After more than five years of revisions and public hearings over its contentious plan to redevelop its campus, Castilleja School sent a signal last week that its patience is wearing thin and asked the city in a letter to provide it with "clear direction" and "minimal further requests."
But any hopes that the school may have held about the project getting expedited evaporated Wednesday night, when the Planning and Transportation Commission began to revisit many of the questions that it had seemingly answered two years ago and relaunched old debates about enrollment increases and the number of events that the school should be allowed to have.
Responding to the City Council's directions from last March, the planning commission spent five hours debating the proposal Wednesday and took a long series of informal votes, with the idea of voting on the project at a future meeting after receiving more information. This was the commission's third hearing in a little over a month on Castilleja's redevelopment plan, which includes rebuilding its academic facilities, constructing an underground garage, relocating its swimming pool and gradually increasing student enrollment from the current level of 422 to 540.
For most members, the hearing had a déjà vu quality. Both the planning commission and the Architectural Review Board had already recommended approving the project in late 2020. The council, however, supported further revisions and remanded the project back to these panels to explore adjustments such as a smaller garage, a fresh look at school events and new measures to contain traffic impacts from the student expansion.
While the Wednesday hearing didn't bring the project much closer to a decision, it made it abundantly clear that the commission — much like the community — remains very much split on the project. Three of the seven commissioners indicated that they would oppose allowing Castilleja to gradually enroll up to 540 students under the new conditional use permit. Instead, they lobbied for a more modest alternative: allowing 450 students and then keeping that enrollment steady for a few years to evaluate traffic impacts. Once the school proves that it can manage any traffic problems that result from the expansion, it could request further enrollment.
The commission's newly elected Chair Ed Lauing and Vice Chair Doria Summa both supported this approach, as did Commissioner Bryna Chang. On the other side were commissioners Bart Hechtman, Giselle Roohparvar and Cari Templeton, who maintained that it would be unreasonably onerous to require Castilleja to return for a fresh conditional use permit every time they want to add students. (The seventh commissioner recused himself from the deliberation on the advice of the City Attorney's Office.)
Hechtman noted that the conditions that the commission had previously approved already address traffic impacts. To ramp up enrollment, Castilleja would be required to adopt an array of transportation-demand-management tools such as shuttles, bike improvements and carpool programs that would allow it to meet a stringent "no net new trips" standard. The school would be required to measure its trips and submit reports three times a year. If it exceeds the baseline standards of 440 trips in the peak morning hours and the average daily trip total of 1,294, it would be required to adopt additional measures to curb traffic. If three consecutive reports show that it is exceeding these standards, the city would be able to require that the school cut its enrollment.
Given that these conditions are already embedded in the project, Hechtman and Templeton both suggested that requiring Castilleja to go through a new approval process even after it demonstrates that it can grow without exacerbating traffic conditions is an unnecessary exercise.
Hechtman noted that the process is now in year six and that the debate remains as heated as ever. All parties, he suggested, want "finality," he said.
"This process has bitterly divided next-door neighbors," Hechtman said. "To think that we will complete this process and then a year and a half from when they increase to 450, when they demonstrate through their traffic studies that there's been no net increase, to think that we would start this process again? … To think that would be quick or painless is not realistic."
Others had a different viewpoint. Chang, Summa and Lauing all supported taking a more measured approach. All three indicated that they would not support approving Castilleja's proposed path to 540 students, a position that dealt a blow to the school's expansion plan.
"I understand that 540 is a business goal of the school, but there's really no justification or urgency to do that on behalf of the city right now. … 450 is pretty sizeable and I think we should wait and get some proof points on 450 and revisit it," Lauing said.
Summa also she said would oppose a plan that would allow the school to automatically get to 540 students.
"There's been, unfortunately, so much of a loss of faith between the community and the school regarding enrollment, and I think that's just a better way to do it," Summa said.
The Wednesday hearing occurred a week after Castilleja submitted a letter claiming that the city is acting illegally and discriminating against the school by requiring it to apply for a zoning text amendment to add an underground garage. In the letter, Castilleja's attorney David Lanferman urged the planning commission to "provide clear direction with minimal further requests of Staff and Castilleja so that Project review can proceed in accordance with the PTC's prior positive recommendation for approval."
The argument appeared to have little effect on the six commissioners who participated in the review. In another setback for the school, the commission's leading advocate for approving the proposal, Michael Alcheck, concluded his 10-year term last month. In the last hearing on the project, Alcheck had criticized the city for "moving the goal posts" on the school and imposing too many demands. Meanwhile, his replacement, Keith Reckdahl, was discouraged by the City Attorney's Office from participating in the review of the Castilleja project because of his participation in Palo Alto Neighborhoods, an umbrella coalition of neighborhoods that last year submitted a letter criticizing the Castilleja plan, which it argued severely conflicts with the municipal code.
To avoid any appearance of conflict, Reckdahl announced at the beginning of the discussion that he will recuse.
"I find that frustrating, that I'm unable to do my job as a commissioner, but I do acknowledge that this will allow the commission to reach a conclusion that is unquestionably fair and impartial, and that's very important," Reckdahl said.
His absence was felt immediately, with the commission deadlocking in a series of 3-3 votes, first over the enrollment figures and then over what kind of information it should request from staff so that it could make a final decision. Hechtman had requested that staff return with a more detailed calendar showing the semesters when Castilleja would be expected to reach the higher enrollment numbers. His proposal fell by the same 3-3 vote, with Roohparvar and Templeton joining him.
On other outstanding issues, commissioners found themselves in general alignment. They all supported obtaining more information about Castilleja's annual events, which Chang suggested should be curtailed. They also all agreed that the new transportation-demand management program should be overseen by a stakeholder committee that includes both the school and neighborhood residents. And everyone agreed that the city should develop a speedier process for imposing penalties and taking corrective action if the school is not successful in keeping traffic levels at the current levels.
The commission also supported the idea of lowering the parking requirement for the school to account for its suite of traffic-reduction programs. This, they noted, would potentially cut the size of the school's proposed underground garage, an element of the project that has polarized both the neighborhood and the commission.
"I am in favor of reducing required parking so that we can maintain the applicant's enrollment goals without having to build unnecessary parking structures," said Templeton, who at prior hearings had opposed the garage idea.
When it came to the five garage designs submitted by Castilleja, the commission did not take a strong stance but did lean in one direction. The two most likely options, known as Option D and Option E, call for underground facilities with 69 and 52 cars, respectively. Of the two, however, only Option E is consistent with the council's direction from last year that the new garage contain no more than 50% of the school's required parking. While Hechtman suggested more analysis of the pros and cons of the two options, the majority of the commission agreed that Option E would be their preferred approach of the two.
"I wish we had a no-garage option, but it's clear the council didn't intend that," Summa said.
As in the past, the commission received dozens of letters prior to the hearing that further underscored the lack of consensus among residents about Castilleja's proposal. Kimberly Wong, who owns a house near the school, argued in a letter that if Castilleja wants to grow, it should build a new campus outside Palo Alto to serve the many students who don't live in the city.
"But instead, Castilleja chose to stubbornly and myopically insist on having an underground garage as the guiding light to achieve their expansion ambition," Wong wrote. "The reason the community has been firmly against their proposal is because even after multiple redesigns, Castilleja has still yet to provide a single viable no-garage option that will be good for the environment and good for the neighborhood."
Cindy Chen, who also lives near the school, took the opposite view and implored the commission to advance the project. The school, she said, "has been making compromises for years."
"And while that process marches on, every year there are girls who could have access to the education they are hoping for but don't," Chen wrote. "The time matters. It may feel like it doesn't but it really matters to real kids."