In 2013, after neighbors voiced significant concern about traffic and parking issues, it became public that the school had been over-enrolled for 12 years. Castilleja agreed to pay a one-time fine to the city and began reducing student enrollment from 448 to its legal limit of 415 enrollees and improve traffic and parking. They reduced enrollment for two years, then stopped for three years with the promise of coming up with a new plan. During this time, the neighbors worked to meaningfully engage with Castilleja and the city to ensure an enforceable enrollment limit, reduced traffic and fewer weeknight and weekend events.
In 2016, Castilleja submitted an extremely ambitious plan to the city requesting a 30% increase in enrollment, 90 special events per year and an underground garage that would require tearing down houses and trees. Once these plans were released, neighbors immediately asked Castilleja and the city to lower the profile of this project, supporting rebuilding the school but with no garage, fewer special events and a lower proposed enrollment level. We neighbors attended the twice-annual meetings the school is required to host with residents, and the school routinely put off our questions and concerns.
Fast forward to Feb. 10, when Castilleja submitted a new plan alternative that retains the houses but not mature oaks and redwood trees. The school's need to modernize its facility is recognized and not opposed by neighbors. However, an underground garage and a huge jump in enrollment from 415 to 540 students should not be allowed at the expense of the neighborhood and the larger Palo Alto community. We are encouraged that the draft Environmental Impact Report and the city convinced the school not to destroy housing, but an underground garage is a carbon-generating hole that invites traffic and further erodes the character of the neighborhood. Embarcadero and Alma, which are main arterials serving the school and the Palo Alto community, will continue to be severely impacted by any increase in traffic generated by the school and the growth of Palo Alto.
For the benefit of the community, we urge Castilleja to drop the idea of the underground garage and embrace shuttling. Currently the school's traffic is often burdensome and especially difficult for the residents across from the drop-off locations on campus and unsafe for bicyclists on the Bryant Street Bike Boulevard. Many schools have park-and-ride lots off-site for the purpose of shuttling their students to and from school and greatly reducing traffic and parking problems in the neighborhoods where they are located. Castilleja's new plans take away 60 surface parking spaces in order to put 96-parking spaces underground, for a net increase of 36 spaces. Why not leave the surface parking primarily for teachers and administrators, with some exceptions, and establish an expanded shuttle program? This may be challenging, but we believe the school is up to it and will want to adapt to climate change goals and respect their neighbors.
Castilleja is a nonprofit corporation and does not pay taxes and yet uses Palo Alto services and infrastructure to serve a student body 75% of whom are from outside Palo Alto. Why should the school accrue benefits and the residents pay the costs, both literally and in terms of impact? Other local private schools without sufficient acreage to expand acquired additional sites when their enrollment reached their use permit limits, for example Crystal Springs, Nueva, Keyes, Pinewood, St. Francis and Harker.
Where do we go from here? Castilleja has proven in three-and-a-half years that it has zero incentive to include neighbors' needs and interests in its master plan. The school expects it will get the votes at the City Council, the final arbiters. City staff is doing its job, responding to the school's application. Residents are limited to three-minute statements at public meetings, writing letters and holding neighborhood meetings with public officials as their primary means of participation.
It's not too late for the city to invest in our neighborhood as it has North Ventura, South of Forest Avenue and even the rail redesign group XCAP.
We are willing to assist the city with creative ideas to achieve some of the school's goals. Although the school won't engage, we expect to have standing in our own neighborhood. Leaving neighbors, important stakeholders in the process, out of the loop is inefficient and expensive for all sides.
Now's the time for the city and Castilleja to engage the neighbors and give us a meaningful place at the table. It is not too late to ask for our input and give us a chance to support the school's re-construction in the interest of community unity.
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