426 students to 540.
By the same vote, the commission voted to approve findings for the zoning variance that Castilleja had requested to replace aged buildings with new ones (Commissioner William Riggs was absent).
But even as planning commissioners reached numerous compromises over conditions of approval, they hit a stalemate over one a key issue that pertains to the expansion: the school's planned underground garage. For months, residents opposing the project have argued that an underground garage is illegal in a single-family residential neighborhood. And even if it were allowed, it should count toward the school's gross floor-area-ratio, they said.
City staff concluded that the prohibition on underground garages is limited to residential uses, thus making Castilleja exempt. They acknowledged, however, that the zoning code is unclear on whether the garage should count toward floor-area-ratio and have gone along with Castilleja's request not to count it. In explaining the decision, staff pointed to Congregation Kol Emeth, a synagogue where a newly constructed underground garage did not count toward floor area.
Facing vague guidance from the zoning code, the commission deadlocked 3-3 over whether the school's proposed garage should be allowed and, if so, whether it should be included in the school's floor area. Summa, Lauing and Chair Cari Templeton rejected staff's position that the underground garage is an appropriate and zone-compliant use in the residential neighborhood. Commissioners Michael Alcheck and Barton Hechtman and Vice Chair Giselle Roohparvar all supported the staff position and recommended making the necessary finding to advance the project.
The commission's division over the proposed garage prevented it from approving the necessary findings to formally approve the adoption of the conditional use permit. Its split vote means that it will be up to the City Council to parse the zoning code, hear the various arguments and do what the commission could not: reach a majority decision.
The planning commission was more decisive on other aspects of the application, including the conditions of approval that Castilleja would have to meet to move ahead with its campus reconstruction and enrollment expansion. In its third meeting on the subject, the commission voted 4-2 to accept a long list of conditions, including ones that limit special events of 50 or more attendees at the school to 74 annually and that require the school to diligently monitor and regularly report traffic conditions around the school.
Most critically, the conditions of approval comply with Castilleja's request to raise the enrollment cap to 540, provided its traffic impacts don't increase over time.
"I don't think there's a problem with having 540 or however many students, as long as there's no impact on traffic — and that can be managed," Roohparvar said.
The commission's votes mark the conclusion of a critical phase for a project that has been in the city's pipeline for the past four years and that has pitted the school's neighbors against one another. Over months of long and contentious public hearings, the commission has heard from dozens of residents who oppose the project and dozens who support it. In the past month alone, the commission has received roughly 300 pages of correspondence from project advocates and opponents.
Many, like Palo Alto resident Mike Anderson, whose daughter graduated from Castilleja, lauded the school's array of transportation programs, including its van shuttles, buses and policies that require employees to use alternatives to solo driving.
"This school has a proven record and all you need to do is to listen to the opposing neighbors," Anderson wrote. "Even they admit that traffic is under control now. Yes, they are imagining the worst for the future, but they agree that conditions are truly improved and very good right now."
Others, including members of the neighborhood group PNQLNow (Preserve Neighborhood Quality of Life Now), have urged the city to significantly reduce the scale of the project. Andie Reed, a member of the group, requested that the city consider a lower enrollment figure and that it follow a stricter interpretation of the zoning code when it comes to measuring the school's proposed floor area.
"We ask that any new expansion plans reduce the impacts on the neighborhood, not increase them," Reed wrote to the commission. "Suggestions from the community over the past years have been to establish a realistic yet rigorous, mandatory shuttling system after rebuilding the school and getting settled in with a reasonable increase of enrollment (30% has never been seen for this school or any other in an R-1 neighborhood)."
Lauing and Summa both supported the more conservative approach championed by PNQLNow, which called for granting Castilleja permission to increase enrollment to 450. Both said the school can always return at a later date to request further growth. The incremental approach, Lauing argued, would give the school a chance to demonstrate that its traffic-reduction programs are working and alleviate neighborhood concerns about the project.
There's no reason, he said, for the city to immediately commit to allowing 540 students.
"I don't think it's penalizing the school at this point to give them 450 instead of none," Lauing said. "And I don't think the extra students will be hard to get to if they just perform and regain trust."
Summa agreed and noted that the city can always increase enrollment further, once everyone feels assured that the school can adequately manage its traffic.
"I'm confident that if we started at a lower maximum, as Castilleja proceeds with their strong TDM (transportation-demand management) program and shows success at that, they can come back and ask for added enrollment," Summa said.
Others suggested that the city's proposed conditions already go far enough to mitigate the proposed traffic impacts. Commissioner Bart Hechtman pointed to the commission's Nov. 4 vote to institute a "no net new trips" requirement on Castilleja, which the school strongly opposed. The new conditions also require regular traffic monitoring by Castilleja and strict adherence to limits on average daily trips (1,296) and on morning peak hour trips (440). If the school exceeds these limits in consecutive reporting periods, it would be subject to fines and reductions in future enrollment allowances.
To further assuage community anxieties about traffic impacts, the commission specified that the school's ability to expand would be based on reviews of three traffic reports, including two from the prior year and one from the year during which the expansion is requested. The list of conditions also includes a long list of transportation-demand management measures to reduce daily traffic, including use of carpool programs, shuttles and incentive programs for faculty, staff and students to use alternative means.
Given the city's strict prohibitions on increasing traffic impacts, there's no reason to keep the school from adding students, Hechtman said.
"I think the safety net is fantastic," Hechtman said. "It's foolproof. And it's that way because it's been labored over by so many consultants for so many years to get it right."
Hechtman also pushed back against proposals from Lauing and Summa for a more incremental approach on increasing enrollment.
"We have received comments in support and opposition from people who live next door to each other — over and over and over again," Hechtman said. "And I think part of the stress of this situation is not knowing how it's going to turn out."
One of the commission's most important tasks, he said, is to bring a "decisive" position to the council, rather than create a situation in which the applicant would have to come back in the next year or two to ask for another approval, potentially inviting more divisiveness among neighbors.
"I think that would be a disservice to our community," Hechtman said.
Templeton concurred and said that tying requests for additional enrollment to traffic impacts from the prior and current school year is "a really important clarification."
"It shows that Castilleja would be a good neighbor," Templeton said. "That is really the crux of all of these disagreements that we had."