Palo Alto looks to scale back Castilleja’s growth plan

Palo Alto looks to scale back Castilleja’s growth plan

City Council majority votes against redevelopment proposal for school, demands further revisions

Nanci Kauffman, head of school at Castilleja School, urges the City Council to approve the school’s redevelopment plan at a meeting. Photo by Gennady Sheyner.

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.

Palo Alto looks to scale back Castilleja’s growth plan

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 local hookup San Francisco CA 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.

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