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Residents square off over Castilleja's redevelopment plan

Original post made on Mar 31, 2022

With Castilleja School's proposal to rebuild its Bryant Street campus inching toward approval, supporters and opponents of the plan brought their frustrations to the planning commission Wednesday.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Wednesday, March 30, 2022, 11:40 PM

Comments (17)

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 31, 2022 at 10:37 am

Online Name is a registered user.

This article ignores the powerful presentations by Casti opponents Andie Reed, Mary Sylvester, Jeff Levinsky, Bill Ross and many others. Perhaps you need to do a balanced follow-up since many of them spoke for groups of neighbors who donated their time to them so they could lay out substantive details and objections about the project AND the PA process and staff bias.

1) As Mr. McCarthy surely knows, sexism and discrimination continues to rise in Silicon Valley and many of the companies he represents have recently settled lawsuits for discrimination against tens of thousands of women. What -- if anything -- is he doing about that and how does he expect Casti to solve such a huge problem?

2) "Like many other supporters of the Castilleja plan, resident Jochen Profit lamented on Wednesday the "Groundhog Day" vibe of the review process and noted that factors such as traffic and environmental impacts have already been extensively debated and are baked into the proposal that the commission had previously approved. He called the city's approach on Castilleja's plan "an example of failed governance."

As someone noted last night, why should we believe Casti's promises when the city has NO way of validating any of their claims? As Rebecca Eisenberg noted last night, the city can't even manage a bike lane!

3) All we hear from Casti supporters are vague promises and sweeping generalities about the wonders of women's education but NOTHING specific in response to specific objections/proposals like making Casti use shuttle buses like other schools that have outgrown their site.

What's wrong with shuttle buses at a time when the city's pushing its Climate / Sustainability plan? Why should Casti be exempt?

4) Yes, this has gone on too long. How much has this cost the city and the taxpayers?? The Planning Dept, should have said NO years ago and should certainly do so now.

Posted by Hulkamania
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 31, 2022 at 10:38 am

Hulkamania is a registered user.

Castilleja appears to have the money. Why don't they buy Cubberly and move?

Posted by ALB
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 31, 2022 at 3:55 pm

ALB is a registered user.

I remember the days when Castilleja WAS a good neighbor. It was a boarding school with some day students. The school complemented the neighborhood. Having graduated highschool in 1972 I witnessed respect for the neighbors and the city by Castilleja. Today the culture espoused by the board, the school’s headmistress and attorney have pivoted to a corporate spin. No respect for the rule of law or the CUP. The city council must stand up to pressure from this private institution. The city has to ensure that the neighborhood is supported and protected from this improper project. If the city does not do so then Castilleja wiil expropriate neighbors of their quality of life. Do not be commandeered by this private school where a variance would set a precedent for the entire city. It would open Pandora’s box and IMO lead to litigation.

Posted by Midtown Citizen
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 31, 2022 at 7:06 pm

Midtown Citizen is a registered user.

If PNQL Now is so concerned about peace and quiet, environmental impact of construction, and traffic impediments, would they be willing to all include covenants in their title deeds prohibiting future buyers from tearing down their house? Because I drive around Castilleja's neighborhood and see 4 or 5 teardown/rebuilds going on at any given time. But, no, PNQL Now wouldn't do that because it would negatively impair the value of their homes. They're demanding a limitation put put on Castilleja they wouldn't countenance being put on them. [Portion removed.]

Castilleja's "history shows that it has an unquenchable thirst for growth"? The school has existed within its current boundaries for a century and has had maybe 4 substantive construction projects on site during that time. Exaggerated claims like this [portion removed] have been the foundations of PNQL Now's campaign from the beginning. [Portion removed.]

PNQL Now has consistently claimed all they've done is "asked Castilleja to compromise", but to them "compromise" means "do it my way". [Portion removed.]

Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 31, 2022 at 7:23 pm

Annette is a registered user.

That Castilleja is superior at what it does educationally and that this process has gone on for several years are factors that matter to many of us, but neither is a valid basis for a land use decision. Had Castilleja started this process by submitting a plan that did not require remedial work AND a variance they might well have a modernized campus by now. The protracted review process is of their own making.

My concern about this project has been the garage which is contrary to the City's S-CAP goals which, unfortunately for Casti, crystalized during the time that this project has been under review. Had the school submitted a more reasonable plan it might not be in the position of urging the City to approve a massive concrete garage at a time when car usage and garages are recognized as primary contributors to our ever-escalating climate problems.

Last night my attention was drawn to something else: the extent of below grade classrooms. The renderings look fabulous, but what they focus on – what they are “selling” – is the above-ground development. The plans call for demolishing 35k sf of existing above ground classroom buildings and adding 46,635 sf of below grade classroom space. This means the girls will be spending much of their school day in below-grade rooms. I am glad my daughter attended Casti when classes were held in rooms with windows and natural light. As I listened to Team Casti last night I came to the stark realization that the enrollment hike is the school's top priority, but arguably not for laudable reasons.

I also concluded that City planners have diminished objectivity regarding this process. Unless I heard wrong, at one point one even used the phrase “we advocate for . . .” I hope the PTC and CC can wade through all the muck surrounding this project and make code-based decisions that do not set regrettable precedents or allow an applicant to circumvent the law.

Posted by PA Community Advocate
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 31, 2022 at 7:56 pm

PA Community Advocate is a registered user.

99% of our high school age daughters in Palo Alto get zero benefit from this overpriced private institution.

Why do we let them take up so much of our time and adversely affect our community?

Castilleja would do everyone a favor if they moved to Atherton.

Posted by azr
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 31, 2022 at 9:52 pm

azr is a registered user.

There was a clear distinction between speakers opposing the scope of the rebuild (not the rebuild itself) and those supporting the school in anything they choose to do.

The first group asks the school to comply with code, reduce enrollment demands, emphasize safety and health, reduce massing, and utilize parking on campus as it is today, which qualifies to support 450 students, a modest increase most neighbors agree to (even though the school has not complied with their current maximum enrollment).

Others speakers insist that the school, having gotten away with adding buildings without abiding by code for all these years, should be entitled to continue to get away with it. Code reads (and staff reports confirm) that once old buildings are demolished, new buildings are required to comply with current code. Everybody in Palo Alto has to comply, even Castilleja. This means that even if the proposed buildings' gross floor area is slightly less than what exists now, that's irrelevant. What is relevant is what GFA is allowed, and the proposed project exceeds that by tens of thousands of square feet.

Conditional Use Permits don't trump PA muni code. One example; the gym was built in 2006, they got a building permit and reported an incorrect number of square footage (short by 20,000SF). Some buildings weren't added to the city's records at all, even though they were built after the Code came into effect. Who gets away with this?

The school was originally on one square block, until they bought up 5 residential lots on the 200 block of Melville and got the city to give them the the street (!). In 1992 they merged the lots and the street, increasing the site from 4.8 acres to 6.2 acres. Having made its own site larger disqualifies Castilleja from using size to qualify for a variance for more GFA.

They could have been re-modeled by now if they didn't ask for exceptions to the rules; such a waste of resources and everybody's time.

Posted by Rebecca Eisenberg
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 1, 2022 at 12:36 am

Rebecca Eisenberg is a registered user.

When I spoke last night, I identified out the Palo Alto Municipal Code Section that governs the conditions under which a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) can be granted by the City. Chair Lauing wrote it down, thankfully. I believe he, and most of the Commission, seeks to do the right thing. It's just hard to do so given the mischaracterizations and untruths stated for so many years by Castilleja, that unfortunately are repeated as truths by the City and by certain publications. But PA's Code section clarifies that Castilleja has no legal right to the CUP they demand.

Palo Alto Muni Code chapter 18.76:
Web Link

In brief, a CUP cannot be granted when the application results in potential harm to the health, safety, or even *convenience* to the vicinity.

Large construction projects like the one proposed by Castilleja cause unavoidable risk of harm, injury, and obviously inconvenience. The tons of cement Castilleja intends to dump into the precious earth will cause irreparable damage to the soil and damaging toxic fumes to neighbors (ask neighbors of the new police HQ near Cal Ave).

All other private schools in the area are required to provide mitigations to balance the harms their developments create. Mitigations are not reductions in harm, but actual benefits that make the development net positive to the community, including, e.g.: (1) impact payments, (2) public shuttles (e.g. Margueritte), (3) scholarships for diverse needy kids; (4) infrastructure improvements; and/or (5) contractual guarantees to enroll a percentage of local kids, despite financial need. Eg: SF Friends School, College Prep, Nueva.

Not Casti. Casti admits a tiny fraction of applicants, charges $50K/year tuition, and offers financial aid to only 20%. [Portion removed.] "Girls education" only for the most privileged.

Posted by Lorraine Brown
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 1, 2022 at 10:57 am

Lorraine Brown is a registered user.

I’d like to respond to two of the comments above. First, Annette: I urge you to look at the school’s building plans, rather than relying on project opponents to understand the new design. All of the below grade classrooms will be filled with natural light and airflow. Future students will greatly benefit from the modernized classrooms which will be lit by windows, skylights, and light wells. Second, AZR seems to misunderstand how a CUP works. It’s meant to inform how non-conforming structures can be built and managed in an R-1 Zone. The gym was built to the correct and legal specifications and square footage allotment at the time it was built. It was built within the confines of the code. Finally, I could not agree more with Midtown Citizen. PNQL members have offered no compromise; they’ve only continued to move the project goalposts over and over again, while Castilleja has made change after change to meet the community’s needs. I spoke about this on Wednesday evening: adherence to FACTS is essential in understanding the school’s project proposal.

Posted by azr
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 1, 2022 at 11:44 am

azr is a registered user.

I disagree with Lorraine's description of PAMC. A Conditional Use Permit allows uses (i.e., a school) "that are not classified as permitted use". A CUP does not allow buildings to be built that don't comply with muni code for the zone, in this case R-1. I've looked at the gym approval documents, and it is described as 13,450SF, when the code in effect in 2006 would require it to be reported at 33,512SF (as stated in the Nov 2021 Dudek GFA study). That's just one example.

We have nothing to do with goalposts, Castilleja needs a new party line. We've been consistent that this project is too much for the site, and as the plans get studied, more inconsistencies show up.

And it is indeed an expansion, despite the recent drumbeat from the school. Even if you reduce above-grade buildings from square footage what is there now, you want to add 38,000SF underground and 125 students.

The school has not reduced their proposed footprint one inch nor its demand for an increase in enrollment by one student.

Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 1, 2022 at 11:48 am

Annette is a registered user.

@Lorraine Brown: agree about facts. In an effort to be careful I took the information from the plans that were part of the PC meeting packet.

I will add that the "moving the goal posts" line comes across as a tiresome accusation. Are over-reaching plans supposed to be approved "just because"?

If the plans Castilleja had submitted were in compliance, error-free, and not over-reaching this would not have gone on as long as it has. If the school hadn't tried to have a garage classified as a basement time would not have been lost on that. Palo Alto decision makers, starting with the former City Manager, have favored Castilleja in this process so much that I think the project would have been approved by now if it qualified for approval. It does not. I think it can get there, and it is pretty clear the City is determined to help that along, but it is not there yet.

And my understanding of PNQL is that they do not object to the school's plans to remodel and modernize, per se. They object to aspects of the variance. I would, too, if I lived nearby.

Something similar to this happened a few years ago in College Terrace. Developers of the 2180 El Camino Real project harnessed neighborhood affection for JJ&F Market in their effort to win approval of a variance for an over-sized PC project. It worked. And in the process, a family business was ruined, jobs were lost, and it was years before the community benefit (a market) opened in a suboptimal location. Here, Castilleja is using wide and well-deserved community support for the school's unquestioned ability to educate girls as a means to gain approval of a significant variance. Enterprise success is not a valid basis for land use decisions.

Also, the garage isn't really necessary. One of the school's consultants said as much and on Wednesday a Team Casti person said the school could augment its shuttle program. So why not just do that?

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Apr 1, 2022 at 12:08 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

Congratulations to Rebecca Eisenberg for her excellent comments during the Weds. hearing where she said it's high time to just say no. That this has dragged on this long is unbelievable and hardly a justification for approval.

Shame on the staff for having its entire body -- forget about its finger -- on the scale in favor of Casti. In what world do more cars and more people equal less traffic?? Shades of When is a basement not a basement? When it's a garage!

Yesterday's street and lane closures on Embarcadero, Melville etc gave us a preview of the types of traffic delays we'll face. The city couldn't even coordinate the repairs to minimize hassles!

Just say no already!

Posted by Castilleja neighbor, 600 feet
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 1, 2022 at 9:21 pm

Castilleja neighbor, 600 feet is a registered user.

At the ARB meeting on 3/17/22 of Castilleja’s new expansion plans, 30% of the classrooms will be below grade. There will be no natural light and the main Architect on the project said there will be a mechanical ventilation system. Does this seem like a well thought out
Expansion plan to you? I wonder if any Castilleja parents missed those points?

Posted by Vic Befera
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 18, 2022 at 12:39 pm

Vic Befera is a registered user.

When a high-priced Palo Alto private school secretly exceeds its enrollment limit for 16 years, is it responsible and worthy of trust?

When the school flatly refuses suggestions to open another campus or institute off-site parking with no further discussion, is it cooperative?

When the school seeks a 30% increase in students and denies that city-wide traffic and parking will be exacerbated, is it honest?

When the school wages a public relations campaign, runs self-serving full-page ads in local publications, and floods editors with effusive praise by unidentified school parents and supporters masquerading as "neighbors," is it a highly principled educational institution?

When the school, which purports to teach good citizenry and high moral and ethical standards, is caught cheating and flunks Ethics 101, and is levied a financial penalty for concealing its illegal over-enrollment, is it a pristine model for its students?

Castilleja School is a multi-million dollar commercial enterprise, in a residential Palo Alto neighborhood. It is only allowed to reside there via a Conditional Use Permit granted by the City with endorsement by neighbors - which it has repeatedly violated. More than 70% of its students don't live in Palo Alto. Since its modest beginnings, the school has increased enrollment six-fold and is now bursting at the seams, with the highest student-per-acre density of ANY public or private school in this region.

To accommodate its desired 30% growth, the school must and should move to a larger site, or open a second campus (as many other private schools have successfully done), or accept its current enrollment limit.

Public records reveal Castilleja as a school of scholastic excellence that flouts rules everyone else must obey, a pocket of privilege that blithely ignores legal boundaries and disregards its neighbors' concerns. It is surely time for Palo Alto citizens to say "enough is enough!"

Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 19, 2022 at 10:06 am

Annette is a registered user.

The below grade (also known as underground) classroom plan must require a special ventilation system. In a power outage, does a generator run that system or are the photovoltaic cells sufficient to keep the underground spaces properly ventilated? If the plan is to use a generator, has that noise been mitigated? It seems so obvious that the plan is over-reaching. I am surprised that, with all its resources, Castilleja couldn't couldn't come up with a compliant plan to modernize the campus that didn't include an unnecessary garage that is an affront to the City's S-CAP goals and below-grade classrooms.

But I shouldn't be surprised; the school has proven for years now that compliance is not the school's strong suit.

Posted by Palo Alto native
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 19, 2022 at 6:44 pm

Palo Alto native is a registered user.

Thank you Vic Befera. I went to a mtg at your home for the 2000
CUP. I am so grateful for Palo Altans that stand up for our community. Castilleja purports to have high academic standards . That is fine, where are their ethical standards?

Posted by Palo Alto native
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 19, 2022 at 6:46 pm

Palo Alto native is a registered user.

Thank you Vic Befera. I went to a mtg at your home for the 2000
CUP. I am so grateful for Palo Altans that stand up for our community. Castilleja is a pocket of privilege, could be the 1950’s all over again.. Castilleja purports to have high academic standards , where are their ethical standards?

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