Guest Opinion: On Castilleja, be careful of what you wish for | August 16, 2019 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - August 16, 2019

Guest Opinion: On Castilleja, be careful of what you wish for

by Leonard Ely

When I was a candidate for City Council in 2016, a Palo Alto High School friend called me about my opinion on Castilleja School's plans. I told him that during the construction his neighborhood would be negatively impacted, but when it was over things would be better. He did not vote for me.

Castilleja was founded in 1907 and has been located at its current location ever since. My father, Leonard Ely Jr., was a major supporter as well as a member of the Castilleja Board of Trustees, and my sister graduated from there in 1971. She also worked there from 2005 to 2015.

I have read that one of the major issues that neighbors have is that Castilleja has not been truthful in its past reporting of the number of enrolled students. If I were a neighbor, I would be more concerned with the disruption during construction and the added traffic that additional students would bring to the area.

So let's have a discussion about disruption and traffic, but let's start with an "elephant in the room": what would happen if Castilleja were not allowed to renovate its campus and then feels it must move out of town. What would become of the roughly 6 acres? A park? Not likely. An office complex? Absolutely not!

Well, that leaves housing. And given the current housing "crisis," you can expect a "push" from the city for medium- to high-density housing.

The current zoning is R-1, single-family residential. That means a minimum lot size of 6,000 square feet. So, with some simple mathematics, a developer could put 38 to 42 single-family homes on the site. The number of houses depends on if the city were to require a cul-de-sac off Kellogg Avenue.

Castilleja is not planning on adding even one square foot of additional space, above ground, in its reconstruction. It's going to add a very large underground garage and I would guess additional basement area under the new classroom structure. This construction will take two to three years to complete and will cause major disruption to the neighborhood.

However, the construction of 38 to 40 homes would most likely cause more disruption and for as long, if not longer. I believe that R-1 zoning has 49 percent floor area ratio. Each house could be approximately 2,400 square feet above-ground, with a basement that would take it up to approximately 3,600 square feet.

That means a total of 91,200 to 100,800 square feet of housing above ground (Castilleja's plan calls for 115,849 square feet) and 128,166 square feet in basement, which will include a new garage and a relocated swimming pool. (The basement is not part of the floor area ratio.) We all know that because of the high price of land in Palo Alto anyone building a house is going to build it up to the maximum square footage allowed.

Now let's look at the traffic impact of a housing development on the Castilleja site.

I can't imagine that any housing would actually be built facing Embarcadero Road. That means that all traffic and street parking from the houses will be confined to Emerson Street, Melville Avenue and Bryant Street. If my information is correct — that the average household makes nine trips a day — this means there will be 342 to 378 car trips on nearby streets every day.

If and when Castilleja is allowed to rebuild, most traffic will be confined to twice a day: early morning and when school gets out. The thing that one notices is that if every student who can drive (which they don't) did drive a car to school, there would be less traffic and congestion than if the land became housing.

Parking is another concern that the neighbors see as a problem. If you have been reading the papers recently, you will notice that the City Council is planning on reducing the parking requirement to "entice developers" to build more housing. Those of us that have lived here for a while know how that has worked in downtown.

One of the major causes of on-street parking today is that the families have more than one or two cars per household. Nowadays people don't park their cars in the driveway, and if there are younger drivers in the house that adds additional cars.

Back to simple mathematics, that means that in the new neighborhood there will be, at least, 72-plus additional cars in the neighborhood, 24/7. Where are they going to park? Right in front of their neighbors' houses. Cars at Castilleja, however, will be parked underground, not on neighborhood streets.

The analysis above is based on the current R-1 zoning. The neighbors can protest but if a developer follows the zoning rules the only thing that they can hope for is to slow the inevitable. So let's say that the developer sells single 6,000 square-foot lots. Then there will be construction for multiple years.

Another fact to consider is that because of the pressure on the City Council to provide housing (and some of that housing needs to be "affordable" and/or "low income") it is highly likely that the number of units, residents and cars will be greater than what I have projected, based on current zoning, above.

I am sure that many neighbors will find fault with my analysis. But one of the other things that has not changed in my approximately 60 years of observing the "Palo Alto process" is that most projects do get built, eventually. The "Palo Alto process" may slow them down and change them, but they do get built — and often the only real change is that they cost more. The downtown public safety building and parking structure immediately come to mind.

So I say, "Be careful what you wish for" — because, I believe and history has proved, the alternative may be worse.

Leonard Ely is a longtime Palo Alto resident.


22 people like this
Posted by Hulkamania
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 16, 2019 at 10:29 am

Hulkamania is a registered user.

Nice try Len but your second paragraph eliminated you from being considered a balanced commentator.

33 people like this
Posted by Neighbor
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 16, 2019 at 10:53 am

Nice try, but there is an obvious option you don't discuss. Slightly increase enrollment and do not build a garage. Don't destroy 2 single family homes (really it would be 3 because Castilleja owns a home on Emerson across from the school that would be turned into a meeting place, losing another residence.

The DEIR is very clear that the impacts from the enrollment and traffic would have impacts that cannot be mitigated. The garage entrance would be on the Bryant Bike Boulevard. How was this even considered?

[Portion removed.]

Their planned expansion would have no benefit to Palo Alto and would create irreversible impacts.

Like this comment
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 16, 2019 at 11:56 am

Mark Weiss is a registered user.

[Post removed.]

5 people like this
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 16, 2019 at 11:58 am

Mark Weiss is a registered user.

Maybe Casti can merge with Pinewood.

Since we the people still own the land of the upper campus of Pinewood —the former Fremont Hills school – I went there – maybe we could broker the deal by trading that land for the Castil land to develop housing.

[Portion removed.]

1 person likes this
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 16, 2019 at 2:20 pm

Mark Weiss is a registered user.

I support housing.

[Portion removed.]

2 people like this
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 16, 2019 at 2:21 pm

Mark Weiss is a registered user.

[Post removed.]

25 people like this
Posted by Dream on
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 16, 2019 at 5:28 pm

Single family homes there would be great!

But there is a pattern of Castilleja supporters trivializing both the school’s inability to comply with its use permit, and others’ pain.

28 people like this
Posted by Bill
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 17, 2019 at 7:34 am

Let's make sure we understand Len Ely’s “threat" to the Palo Alto community if it does not support Castilleja’s expansion plans. Len, is your “threat" that Castilleja will leave the community (and take with it the traffic associated with 540 students, ~200 administrators / teacher, ~100 Castilleja-specific events while paying zero property taxes) and will be replaced by a R-1 residential community (with traffic associated with 40 homes while paying property taxes)? [Portion removed.]

27 people like this
Posted by Seriously
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 17, 2019 at 9:47 am

So, the argument for supporters of this project now boil down to "we have to let Castilleja do whatever they want or something worse could happen"? What a dystopian nightmare Castilleja's plans have become.

And I guarantee you, that none of those single family homes you're threatening will have an underground garage facing the street that neighbors now need to look at: Web Link

15 people like this
Posted by KC
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 17, 2019 at 11:32 am

Imagine what actual good could be done if we could bottle up all the energy and time these frustrated neighbors spend repeating inaccuracies about a SCHOOL. It was interesting to notice that almost every person who spoke at the recent city meeting was well over 55 and white. Those who spoke in support represented a mix of ages and backgrounds. Neighbors-- please join the FUTURE!

36 people like this
Posted by Neighbor
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 17, 2019 at 8:47 pm

KC, imagine all that could be accomplished if Castilleja did not insist on dividing a community and pushing for special privileges for their elitist institution that serves wealthy families outside of Palo Alto?

28 people like this
Posted by Wiseman
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 18, 2019 at 10:38 am

I don't have a dog in this fight, but I do resent your implication that anything involving a group of older citizens is somehow negative, bad, backwards, a good target for derision -- Any other slurs you want to sling at them because of their age?

I for one appreciate the heavier burden that older Palo Altans take on -- from their diverse circumstances -- for the rest of us.

I couldn't afford to live in that neighborhood or send a kid to that school -- sorry, but "mix of backgrounds"= what exactly do you mean? Not older? Here again your nasty prejudices against anyone older than you comes through. Do you think older Palo Altans don't come from a mix of backgrounds? I'm willing to bet the older crowd generally come from FAR more diverse socioeconomic backgrounds that those pushing the school.

I agree with above posters that the "it will be worse if you don't let us have our way with you" attitude is really gross. Things get worse, like at Alma Plaza, because of citizens NOT sticking to their guns or because they believe the promises (like that they would get a park).

Again, I don't have a dog in this fight. Underground parking might not be a bad thing, but why couldn't it outlet onto Embarcadero with a no-turn-on-red light at the driveway (for the cars) tied to the prior light on Embarcadero, meaning, no extra traffic lights, but the cars coming from the school could not exit unless traffic was stopped at the prior light up the road anyway? Just a suggestion - I don't intend to argue for it, again, not my battle.

21 people like this
Posted by Marc
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 18, 2019 at 5:46 pm


So what is wrong with adding 40 new homes to Palo Alto?

You imply that for every home there will be a "constant" flow of traffic. How do you come to that conclusion? I've lived in Palo Alto since 1990 and the "flow" is people get up in the morning, go to work, are gone most of the day and then come home. There is a minor amount of local traffic during the day and late at night from those residents that do not operate on a mainstream work schedule.

Are you implying that the owners of the new homes would be different than everyone else? That they would not work during the day and spend their time driving back and forth to and from their home multiple times a day just to annoy their neighbors?

There are 3 homes under construction on my street. Yes, when they are all got cement on the same day (figure that one out) is was crowded. Has it been unbearable? No. I work during the day and am not home. Yes, some days I can hear the sound of a nail gun in the distance but let's be realistic. This is not the middle of a forest. I can hear the trains, traffic on 101, the kids playing baseball at local park and on occasion the police and firetrucks. None of which bother me, this is what you get for living in an urban environment.

So lets put the fear mongering aside and be realistic. Castilleja has been dishonest with the residents of Palo Alto. Let them reduce their enrollment to the level that they are entitled to, let them operate at that level for 10 - 20 years, until they have shown that they can be trusted and be a good neighbor and then MAYBE, float a plan for expanding enrollment.


15 people like this
Posted by Crescent Park Rez
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 18, 2019 at 9:09 pm

Crescent Park Rez is a registered user.

I don't think Len threatened anyone. I think he pointed out what is obvious to anyone who is even half paying attention to what happens in an area that continues to have steady job growth. School, businesses, churches, etc. need to expand to meet the demands of a growing population. If they can't expand, they may choose to go elsewhere (e.g., Facebook went from Palo Alto to Menlo Park). If they go elsewhere, another entity will take their place. The most likely choice to take over Castilleja's spot would be housing. And, what Len calculated is a conservative estimate. He said nothing disparaging about housing or who might move into the housing. He simply pointed out that 40 new houses would indeed create much more traffic and congestion than the current expansion plans of Castilleja.

@WWiseman. I completely understand KC's point. I've been to more than a few public meetings in the 20+ years I've been here and just about everyone over 65 objects to any and all changes to anything. This isn't to say that everyone over the age of 65 objects to all changes; rather the ones - and there are a lot of them - that show up at these meetings. They want everything to stay the same as it was in the 70's & 80's and partly into the 90's.

14 people like this
Posted by commonsense
a resident of University South
on Aug 19, 2019 at 11:07 am

One major flaw in the analysis - the zoning there is R1-10000. Lots need to be a minimum of 10,000 sf. Due to other constraints on the site, there's no way there would ever be more than twenty homes on the site.

10 people like this
Posted by James Thurber
a resident of Mountain View
on Aug 19, 2019 at 11:19 am

James Thurber is a registered user.

There are so many "neighborhood" signs surround Castilleja it makes for good neighborhood reading as one bicycles around the area.

My favorite was "Get Rid of Castilleja, Palo Alto Wants a WALMART" But I digress.

There were several more, some quite insulting: "Lose Castilleja, send the students to Switzerland" and "Lose Castilleja, Palo Alto needs more apartments."

Hoping you have a fine day and, in my humble opinion, good schools are a mark of a good society. Keep Castilleja and, honestly, let it expand, too.

20 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 19, 2019 at 12:15 pm

Posted by James Thurber, a resident of Mountain View

>> Hoping you have a fine day and, in my humble opinion, good schools are a mark of a good society. Keep Castilleja and, honestly, let it expand, too.

What reason is there to believe that an expanded Castilleja will still be a "good school"? One of the selling points of Castilleja is that students get individualized attention. Usually, the bigger a school gets, the less individualized attention the students get.

Alternatively, make the existing school into a middle school, and, build a bigger high school somewhere else where there will be more room sports facilities.

10 people like this
Posted by SoTiredOfThis
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 19, 2019 at 12:58 pm

@Crescent Park Rez- I quote you below:
This isn't to say that everyone over the age of 65 objects to all changes; rather the ones - and there are a lot of them - that show up at these meetings. They want everything to stay the same as it was in the 70's & 80's and partly into the 90's.

My comment:
I personally am tired of the complaints about what opinions are voiced by the people who come to meetings (or who go to the polls and vote). So where are the people who embrace these changes and why aren't more of them at the meetings expressing their views? If you do not participate, then your voice is not heard. Don't bitch and whine after the fact!

And finally, Len's second paragraph I found an appropriate disclosure statement. He was being forthright about his background so that it could be taken into account in evaluating his opinion. Hardly a cause for derision or sarcasm by others. And what he described "a threat"? Hardly. To me it was a possible scenario that I've not seen get much discussion.

Why do we get so bent out of shape over these issues that we attack the intentions and ethics of those who express opposing or even differing views?

17 people like this
Posted by Green Gables
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 19, 2019 at 1:02 pm

Green Gables is a registered user.

Castilleja is most likely not going to leave Palo Alto and neither are the neighbors. Scale back a bit and the neighbors won't be so upset about the blankly, blank traffic which the lovely City of Palo Alto staff cannot seem to get a grasp.

18 people like this
Posted by Thomas Paine
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 19, 2019 at 1:51 pm

Unfortunately, Mr. Ely's math doesn't hold up to even the slightest scrutiny. With 570-some students and 200+ teachers and staff, assuming half of them drove -- probably a low number -- twice a day thats about 800 car trips/day, far more than his housing estimate of 342-378 based on a nonsensical 9 trips/day. We lived in Old Palo Alto for 15 years and probably never hit that number even once.

Given Castelleja's long history of bending numbers and really not being a very good neighbor there's no reason to think they're not doing it again. If they were to move over this issue -- highly, highly unlikely -- Palo Alto would in no way be diminished and would get more housing -- of some sort -- which it desperately needs.

At one point I would have had a horse in this race -- living in Old Palo Alto with two school-age daughters -- but we determined that Castelleja was an anachronism that was out of step with the times and well past its sell-by date -- our opinion and I know not everyone will agree -- so we sent our kids to a different private school.

So, with zero downside to Palo Alto to say no, just say no.

26 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 19, 2019 at 3:33 pm

mauricio is a registered user.

Palo Alto does not need awn elitist private school the caters mostly to wealthy families, contributes nothing to the community, unlike public schools, and has a long history of abusing its user permit and being dishonest about it. The bestcenario in this case is for Castilleja to leave town, they are a burden, not an asset.

10 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 19, 2019 at 5:29 pm

Annette is a registered user.

To Mauricio: how can you say that Castilleja "contributes nothing to the community"? Each well educated graduate of Castilleja is a contribution to whatever community she is in - and a reflection of a community that values women and education. I like that Palo Alto stands for that.

To Castilleja: don't get me wrong. As much as I admire your mission and your success (I sent my daughter to Casti for middle school) I think your neighbor's concerns are valid and hope to see the school scale back its plans, particularly with regard to the garage. And always comply with its use permit.

16 people like this
Posted by No expansion
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 19, 2019 at 7:12 pm

I am not sold, sorry Mr. Ely. Expanding Castilleja is not good for Palo Alto, period. I am not saying they should move, but if they choose to move, so be it. Even if high-density housing were built there, traffic would certainly not compare with even the current traffic load, never mind the increase in traffic the proposed growth would bring. And let's remember that this is a residential area. No expansion. And get back down to the agreed enrollment limit!

4 people like this
Posted by Change zoning to R2, build duplexes
a resident of another community
on Aug 20, 2019 at 11:59 am

How about building homes that address the housing crisis instead of 2400 sq foot unaffordable single family homes. Build Duplexes, change the zoning from R1 to R2. I can only imagine the Palo Alto outrage that will ensue from that suggestion...

2 people like this
Posted by Oldster
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 20, 2019 at 3:07 pm

If current zoning allows minimum 10,000sf lots for single family homes, expect many of the parcels eventually to have large ADUs such that each housing lot could produce car traffic for duplexes.

I'm sick and tired of people complaining Castilleja is only for "elites." Good grief. Given our local housing costs almost all local public school kids are from "elite" families.

4 people like this
Posted by 2400 sq ft!?
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 20, 2019 at 3:33 pm

2400 sq ft!? I bet most homes in Old P A are the 4,000 sq ft I see when homes there are advertised for sale. Some of those lots are immense.

1 person likes this
Posted by neighbor
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 20, 2019 at 4:25 pm

Our lot in the Duveneck area is 6500 sq ft. Only the lots at the end of cul de sacs are in the 10,000 range. I have a hard time believing that lots created from Casti property would be in the 10K sq ft range.

7 people like this
Posted by S mom
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 20, 2019 at 9:12 pm

This opinion piece so quickly skipped over the fundamental premise to dive into its long analysis of what would happen if Castilleja left. I find the idea that Casti would leave laughable -- they have a large, beautiful campus in a prestigious location in an area with astronomical real estate prices, they aren't going anywhere, Article was one big red herring.

7 people like this
Posted by Wiseman
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 21, 2019 at 1:56 pm

@Crescent Park Rez and KC,
"They want everything to stay the same as it was in the 70's & 80's and partly into the 90's. "

Again, I don't have a dog in this fight, but you are clearly trying to justify your own ageism. Just because older people said it does not make it negative, bad, backwards, a good target for derision. Just because older people have a longer view than you and know more does not mean they want things to stay the same as in the 70's and 80's. You are saying that to make an unsupported and invalid claim they are backwards and thus trying to invalidate the opinions of a whole age group because you selfishly don't want to think about the serious negative impacts of what you want to anyone else.

And by the way, that ship has sailed. If you claim they want things to stay the way they were in the '70s, I don't see it. Do you mean they want to reverse the overdevelopment of office space? I have only ever seen people trying to slow the development of office space. There's no way to have anything approaching the more safe use of the infrastructure unless we bite the bullet and get all the too-big companies to move out so it's safe for residents and startups again.

Do you mean they want to have a robust civic life and retail in this City again? I don't see anyone talking about what we need to do for that. Do you mean they want to pay attention to things like public safety, amenities for youth, reasonable traffic circulation, etc? The state actually requires those, but I don't see anyone reminding the City to prioritize those, it's all the companies wanting to overbuild for their entry level workforce and making everyone else pay that is controlling the dialog. Are they trying to make clear the negative consequences of this kind of uber-selfish corporate behavior? Who better than civically active seniors to both know about and stand up to it?

Things were super expensive back then for people coming from outside, too. Are you sure it's not the overdevelopment crowd who are living in the past, trying to get everyone to believe they can make the local housing market ever look like something from the Midwest like in maybe the '40s and '50s? Those days are gone, never to return. Those who push development as if it's possible are the ones who are living in some other world, or maybe just their own selfish one.

Again, no dog in this fight. Editorials like this one don't seem very honorable, though. (It will be worse if you don't let us have our way with you is never an honorable strategy.)

5 people like this
Posted by Wiseman
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 21, 2019 at 2:00 pm

I do wish arguments like these would make the Castilleja's and Stanfords, and even the PAHC's of the Bay Area pause and think that allowing and even enabling overdevelopment will make it harder for them to achieve their goals as well. I doubt very much that Stanford would face as much opposition if it wasn't directly competing with, say, Palantir, for development impact capacity (for lack of a better term). If people in the neighborhood didn't daily lose the ability to live their lives because of the overdevelopment and traffic, they would probably be less up in arms about the Castilleja expansion.

2 people like this
Posted by Bill
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 24, 2019 at 3:59 pm

Note: Crystal Springs (CSUS) and the Belmont City Council found a way for Crystal Springs to be a net contributor (versus a net debtor) to the community. In particular, you might find the following paragraph relevant to the Castilleja expansion demands.

CSUS agreed to give the city a one-time $1 million payment, $250,000 a year in-lieu of property taxes increased for inflation, have a robust as well as enforceable traffic demand management plan, install a traffic signal at South Road and Ralston Avenue and stagger its start times so as not to align with other local schools.

I'd hope that the Palo Alto City Council is as effective as the Belmont City Council in holding Castilleja likewise accountable.

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