As the Palo Alto City Council prepares to rule on Castilleja School's contentious proposal to rebuild its campus and increase student enrollment, both sides in the debate are raising fresh concerns about the prolonged approval process.
The attorney for Castilleja issued a letter on Friday arguing that the recent recommendation from the city's Planning and Transportation Commission to scale down the school's proposal is "arbitrary" and would leave the city exposed to litigation. Meanwhile, neighboring residents who have steadfastly opposed the school's expansion plan came out swinging against a suggestion from city staff that the council move ahead with the original plan, which has been more than five years in the making and which calls for gradually increasing enrollment from 422 students in the current year to 540.
Both sides will have a chance to make their case on May 23, as the council holds its first review of the city's most disputed development project since it considered it in March 2021. At that time, the council remanded the project back to the Architectural Review Board and Planning and Transportation Commission, the two advisory bodies that had already approved the project, for a fresh round of reviews. Council members also agreed to scale back the school's proposed underground garage and specified that the structure should contain no more than 50% of the required parking spaces.
The proposal that the council will review on Monday includes several modifications from the one they considered last year, including changes to the building façade along Kellogg Avenue (this includes a new trellis and planter extension) and a new requirement for an oversight committee that will consist of both neighborhood and Castilleja representative and that will monitor the school's traffic impacts. Much like in the prior version, the project will be governed by a "no net new trips policy" that prohibits Castilleja from increasing its average daily trips from the current level of 1,198.
The restriction will require the school to beef up its transportation-demand-management program that includes shuttles, car-sharing services and policies restricting staff from solo driving. A failure to meet this policy in consecutive monitoring periods would require Castilleja to add further transportation measures. If those fail, the school would be forced to cut down its enrollment.
Castilleja officials have consistently characterized the school's ambitious traffic-management plan, as well as numerous design revisions such as the reduction of its proposed garage, as concessions to neighbors. Nanci Kauffman, head of school at Castilleja, said in a statement Friday that the school has "made steady progress with our neighbors and with the city."
"This complicated process continues to stay on track, and we believe our CUP application is ready for approval," she said.
But as recent hearings on the project demonstrate, the Castilleja plan remains as divisive as ever. Dozens of residents, including many who live close to the school, support the project and have urged the commission and the council to approve it after years of debate. Some have submitted letters in the lead-up to the May 23 meeting urging the council to give Castilleja a vote of support.
Charles Stevens, a resident of Edgewood Drive, said he was "frustrated and disappointed that a small number of vocal opponents have so effectively slowed this process." He argued that facts support Castilleja, which would not be able to get to 540 students unless it can prove that it's traffic-reduction strategies work.
"The school will need to earn that number by meeting the strictest traffic monitoring in the Bay Area. The school is agreeing to a level of scrutiny that will absolutely assure that no new trips are added as students gradually join the community," Stevens wrote.
Many others, however, continue to call the school's plan a massive overreach that flouts local zoning laws in the single-family residential neighborhood. The planning commission sided with the latter on April 20, when members voted to limit the school's increase to 450 students and to ban Castilleja from applying for further enrollment hikes until it completes the reconstruction of its campus at 1310 Bryant St.
The commission also voted to limit the number of events that the school is allowed to have to 55 per year, which includes five major events (those with over 500 people in attendance) and 50 "special events" with 50 or more attendees. That's a substantial reduction from its prior approval in 2020, when the commission had recommended allowing 74 events.
In his May 13 letter, Castilleja's attorney David Lanferman suggested that if the council follows these recommendations, it would put the city in legal jeopardy. The three commissioners who supported lowering the enrollment cap and the number of special events talked about neighbors' "lack of trust" toward Castilleja in explaining their decision. Lanferman argued that the recommendation is "arbitrary and unsupported by substantial evidence in the record, as required."
"Lack of trust is not a valid basis on which to make a land-use decision," Lanferman wrote.
He cited the nearly six years of reviews and argued that "no further substantial refinements to the project are needed nor would any such refinements be legally justified or supported."
Lanferman also pushed back against the arguments by three commissioners — Chair Ed Lauing, Vice Chair Doria Summa and Commissioner Bryna Chang — that the school needs to demonstrate a track record of keeping trips low before it applies for further enrollment increases.
"Such statements of subjective personal opinion and hearsay do not constitute facts, reasonable assumptions predicated on facts, or expert opinions supported by facts," Lanferman wrote. "Moreover, those assertions are belied by the actual evidence in the record, including the School's nine year 'track record' of successfully reducing peak hour trips and maintaining those reductions."
"It is noteworthy, and highly objectionable, that none of the Commissioners who voted to cap enrollment at 450 students provided valid reasons or evidence explaining why the procedure recommended by the Staff, implementing the Council's motion, was lacking," he added, referring to the council's directive in 2021 that the commission establish a procedure for allowing the school to achieve an enrollment increase beyond 450 students.
The proposal by the three commissioners would require Castilleja to file an application for a new conditional use permit if it wanted more students in the future, a process that school officials say is overly burdensome. In a new report, staff from the Department of Planning and Development Services suggest that such a procedure is not consistent with the council's direction from March 2021. As such, staff have not incorporated the planning commission's recommendation for a 450-student cap into its drafted record of land-use action.
During public comment at the council's May 16 meeting, several opponents of the Castilleja project strongly objected to this decision and accused staff of ignoring the commission's input. Rob Levitsky, who lives near Castilleja, called the planning commission's suggestions "perfectly reasonable" and told the council that planning staff appear to be "actively lobbying" against its recommendations.
"These boards and commissions should not be ignored and just railroaded by the planning department," Levitsky said.
Mary Sylvester, who also lives close to the school and who is affiliated with the neighborhood group Preserve Neighborhood Quality of Life Now (PNQL Now), also accused staff of bias and claimed that residents have been forced to fight a "two-front battle" against staff and Castilleja over the last six years.
"The very least citizens deserve is transparency, respect, fairness and a timeliness of response, not obfuscations and distortions by city staff," Sylvester said.
After hearing from the public, council member Tom DuBois objected to the personal attacks leveled by some speakers against city staff. While the public has a right to speak, DuBois said, he has the right to listen or not.
"When you make a personal attack, I tune you out and you lose the opportunity to potentially influence somebody who would support your position," DuBois said.
While Lanferman blasted the planning commission's recommendation, Andie Reed, a member of the PNQL Now, told this news organization in a May 16 interview that her group believes the planning commission came up with a good compromise. The school will have no problem getting approval for more students, beyond the 450 cap, if it could prove its ability to keep traffic levels from increasing.
"It's a methodical approach to having the school get their 8% increase and settle in for a couple of years and show that they can in fact have no net new trips," Reed said in an interview. "Then, if in fact that's the case — and they are adamant they can do that and swear they can do that — then we'd say, 'Yes. That's awesome.'"
In addition to considering appropriate enrollment levels for Castilleja, the council will navigate the various zoning dilemmas that are associated with the project and that it struggled to resolve last year. These include the question of whether the city should approve a variance that would allow the school to construct new buildings and whether its underground garage should be counted as square footage. While the council indicated last year that it would support a new zoning rule that would count underground garages as square footage, it did not establish the exact parameters of the new rule.
The law drafted by staff would apply only to parcels greater than 6 acres that contain a historic resource and that are developed with nonresidential uses. The only projects that would qualify under this criteria are Our Lady of the Rosary Church at 3233 Cowper St., located near Loma Verde Avenue, and Castilleja.
Lanferman maintained in his letter that creating new regulations on underground parking in residential neighborhoods is inappropriate. A text amendment of this sort would be illegal, he wrote, because the city had already approved an underground garage for a recent renovation project at Congregation Kol Emeth, where the garage was not counted as square footage. Denying the project or subjecting Castilleja "to different or more burdensome requirements than imposed on similarly situated property owners would deprive Castilleja of constitutionally protected rights to equal protection under the law.'
"Such apparently discriminatory and unconstitutional treatment would unnecessarily expose the City to the risk of litigation, and a potential award of damages and attorneys' fees," Lanferman wrote.