Castilleja School eked out a victory Thursday afternoon for its contentious proposal to redevelop its Bryant Street campus when Palo Alto's Architectural Review Board voted for the second time to support the project.
The board voted 3-0, with two members abstaining, to advance the project after the City Council voted last year to remand it back for further review. Both the architecture board and the city's Planning and Transportation Commission had previously approved the project in 2020 but each panel launched a fresh series of meetings after the council raised concerns in March 2021 about the school's proposed underground garage, the massing of its buildings and other details.
The board's Thursday review focused on the garage and façade changes that Castilleja was asked to make to its main academic buildings, particularly on the Kellogg Street side of the school's campus at 1310 Bryant St.
The board's unanimous vote belied deep divisions among members over the latest design changes, which now included smaller windows and pitched roofs. Further complicating the matter was the fact that two of the five board members were discouraged by staff from voting because they were only appointed this week and did not have a chance to review the recording of the board's prior public hearing on the project, which took place in December.
Despite abstaining from the final vote, the two board members, Kendra Rosenberg and Yingxi Chen, signaled that they support the compromise the three voting members, Chair Osma Thompson, Vice Chair David Hirsch and Peter Baltay, hashed out after hours of debate.
Hirsch strongly criticized Castilleja's latest design. He deemed the school's revised façade for the academic buildings inferior to the one that the board reviewed on Dec. 2, which he called "very nice."
"It certainly isn't better the way it's shown now," Hirsch said, "I cannot vote for the building elevation the way it is shown."
Thompson and Baltay were both more supportive of the latest changes, though they agreed to compromise with Hirsch to advance the project, which has been moving through the city's approval process for more than five years and has already gone through various iterations. Baltay said he was impressed with the school's latest proposal.
"I can recommend strongly to the council that the elevation that we're looking at now is suitable, appropriate, compatible with context and also a beautiful work of architecture," Baltay said.
Ultimately, the three board members supported a compromise that reverts one section of the building along Kellogg Avenue to the prior design while approving some changes in massing to the middle portion of the façade to retain a trellis and allow some additional height. Chen supported the approach, noting that the prior design accommodated larger windows.
"In general, a larger window size for classrooms is always better," Chen said.
The board was more unified when it came to the proposed garage, a topic that has proven particularly contentious in the neighborhood. Critics of Castilleja's redevelopment plan argued on Thursday, much as they had in the past, that the underground structure is unnecessary and inappropriate in a residential neighborhood. School officials and supporters of the project countered that the garage would obviate the need for surface parking and allow for a better design.
The council had debated the issue extensively in March 2021 and agreed to allow an underground garage of a limited size, one that would accommodate no more than 50% of the school's parking requirement, or about 52 spaces. The board, however, expressed a preference for a larger underground structure (what is known as Option D in the school's plans) which would include 69 underground spaces. Board members also voted to support a garage design that shifts Castilleja's proposed swimming pool and removes the underground trash and delivery space in the prior proposal, allowing the school to preserve an oak tree that was previously slated for removal (elements of what is known in the plans as Option E).
The board heard Thursday from both the supporters and critics of the Castilleja plan, which calls for gradually expanding student enrollment from 422 to 540 students. Andie Reed, member of the group Preserve Neighborhood Quality of Life Now, argued that the school's plan remains excessive.
"They could be developing within their circle and not impact their neighbors but they're choosing not to," she said.
Other residents urged the board to move the project forward. Priya Chandrasekar cited the length of the approval process and urged the board to approve the latest plan, which she called a "huge win for the neighborhood."
"I think it's time we approve the project so that the school can start building," she said.