Castilleja School is hosting a meeting on June 6 to inform neighbors about its proposal to expand the campus and enrollment, but rifts between residents over the plan are running so wide that some said they will not attend what they view as "a dog-and-pony show."
The division in the Old Palo Alto neighborhood, which surrounds the all-girls middle and high school, has become so deep that there are neighbors who no longer even greet one another when they pass by, residents said.
"We went from having neighborhood barbecues and going to baby showers to now it's 'their group' and 'our group' and we don't even look at each other to say hello," said Melville Avenue resident Nancy Tuck, who supports the expansion.
For some neighbors, the problems with Castilleja began when the school changed from a dormitory-based school in about 1995 to one that is commuter-based, longtime residents said. Traffic and parking issues became frustrating.
Next, the school exceeded a conditional-use permit, established in 2000, that capped school enrollment at 415 students. Current Head of School Nanci Kauffman alerted the city in 2012, when she took on her current position, that the school was violating its use permit, allowing 448 students. Castilleja paid a $285,000 fine, developed a program to manage traffic and instituted gradual annual reductions in student enrollment.
The city allowed the school to pause enrollment reductions in 2015 while Castilleja studied adding access to the campus from Embarcadero Road, which would ostensibly end neighborhood traffic problems. The school also filed a new conditional-use application that would allow for higher enrollment of up to 540 students.
Some residents' anger has not subsided over the yearslong enrollment violation, and the temporary moratorium on shrinking the enrollment only added fuel to their suspicions.
Then the school proposed building an underground parking structure that administrators said would reduce traffic and parking on neighborhood streets — an idea that did nothing to quell anger.
The garage had been mentioned in discussions between some neighbors and the school as far back as 1999, according to letters to the City of Palo Alto Planning Department by some residents who later joined a small neighborhood working group to iron out an acceptable proposal with Castilleja. It also was considered by some residents as a potential solution in neighborhood meetings in August 2013 and October 2014, according to school documents.
Castilleja officials point to these documents as proof that residents were in favor of exploring the parking-structure idea. Those in attendance at that meeting, even if they did not suggest the idea, were certainly aware of it, said Kristin Neirinckx, director of communications and marketing for Castilleja.
But some of those same residents insist they never wanted the garage. Last month, a group of 47 residents signed a petition opposing the underground structure and submitted it to the city.
Minutes from some of the neighborhood meetings confirm there was early push-back on the idea. Residents wanted a clear understanding of traffic impacts of a garage on their streets. The idea of ingress and egress on Embarcadero Road also did not sit well with residents who live along the busy arterial street.
Former Palo Alto mayor and councilwoman Yoriko Kishimoto, whose two daughters attended Castilleja, said during a meeting she strongly opposed the concept of adding a lane on Embarcadero as part of the design. The school should either keep its current enrollment or the added enrollment must travel by bikes, transit and walking, she said during a May 5, 2016, residents meeting held by the school.
Some residents worked with the school for more than two years on what they hoped would result in a collaborative plan that could be satisfactory to all. They supported the garage in concept when it was proposed to have ingress and egress onto Embarcadero, which would in theory remove traffic from circulating through the neighborhood. But city traffic engineers rejected the proposal as infeasible due to the existing volume of traffic on the major thoroughfare and the inability for cars to turn west on to Embarcadero, where many drivers would want to go.
About two weeks before the school submitted its expansion proposal to the city, on June 16, 2016, Castilleja administrators showed working-group members plans for the garage with an entrance on Bryant Street and an exit on Emerson Street — not Embarcadero.
The proposal and its timing surprised the working group members, who said they had no time to review the proposal to make recommendations to Castilleja — a proposal they knew would certainly never be accepted by the residents if it meant putting traffic onto the residential streets, said Tom Shannon, a longtime resident on Kellogg Avenue who was part of the four-person working group.
Now that group's members say they feel their efforts were largely wasted. They won't back the existing proposal. It was as if no one at the school considered their input, they said.
"There was no communication to the neighbors. Those Emerson neighbors went ballistic. I really can't blame them," Shannon said by phone this week. "It didn't have proper airing. If it did, the neighbors would have been completely resistant."
Although school officials contend they would have street monitors to direct traffic only to the right and onto Embarcadero Road during peak hours, Shannon pointed out that about 70 percent of students are from out of town and many live west of Castilleja. With only a right-turn option from Emerson onto Embarcadero, those motorists would want to loop back through the neighborhood onto Bryant and Waverley streets to get to Churchill Avenue and Alma Street to go home.
"All of us totally embrace the mission of Castilleja. It's accomplishments are laudatory," he said. But "how do we alleviate this merry-go-round of traffic through the neighborhood?"
"I think it's almost time to push the reset button," Shannon said earlier this week.
The school's approach to public meetings also aroused suspicions, said Alan Cooper, another working-group member.
"Castilleja was very careful in organizing meetings the way they wanted them to run," he said. At the Environmental Impact Report scoping meeting, for example, meaningful input from neighbors was not possible, he said. The school set up information stations that gave participants aspects of the proposal, but they were not given the same 10 to 15 minutes to speak that the school took to describe its own position, with only a few minutes allowed for residents, he said.
"It's been very upsetting from a process standpoint," he said. "I am disappointed, and I feel somewhat deceived."
Carla Befera, also a member of the working group, said in an email that Castilleja has not yet come up with any plan that reduces the negative impacts on the neighborhood.
"We dedicated hours and hours and hours of time meeting with the school to convey the neighbors' concerns. We hoped to explore solutions such as: moving all parking to a satellite area and only allowing ingress via shuttle (something many other schools and institutions have adopted to minimize impact in residential areas), increasing local enrollment percentages to heighten walking/biking to school, etc.
"The school has rejected these options," she said.
On Oct. 7, 2015, Befera and Shannon met with city officials, including City Manager James Keene, to convey that while meetings had been taking place with representatives of the neighborhood, no consensus was being reached.
"We made it clear that these meetings were not to be later construed as proof that the school had been accepting and responding to concerns," she said. They and others reiterated that concern on July 25, 2016, with Chief Planning Official Amy French and Chief Transportation Official Joshuah Mello and others, she said.
"We were hopeful that by communicating concerns to the school that we could find an equitable solution, but the current proposed plan doesn't achieve that," she added.
Befera said that in her opinion trust is broken.
Some Castilleja neighbors, including two who live directly across from the school's main entrance, said they disagree with characterizations that the school has not been forthcoming. They said the school's impacts are overblown by a small group of residents.
Gerry Marshall and her husband have lived across the street since the 1970s, and she is not concerned with traffic issues.
Since Kauffman came on board in 2012, Marshall said she has seen a change in the school for the better.
"We have seen the traffic be reduced. (Kauffman) has done one-on-one lunches and met with small groups. She has tried to find out the impacts. She can't control the past (regarding the over-enrollment). For Nanci to bring up the fact that she wasn't in compliance showed that she was committed to being transparent. If she kept quiet, no one would have known. I applaud her for that. That made me convinced that she really wanted things to improve for the neighborhood," she said.
Nancy Tuck, who lives 500 feet from the school and whose daughter is a senior there, agreed. When Kauffman asked her to host a coffee meeting at her home for neighbors so that concerns could be addressed in greater depth, Tuck personally left invitations in the mailboxes of residents on Emerson and Bryant, but only three people attended.
"I would disagree that they were manipulated," she said of neighbors who attended meetings and feel they were not given a voice. She recalled one of the meetings in which every person who wanted to speak wrote their name on a piece of paper and had a chance to speak.
While the opposition claims it was outnumbered by parents of Castilleja students at the Environmental Impact Report scoping meeting, Tuck said she has a different view. Many of those parents are not outsiders, but are people who also live in the neighborhood, she said.
"I take it that it's a sign that there is more support than opposition. How is that not fair? I live in Palo Alto; the parents you see live in Palo Alto, and we support the school," she said. "I truly would like the neighborhood to be happy and proud of the school."
Tuck said that parking woes are not all Castilleja's fault. The neighborhood is impacted by traffic and parking from Stanford students and Palo Alto High School, particularly during those schools' events. Many of Tuck's neighbors also have second-dwelling units on their properties, and the additional residents park on the street, she said.
John Stucky, another Bryant Street resident who lives across from the school, agreed. He isn't bothered by the peak-hour parking and traffic, which he said is only for perhaps 20 minutes twice a day.
As for Castilleja's approach to residents, "I do believe there are times in school presentations that they have delivered information or given a specious argument. That has not helped their cause," he said.
Stucky said he would like to see more civilized discourse, but he isn't sure how the neighborhood will get there.
"It has gone to the point that people who are against Castilleja are so determined and dedicated to their cause that they are not listening anymore," he said.
Castilleja officials, for their part, agreed that they must take the lead in changing the discourse. They hope to reset the dialogue at the June meeting by letting the lead opposition group have more visibility and say in the structure of the meeting, said Neirinckx. The residents' group has presented the school with conditions of how they want the meeting to be run. They informed the school that they will not attend the meeting if the school doesn't accept their conditions, she added.
Neirinckx said there was never any intention to hide anything from residents. School officials also feel disheartened by all of the rancor, she said.
"We are trying to adjust and move forward. We are looking at changing the meeting format. We truly want to calm it down," she said.
The city, meanwhile, is likewise taking steps to ease the residents' suspicions of Castilleja and the city: Keene sent school officials a letter on May 23 informing them that enrollment reductions must restart, now that the conditional-use permit and other applications associated with its master plan have been submitted. Enrollment reductions must begin again in the 2018-19 school year at a pace of about four to six students annually, according to Keene's letter.