As Palo Alto prepares to hold its first public hearing next week on Castilleja School's ambitious proposal to rebuild its campus, opponents of the project are pointing to a new environmental analysis of the project to bolster their claims that the project will harm their neighborhood by requiring the removal of trees and houses.
But Castilleja officials and the school's supporters point to the very same 418-page study as proof that the plan will not only expand educational opportunities for young women but also improve bike safety, enhance neighborhood design and remove parked cars from surrounding streets.
Both views will be on prominent display on Wednesday night, when the Planning and Transportation Commission considers the Draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the Castilleja renovation — a polarizing project that has transformed the immediate neighborhood into an outpost for competing messages. On Bryant Street, a row of "We Support Castilleja" signs along the periphery of the school abruptly gives way to "CASTILLEJA: PUT YOUR PROJECT ON HOLD."
The long and at times rancorous lead-up to the Wednesday hearing has not fazed Nanci Kauffman, Castilleja's head of school. Since the Draft Environmental Impact Report for the project came out on July 17, the breadth of people who feel positive about this project has broadened considerably, Kauffman told the Weekly in an interview this week.
"In particular, we feel so positive because people who we really haven't heard from before are coming forward and saying, 'Oh, now I really understand the project,'" Kauffman said.
But for some neighbors, understanding the project doesn't necessarily translate into supporting it. Opponents of the Castilleja plan, some of whom live right next to the school, have spent several years talking about the project's potential to damage their neighborhood, particularly if the school moves ahead with its plan to build an underground garage.
For them, the draft EIR's findings that the project would create three "significant and unavoidable" impacts relating to transportation is proof that the project, as presented, should be a nonstarter. The document, while finding the Castilleja project is generally consistent with the city's Comprehensive Plan, also concluded that it would have a significant and unavoidable impact in the land use category by creating "land use incompatibility or physically divide an established community."
Rob Levitsky, who owns a house that on Emerson Street, near the school, offered a long list of concerns about the proposed renovation, which would take place over four phases and which would involve, in the first phase, the demolition of two homes on the north side of the campus and the construction of the garage. His top concerns include the project's impacts on neighborhood trees, houses and underground utilities, which he fears could be damaged by Castilleja's planned underground infrastructure.
"They would destroy this block of Emerson," said Levitsky, a member of the citizens group PNQLnow.org, which was formed in opposition to the Castilleja application (the acronym stands for "Preserve Neighborhood Quality of Life"). "There's only three houses on the east side of Emerson and they'd knock down two of them. And they're supposed to put in a park that no one is asking for."
Levitsky also took some issues with the new draft EIR, which he noted does not have a Biological Resources chapter and does not offer any alternatives for the project that would preclude tree removal.
The city did study the project's impact on trees in an "Initial Study," prior to the draft EIR's publication. That study had proposed two mitigation strategies to be incorporated into the EIR to ensure adequate tree protection. Under the mitigation measures, trees that are deemed "protected" under city code would have to be replaced on an "inch-for-inch basis" with trees of the same species. For those that are not protected, replacement planting must be sufficient to provide "no net loss" of canopy 10 years after the removal.
Chief Planning Official Amy French said these measures, which were identified in 2017, will be placed on the Castilleja project if the council decides to approve it or an alternative. And while the draft EIR does not have a Biological Resources chapter, the Land Use chapter does include the proposed mitigations for tree removals, she noted.
Castilleja officials said the draft EIR's findings of "significant and unavoidable" impacts mean that there's more work to be done in modifying the plans, which they said they are willing to do.
"We want this plan to be positive in every way imaginable and still allow us to modernize our facility and educate more girls. ... We'll be ready to compromise in any way we have to," Kauffman said.
But for Levitsky and other members of PNQLNow.org, any compromise would have to include scrapping the garage entirely and coming up with a new project that would not have the types of impacts identified in the environmental-analysis document.
"'Significant and unavoidable' means they got problems," Levitsky said. "We never objected to them doing some remodeling, to change some buildings they have into more classrooms. However, we ask for a compliant project. Follow the rules."
Andie Reed, a member of PNQLnow.org, also said she would like to see the garage dropped from the plan. She also disputed the draft EIR's finding that Castilleja's project would not have a significant impact on neighborhood aesthetics.
"They're taking down two-thirds of a block — and it is a short block," Reid said, referring to the removal of the two Emerson homes. "And they state that the project will not substantially alter the visual character of the surrounding area. How can you come to that conclusion? Would a reasonable person draw that conclusion?"
In the weeks leading up to the Wednesday meeting, residents both opposing and supporting the Castilleja project have been submitting letters to make their case. Diana Darcy, a resident of Harker Avenue, argued in a letter that there is "no clear benefit to our community from allowing an expansion of Castilleja" and that the draft EIR proves that the school's expansion would cause many problems for the city, including more traffic.
Hank Sousa, who lives on Melville Avenue, noted that Palo Alto's logo is a large redwood and suggested in a letter that it would be "out of character for the City of Palo Alto to give permission to Castilleja to build an underground garage, demolishing housing and mature trees, that will change the look and feel of this block."
Peter Costello, who lives on Emerson and whose daughter graduated from Castilleja, suggested that the school's proposal is more consistent with commercial zoning than with the residential neighborhood in which it the school is situated.
"I support great education, but Castilleja should not be granted an increase in enrollment, and their redevelopment proposals must be evaluated taking into account all of the proposed square footage — both above and below grade," Costello wrote.
Not all neighbors feel that way. Kauffman pointed to the support the school has received from neighbors on Bryant Street. She underscored that the new plan would not increase the massing or the total development on campus (which is true if one does not count underground construction). And while the plan calls for ultimately raising enrollment from the current level of 430 to 540, that increase would only occur if the school succeeds in keeping traffic at current levels.
She noted that Castilleja already has in place numerous programs to mitigate traffic, including a requirement that employees use alternative travel modes at least three days per week or park remotely five days per week. The new plan calls for additional measures, such as new shuttles and off-site spots for students to be dropped and a designated transportation coordinator.
Numerous neighbors have lauded Castilleja's efforts to lessen its traffic impacts and have urged the city to support the school's application.
Roy Maydan, a Byron Street resident, called the school "an asset to the community" and said he has faith that the school will work with the city to mitigate any negative impacts. Nancy Tuck, who lives on Melville, called Castilleja a "stellar neighbor" and said the school is sensitive to its surroundings. In a public letter, Tuck wrote that she has "never suffered a single moment from traffic, noise, or parking due to the Castilleja students or activities." Many of her neighbors feel the same way, she wrote.
"The NIMBYism that is prevalent with a mostly older, retired and nonnegotiable subset of Palo Alto is offensive," Tuck wrote. "These people are fighting this issue like it's a proposal for a Navigation Center for the mentally ill and drug addicted homeless."