The Palo Alto City Council moved Monday to curtail Castilleja School's contentious plan to rebuild its campus and increase student enrollment, with most members indicating that they want to see less growth and more measures to protect surrounding neighborhoods from traffic and noise impacts.
In a setback for the school, five council members voted against a proposal that has been going through the city's review process for the past six years and that has already been subject to 21 public hearings. Only council members Greg Tanaka and Alison Cormack supported advancing the redevelopment plan, which includes demolishing and replacing the academic buildings at the school's Bryant Street campus, constructing an underground garage and gradually increasing student enrollment from the current level of 422 to 540.
The majority of the council sided with project's opponents who had argued that the plan does not do enough to prevent traffic and noise impacts to the surrounding neighborhood. The five members who voted against the project — Mayor Pat Burt, Vice Mayor Lydia Kou and council members Tom DuBois, Eric Filseth and Greer Stone — all suggested that the plans need further revisions though they could not come up with an alternative proposal. Instead, the council voted 6-1, with Cormack dissenting, to resume the discussion on June 6.
While the council failed on Monday to reach a resolution, the six-hour hearing offered members their first chance in more than a year to stake out a position on the long-debated and hotly disputed project. For Castilleja, the results were decidedly mixed. Council members offered little opposition to Castilleja's plans to rebuild its campus and indicated that they will likely approve the major construction project in two weeks. The majority also indicated, however, that any ramp up in student enrollment would have to be far more modest and gradual than the school had hoped.
Residents representing all sides of the debate packed into the Council Chambers on Monday to make their final case for or against the project. Opponents of the Castilleja plan have consistently characterized it as a zone-busting overreach that would worsen traffic, increase noise and diminish the quality of life of residents in a single-family neighborhood near the school.
Many alluded to the school's failure to comply with the enrollment cap of 415 in the current conditional use permit, a violation that resulted in the city issuing a $285,000 fine in 2013 and demanding that Castilleja reduce its enrollment by about four students per year. The school, they noted, remains above the 415-student threshold set out in the existing permit.
Resident Carolyn Schmarzo argued that the school's modernization offers "zero benefit to residents of Palo Alto." Rita Vrhel, who opposes Castilleja's plan, pointed to inaccuracies in the school's square footage calculations -- numbers that were revised over the course of the approval process.
"Let Castilleja modernize their private campus by adhering to our existing code and plans without special concessions," Vrhel said. "This has never been about Castilleja's right to educate girls or to modernize their campus."
Supporters of the project came out in full force to Monday's hearing. Dozens sported light blue T-shirts with the words "We Support Castilleja" on the front and the Kofi Annan quote, "When women thrive, all of society benefits" on the back. Others had T-shirts with the words "More opportunity. Less Traffic. Why Not?" — an allusion to the school's ambitious transportation-demand-management plan that includes a "no net new trips requirement." Many argued that Castilleja's plan would benefit both the school and the neighborhood while also advancing the school's mission of supporting the education of young women.
Palo Alto resident Julia Ishiyama, who attended Castilleja, credited the education she and her peers received there for creating the foundation for the work they've been doing in fields ranging from public policy and medicine to education.
"My Castilleja education made me an engaged citizen; it's the reason I'm here this evening," Ishiyama said.
Sulev Suvari, who supports the Castilleja modernization, complained about the "small and vocal group" that has consistently opposed the project despite the various compromises made by Castilleja. Deborah Goldeen accused the council members and residents who have been opposing Castilleja's plan of obstructionism.
"Everything that has diminished quality of life in the city has been from obstructionist decisions by the council," Goldeen said. "Frankly, the way it's treating Castilleja is no different."
Mayor Pat Burt pushed back against this characterization and the suggestion from project supporters that opposing Castilleja's plan amounts to a failure to support women's education. The real issue, he argued, is the intensity of development in a single-family (R1) zone.
"This is a proposal for an exceptionally dense school population in an R1 neighborhood," Burt said.
Burt also argued that the school's transportation-demand-management program should extend well beyond the Castilleja campus and consider trips to the city in general. Students, he said, should be prohibited from driving to Palo Alto and parking their cars in surrounding neighborhoods before walking to the school. And parents, he argued, should be banned from dropping off their children outside designated satellite locations.
The goal of the transportation-demand management program should be to reduce trips to Palo Alto — not just to the Castilleja campus, he argued.
Most of his colleagues on the council's slow-growth "residentialist" wing took a similarly skeptical stance toward Castilleja. Council member Greer Stone said he would support reducing the number of "special events" (those with 50 or more attendees) that Castilleja would be allowed to have from 70 per year to 50, along with five "major events" with more than 500 participants. Stone, a teacher, suggested that this could be done without sacrificing any student events such as plays, sporting events or science fairs. Rather, the school would only have to relocate all-adult events such as fundraisers off-campus.
Castilleja, which historically hosted more than 90 special events per year, has been hoping for the city's permission to hold at least 70 under its new conditional use permits. After the Planning and Transportation Commission voted on April 20 to reduce the number to 55 (which includes the five "major events"), Castilleja attorney Mindie Romanowsky suggested in a letter that approving "anything lower than 70 would materially frustrate the educational and extracurricular experience, without any rational or legal justification."
The council majority also signaled that it's unlikely to approve Castilleja's request to gradually ramp up enrollment to 540, provided it meets the "no net new trips" requirement. Stone and Filseth both said they would support allowing Castilleja to get up to 450, consistent with the planning commission's April 20 recommendation. Additional increases could be approved in the future, once Castilleja proves that its transportation programs work, the council members reasoned.
Supporters of the project have maintained that it is unreasonable to require the school to return for new conditional use permits, particularly given the amount of time the current process has taken. Stone acknowledged the concerns from many residents regarding "not wanting to go through this hell again." But both he and DuBois said that future reviews could be much shorter because they won't involve campus reconstruction.
"A lot of comments have been made about how long this review has been," DuBois said. "When you put it in context, the school is asking for a lot. If this had been an application that met code, the process would have been very short."
Tanaka and Cormack were more sympathetic to Castilleja's proposal and recommended approving the school's plan to ramp up enrollment to 540 and to have 70 "special events" and five "major events" per year, consistent with what the Planning and Transportation Commission approved in 2020 (the commission changed its recommendation and went with a lower number on April 20 after the council ordered a fresh review of the project).
"I think the project before us is responsive to the concerns we've heard about trees, design, public art and a lot of other things that we haven't talked about yet," Cormack said.
Tanaka also said that it's time for the council to reach a verdict, which is something it wasn't able to do when it considered the proposal in March 2021. At that time, it recommended a new round of reviews and signaled general support for allowing Castilleja to build an underground garage, provided that it doesn't contain more than 50% of the school's required parking spaces.
"At some point we have to say, pencils down and move forward," Tanaka said.
But the rest of his colleagues made it clear that Castilleja will have to make further compromises before it could win approval. Kou suggested that the council come up with a "maximum buildout" for Castilleja to prevent further expansions. She and DuBois also both alluded to Castilleja's violation of the enrollment cap in 2013 and argued that any growth plan should include enforcement mechanisms.
"At this time, we do need to move forward and come to a solution and resolve this matter and let the healing process with this community start," Kou said.
The council will attempt to craft a solution on June 6, at which point it will likely add further conditions to discourage driving and parking in nearby neighborhoods. Nanci Kauffman, head of school at Castilleja, said after the hearing that she is very grateful to all the supporters who came out to speak in favor of the school's proposal and to the council for its hard work on reviewing the application. The project, she said, is "in the right place."
"I'll always stand by having as many students as possible at the school," Kauffman said. "Let's hear what else they want to include."