Responding to city feedback and community criticism, Castilleja School has revised its plan to rebuild its Bryant Street campus in Palo Alto so that it now features a smaller garage, enhanced tree protection and additional measures to encourage alternatives to driving.
It includes five different designs for the garage, as well as new restrictions on the number of school events — a source of consternation for some of the school's neighbors. It also includes measures that require Castilleja to prove that its transportation measures are effective before it can gradually increase enrollment from the current level of 422 students to 540.
But as two recent public hearings on the Castilleja project showed, these moves have done little to make Castilleja's project less polarizing. On Wednesday night, as Castilleja held its first hearing in front of the Planning and Transportation Commission on its new plan, the panel heard from more than 50 residents, who in some cases pooled their allotted time to make longer presentation. As in the past, the public was split between those who believe Castilleja is still asking for too much, particularly when it comes to its proposed underground garage, and those who argued that Castilleja's project is worthy of approval and that the city's process has already dragged on for too long.
Bill Burch fell squarely in the latter camp. He was one of many residents and Castilleja supporters who told the commission on Wednesday that the review process has gone on for long enough and that it's time to approve the project, which includes reconstruction of three academic buildings, relocation of the school's swimming pool and construction of a garage.
"Every year spent in process negotiation and compromise has resulted in scores of young women being shut out of joining the Castilleja community," Burch said. "Time is passing. The school has made compromises — many of them — and it begins to feel like (it) will never be enough."
He and others suggested that Castilleja's project is being unfairly held up by a small but vocal group of opponents who are continuously moving the goal posts.
"It's just a pusillanimous City Council members and commissions who are allowing this to proceed as if this is good government and it's not," Deborah Goldeen said. "It's ridiculous."
Other saw it differently and emphasized the project's impact on everything from groundwater pumping to carbon emissions. Even in its revised form, an underground garage has no business being in a residential neighborhood, critics of the project maintained. Rob Levitsky, who lives near Castilleja, sees the situation differently. He and other members of the group Preserve Neighborhood Quality of Life Now (PNQLNow) argued that it is the school and planning staff who are responsible for the process taking so long. While Castilleja has maintained that it added the garage to its plans at the behest of neighbors who wanted cars off the street, Levitsky and other members of the neighborhood group suggested on Wednesday that the facility remains incompatible with the surrounding community.
"We don't need a CO2-belching industrial concrete garage in our neighborhood," Levinsky told the commission. "If Castilleja really wants 500 to 600 students, it's time to move or open another campus like so many others do."
With public testimony stretching until nearly midnight, the planning commission deferred its own discussion of Castilleja's plans until Dec. 15. One commissioner, Michael Alcheck, suggested at the onset of the meeting that the city's concerns about the proposed garage may be overblown.
"Does it seem to you that this is going to bite us in the rear when we look at this project in the future and ask, 'Why did we make a big deal out of this minor difference in underground parking?'" Alcheck asked his colleagues.
The revised proposal includes five garage designs, though only three of them meet the council's March direction of the underground facility to include no more than 50% of the required on-site parking, which amounts to 52 spaces. Staff's preferred design combines these underground spaces with 11 new at-grade spaces and 26 existing ones for a total of 89 spaces. Because of its aggressive transportation-demand-management program, which includes shuttles, carpool programs and a requirement that staff drive no more than twice per week, Castilleja would also receive a 14% reduction in parking requirement from the city
The planning commission, which had already reviewed and approved an earlier version of this plan, is expected to dive into the details of the current one at its upcoming meeting. Elizabeth Hughes, a consultant who developed the transportation-demand-management plan for Castilleja, assured the commission and the public that the programs in the plan will keep traffic levels steady.
"We are looking at a successful program that has every advantage to perform and every element was reviewed: bicycle, walking, transit, carpool, the outreach, the monitoring and the penalty aspects," Hughes said. "So this plan is quite appropriate for the sustainability and mobility — not just for the school but for the city."
The project encountered a similar division at the Architectural Review Board hearing on Dec. 2, which focused less on transportation and more on the design of the building. Here, however, the split occurred between the five board members, who were charged with further refining the building's façade. Two board members, Chair Osma Thompson and Grace Lee said that the previously approved project remains perfectly acceptable. The three other members requested changes but had no consensus about what needs to be changed.
Board member David Hirsch urged significant revisions to the layout of the project, including setting the building's further back and creating a drop-off and pick-up area for students on Kellogg Street.
"There are elements of the building that could be cut back and there's the space between that no longer needs access to the cellar," Hirsch said. "That can be reduced so the building would be pushed back."
The other two members, Peter Baltay and Alex Lew, found themselves between the two camps, with Baltay suggesting that Castilleja should modify the buildings' cornice line and the middle portion of the building, as well add more variability to its window locations.
With its split verdict, the board gave Castilleja a somewhat confusing message, which was made more so when Lew declined to articulate what exactly he wants the school to change (the middle of the building, he said, is a "little bit muddled"). And because Lew's term is about to conclude and he is not seeking another term, the ultimate decision about whether the new design passes muster could hinge on a board member who has not yet been appointed and who may have other ideas about the building's design.
Lee and Thompson, however, felt that the building is fine the way it is, having already gone through years of refinements and public hearings.
"I feel strongly that no modifications or adjustments are needed," Lee said.
Thompson also suggested that the building, in its current iteration, "has a design intent."
"It's doing something that is really powerful and I want to emphasize that," Thompson said. "There's a lot of breaks happening in its façade, there's a lot of void. It's not one blank wall."
Baltay suggested that by failing to reach a consensus, the board is "doing the applicant a disservice by not providing the applicant with a solution."
"We have not compromised internally enough to give them a fair description of what they need to do," Baltay said.
Both the architectural board and the planning commission plan to hold further meetings on the proposal before it goes back to the council next year for another hearing. Nanci Kauffman, Castilleja's head of school, assured both panels in recent meetings that the school has already made many compromises with neighbors and urged them to approve the project and allow the school to increase enrollment.
"Our plan now checks all the boxes," Kauffman told the planning commission Wednesday night. "We take cars off the street, we save additional trees, we reduce our footprint, we exceed Palo Alto's sustainability goals and we educate more girls."
But Mary Sylvester, co-founder of PNQLNow, argued at the architectural board meeting that the revised design — particularly, the garage — continues to clash with the surrounding context.
"Castilleja operates under a CUP (conditional use permit) which is a privilege and not an entitlement," Sylvester said. "They must take into account the impact they make in the health, welfare and quiet enjoyment of their neighbors."