Castilleja School suffered a heavy blow to its ambitious proposal to expand student population and reconstruct its campus on Wednesday night after a divided Planning and Transportation Commission voted to significantly scale back the school's growth plans and impose new restrictions on special events.
By a 3-2 vote, the commission rebuffed Castilleja's proposal to gradually increase enrollment from the current level of 418 students to 540 over the next six years, an increase that would have hinged on the school's ability to not add any new car trips. Instead, in an unexpected move, Chair Ed Lauing, Vice Chair Doria Summa and Commissioner Bryna Chang voted to limit the number of students to 450.
Two commissioners, Bart Hechtman and Cari Templeton, supported Castilleja's proposal and argued that the tighter cap is not supported by any evidence. But with Giselle Roohparvar absent and Keith Reckdahl recused from the discussion, the three-member majority voted to scale back the school's plans. All three suggested that capping the increase at 450 and forcing Castilleja to return for fresh approvals when it wants further enrollment increases would allow for a period of "healing" to repair the distrust that has arisen between Castilleja and the dozens of neighbors who have been opposing its plans.
The planning commission's votes were recommendations and it will ultimately be up to the City Council to decide whether to follow its guidance. The council is scheduled to consider the project on May 23.
The Wednesday discussion came three weeks after a heated hearing in which dozens of residents offered their thoughts on the contentious project, which involves reconstructing academic buildings, relocating the school's swimming pool and building an underground garage. Supporters of Castilleja's proposal argued at the March 30 meeting that the project will not only greatly benefit the school, the neighborhood and the city, but also further Castilleja's laudable mission of educating young women. Roger McCarthy, who lives near the school, said the review process, which has been progressing since 2016, has reached a point where a "horrendous NIMBY delay has become unjust to the future of young women."
Opponents said that the plan is too ambitious and incompatible with the single-family neighborhoods that surround Castilleja. Mary Sylvester, member of the neighborhood group Preserve Neighborhood Quality of Life, was among the speakers who favored capping future enrollment at 450 students. Sylvester, who lives near the school, said limiting the student population would "demonstrate to the public that (Castilleja) can follow the law and that they're not going to follow a smoke-and-mirrors campaign as they have in the past."
Chang, who on Wednesday led the charge against Castilleja's proposal, sided squarely with the project's critics as she made the motion to limit enrollment to 450 and to prohibit the school for requesting further increases until after it completes the reconstruction of its campus at 1310 Bryant St. Castilleja, which previously violated its enrollment limit and currently has 418 students, had proposed gradually increasing enrollment to 540 students by 2028.
"It's the only high school on such a small site with neighbors on all sides," Chang said. "Because of this uniqueness, we really need to make sure the neighborhood concerns are addressed. And trust has been severely eroded over the last 10 years and it's time to make an agreement that will let our community heal."
Lauing agreed and suggested that limiting the student increase to 450 students will allow Castilleja to establish a track record before it can request permission for additional growth. He alluded to the city's discovery in 2013 that Castilleja exceeded the allowed enrollment in its conditional use permit (CUP). The violation prompted the city to issue a $285,000 fine and to require a reduction of student enrollment. It has also become a rallying point for project opponents over the course of the city's review process.
"At this late date and in this laborious process, the trust gap remains," Lauing said. "And in this environment, I don't believe the city should proactively preapprove a plan for a 30% student increase."
While Summa also argued that 450 is a number that both the commission and the concerned neighbors can be comfortable with, Hechtman and Templeton rejected the notion that scaling back Castilleja's enrollment would facilitate healing. Rather, requiring the school to go through another approval process any time it wants to add students would only serve to repeatedly resuscitate the debate, they argued. Hechtman also suggested that the move to lower enrollment to 450 students is not justified by any evidence. Nothing in the environmental analysis for the project indicates that the impacts from 540 students would be more severe than from 450, he said.
"The issue is: What impacts are generated by the people of the campus? And here, if it can't be traffic, it can't be noise, it's not the construction, it's not the parking, I don't see any basis for limiting them to 450," Hechtman said.
Templeton also took issue with the position of her three colleagues that requiring Castilleja to return for further approvals would strengthen the school's relationship with the neighbors.
"The CUP process is extremely cumbersome and costly for the city and does not promote healing but would carry this out for a long period of time," Templeton said.
Division over special events
In another blow to the school, the commission recommended reducing the number of school events that Castilleja is allowed to hold. The conditional use permit that was proposed by staff and that was previously approved by the commission called for allowing 70 "special events" with 50 or more people annually, as well as five major events with more than 100 participants. That would have been a reduction from the school's historic level of about 90 special events annually.
The council, in its review last year, asked the commission to reevaluate the event count and to consider a range between 50 and 70 special events. Chang proposed going to the low end of the scale: 50. Once again, Lauing and Summa joined her while Hechtman and Templeton dissented.
Chang argued that special events bring too much noise to the neighborhood, particularly when they're held in the evenings. Templeton countered the lower number is arbitrary and argued that reducing events would "take away two-sevenths of opportunities for social interaction" for students. The list of events includes athletic competition, school dances, student performances, science exhibitions and alumni events.
"If we learned nothing else in the COVID year of students having limited ability to interact in person in social situations together for dances, athletic competitions and things like that … My number one takeaway is how hard that was on the students that I'm the parent of. And I heard that from many other parents."
Mindie Romanowsky, an attorney for Castilleja, said that the school had initially requested 90 events but had agreed to lower its request to 70, even though the reduction would constrain its programming. The existing conditional use permit that governs the school's operations allows for "several" such events but does not include a specific number.
"We're asking to have this new CUP so that there can be clarity," Romanowsky said.
Tricky questions on underground garages
The Wednesday hearing was part of Castilleja's second lap on the city's bureaucratic merry-go-round. Both the planning commission and the Architectural Review Board had already approved the school's proposal in 2020 after a long series of public hearings and numerous revisions to the plans. The two bodies found themselves evaluating the school's proposal once again this year after the council considered the application in March 2021 and then kicked it back for further revisions and reviews.
The council did, however, reach a tentative compromise last year over the most polarizing element of Castilleja's plan: the school's proposed underground garage. After a lengthy debate over whether underground parking is legally allowed for nonresidential uses in single-family residential (R-1) zones, council members concluded that they would let Castilleja proceed with its underground parking plan without counting it toward gross floor area. But in a concession to neighbors, council members stipulated that the school's garage should contain no more than 50% of the school's required parking, or 52 out of 104 total spots.
On Wednesday, the planning commission struggled to come up with a policy that would implement this direction and bring some clarity to the fuzzy questions of: Should underground garages be allowed? And if they are, should they be counted in gross floor area calculations?
Staff had proposed a zone change that would apply the Castilleja standard to other projects, making garages legal as long as they contain no more than 50% of the spaces. Hechtman countered that such a proposal fails to consider differences between properties and advocated for a more generic ordinance that would allow the city to designate the percentage of underground spots on a case-by-case basis. In some instances, it may be perfectly suitable for a project to put all of its parking underground, as was the case at Congregation Kol Emeth, a synagogue that recently constructed an underground garage without a peep of public opposition. On smaller properties, even 50% may be too much, Hechtman said.
But with only Templeton joining him, Hechtman's proposal fizzled. Summa and Lauing both analogized the case-by-case approval of underground structures to "spot zoning." Summa also argued that building underground garages often requires pumping out groundwater, which harms the environment.
"I think the council has made it very clear what they want to do for this applicant and this location but I think it's going in the wrong direction to encourage more folks to do this, for environmental reasons," Summa said.
With no alternate proposals on the table, the commission punted the issue back to the council. The commission did, however, reach a consensus in one area. After extensive debate, the commission unanimously supported a garage design known as "Option E," which calls for 52 spaces underground. Hechtman noted that the option, while less than ideal, meets the parameters set by the council.
"I know that the council had sent us a very specific direction to give them a 50% option and Option E is the only one of the alternatives that fit that," Hechtman said.