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Editorial: With Castilleja project now in the public review process, can both sides work toward solution?

Palo Alto city officials have their work cut out to achieve a successful outcome on Castilleja redevelopment proposal

After years of frustration and animosity between Castilleja School and its neighbors, with almost no progress toward finding an acceptable middle ground, the school's proposal to rebuild its campus in Old Palo Alto has finally landed in the laps of city officials.

Reconciling the conflicting viewpoints will be a major test for new City Manager Ed Shikada and a City Council that struggles at building consensus through compromise on controversial community issues. If they choose to follow the normal review process of major projects, with long public hearings that become an exhausting contest to see which side can turn out more bodies wearing buttons or holding signs, then we are destined for a divisive and bitter battle that isn't worthy of our community.

Shikada and Mayor Eric Filseth need a plan for how to steer Castilleja's application toward an outcome in which interests are respected, compromises made and advocates on both sides get their most important needs met. And with the draft environmental-impact report (DEIR) now out and the formal reviews beginning, all the details and impacts have now been laid before the public.

Unlike other complex city issues — such as how to eliminate railroad grade crossings, redevelop the old Cubberley High School property in south Palo Alto or find good sites for new housing — the debate over Castilleja's desire to redevelop its site is unusually localized. It's not a public facility, but it is a valuable and respected community institution.

While most Palo Altans will not be significantly affected, those living within a few blocks will be greatly impacted, especially by what is expected to be more than three years of construction, followed by significant traffic congestion thereafter. The biggest traffic impacts will be from the proposed traffic patterns on Embarcadero Road and Bryant and Emerson streets, which the DEIR concludes will create substantial problems. And the analysis didn't even take into account the traffic volume yet to be felt on Embarcadero from the opening of the new Stanford Hospital and the graduate student housing at the university.

As it stands now, the proposal faces rough sledding unless it is revised to reduce its impacts. But rejecting the plan isn't a good or likely solution either. Preventing Castilleja from improving its facility or forcing it to move are not, in our opinion, in the best interests of the neighborhood or the broader community. Both the school and its neighbors would be well-advised to not depend on the City Council to create the best solution.

Neighbors, in order to achieve a successful outcome, will need to let go of their hostility toward Castilleja that stems from its past violations of their use permit and accept that the council will undoubtedly end up approving some redevelopment plan, even though it may be one that significantly reduces the size of the project.

The focus needs be on negotiating three things: a better traffic mitigation and parking plan, tough benchmarks that tie any future increases in enrollment to maintaining or reducing traffic counts from current levels, and limits on the number of evening and weekend events that are permitted on campus.

For its part, Castilleja will need to accept the additional traffic mitigation measures proposed in the DEIR and explore alternatives to the traffic patterns currently proposed for Bryant, Emerson and Embarcadero and its underground garage proposal.

To its credit, the school has already agreed that its enrollment in the future be contingent on its ability to prevent any increases in traffic. And Castilleja will need to work in good faith with neighbors to reconcile whether the proposed underground garage is better or worse than continuing to use surface and street parking, or if reducing the size of the garage is a viable option.

One of the difficulties of the garage controversy is that it has a major impact on only a few property owners on Emerson and Melville Avenue. The council is not likely to give too much weight to their protests, so they should be looking for other mitigations and be open to a down-sized garage and conditions that reduce its impact.

To thrash out these issues, we urge Shikada, Filseth and the council to form an ad hoc committee of two or three council members and charge them with working with the school and neighbors, with a skilled mediator, to find compromises before the full council begins its review.

Both groups risk a lot by trying to muscle the council to adopt their point of view. The council will want to split the baby, and both Castilleja and the neighbors are likely to fare much better working together than attempting to marshal their supporters to show up at council meetings or put pressure on individual council members.

Let's see if we can model a better approach to problem-solving this time, one where people leave their baggage from the past at the door and don't simply try to find four votes on the council.

Related content:

Guest Opinion: On Castilleja, be careful of what you wish for

Planning commissioners kick back Castilleja draft environmental impact report for additions

Neighbors brace for battle over Castilleja's growth plan

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Comments

39 people like this
Posted by A Little Honesty Please
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 23, 2019 at 7:08 am

This editorial has many good points, but why does it say "past violations of their use permit," when referring to Castilleja, instead of "current violations?" As the Weekly must know, the school remains over its allowed enrollment, a willful act of violating a permit it negotiated with the city.

I listened to much of the Planning Commission meeting but didn't hear a single Castilleja supporter ever admit that the school is violating the law as he or she spoke. They want to claim it's all in the past, but it is going on right now.

Each day of violation is a misdemeanor, according to the Palo Alto Municipal Code. So Castilleja's board are committing a crime every day they fail to comply with the law.

Let's be honest -- about a school that's not.


39 people like this
Posted by No upside for Palo Alto
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 23, 2019 at 9:13 am

No upside for Palo Alto is a registered user.

Castilleja should be allowed to update their buildings, just as any other business would. They should NOT be allowed to increase their enrollment at that site and should in fact, return to their permitted enrollment. If they want to expand, do it AT AN ADDITIONAL LOCATION, as almost every local private school has done when they wished to expand.


40 people like this
Posted by Bill Bucy
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 23, 2019 at 10:06 am

Bill Bucy is a registered user.

In a July 17 Weekly story, the estimable Gennady Sheyner wrote the EIR for the project "concluded that the campus project would cause significant and unavoidable traffic problems, even if Castilleja adopts an aggressive new "transportation demand management" system as part of the campus expansion. "

In its August 23 editorial, the Weekly noted the EIR's forecast of traffic chaos due to Castilleja's expansion could worsen as the new Stanford Hospital comes on line and university graduate student housing is built.

Still, the Weekly seems to believe there is a way to solve this issue if only school and community leaders come together in some kind of community group hug.

I don't see it. But then, I live in Barron Park and, according to the Weekly, "will not be significantly affected" when Embarcadero turns into a parking lot for hours every day.




40 people like this
Posted by Worst Neighbor Award
a resident of Professorville
on Aug 23, 2019 at 11:09 am

Castilleja acts entitled in everything they do, believing their needs should be met over their property tax paying neighbors. Their actions have shown they think the rules don't apply to them, they can enroll as many students as they want, they have a right to expand because there is demand.

Children do as their parents do, and they often do as the school teaches. Here's what Casti is teaching by example-"I'm important, my needs matter over those of others, rules don't apply if I think I'm doing what I feel is right."

No Castilleja- rules, ordinances, and laws are what keep society flowing smoothly and when people adhere to them it makes for a pleasant community.

Stop this expansion project, there is no acceptable compromise. Add an additional location if you really want to grow and stop wasting our time and resources on this issue.


32 people like this
Posted by Neighbor
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 23, 2019 at 11:41 am

This editorial states that the garage would only impact a few neighbors on Emerson and Melville. Did you not read the DEIR? The impact would be throughout the surrounding community because of the re-flow of traffic to a single garage entrance on Bryant. Cars would avoid the garage and drop off students on side streets.

You missed it, Weekly.


21 people like this
Posted by Hulkamania
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 23, 2019 at 12:17 pm

Hulkamania is a registered user.

"Neighbors, in order to achieve a successful outcome, will need to let go of their hostility toward Castilleja that stems from its past violations..."

Really?!?! Those that ignore history are bound to see it repeated.


32 people like this
Posted by Community Center
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 23, 2019 at 2:22 pm

I live in Community Center and use Embarcadero Rd typically more than once per day. This project would substantially impact not only nearby neighbors, but everyone using this corridor. I don't hold any "hostility" toward Casti's past (and present) actions, but I am certainly very unhappy and alarmed by their proposal. It is a fact that Casti has shown disregard for their enrollment agreement for over 2 decades now. This makes me very skeptical that they would act in good faith to only perform projects which do not impact the city. I also take issue with the statement that the garage would only affect nearby neighbors. Casti traffic is extremely likely to back up onto Embarcadero and Bryant daily to get into that garage, affecting everyone trying to use Embarcadero at commute hours. Another part of the proposal is to remove housing owned by Casti and rezone it as non-taxable property, thus reducing Palo Alto's property tax income. That appears to be plain greed, and certainly harms the city. It does not seem that the authors of this article have thought about this proposal in much detail. Please actually review the DEIR and the proposal before writing an opinion. We will need to look toward our city leaders to protect the city.


9 people like this
Posted by Old Palo Alto, New Palo Alto
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 23, 2019 at 2:27 pm

Thank you for the thoughtful, practical, forward-thinking editorial, and for the great suggestions about reaching a compromise. Thank you for recognizing that Castilleja is a valuable community institution, and that moving or splitting the campus is not a reasonable or necessary alternative to modernization of the current site. It is disappointing that some of the comments in response to this well meaning and reasonably considered editorial exemplify the hostility and disproportionate outrage the author called out in cautioning that, "Neighbors, in order to achieve a successful outcome, will need to let go of their hostility toward Castilleja that stems from its past violations . . ." The negativity pervading those conservative perspectives does not serve the community well. Palo Alto is evolving, it is growing, it is dynamic and exciting. Let us help it along, not hold it back.


13 people like this
Posted by Long time Palo Altan
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 23, 2019 at 2:29 pm

Long time Palo Altan is a registered user.

I really appreciate the perspective of the Editorial Board and agree that compromise is in the community's best interest. I take offense to several of the comments above. First, "A Little Honesty Please" does indeed dwell in the past. Castilleja is working closely with the City and is reducing enrollment to specified levels. There is absolutely zero willful violation. And, "Neighbor" you mis-state what was in the DEIR. The DEIR says nothing at all about the "re-flow" of traffic "throughout the surrounding neighborhood," including Bryant Street. The DEIR names impacts on Emerson and Kingsley - impacts that Castilleja has publicly stated that they will address. What none of these comments mention are the many positives about the Castilleja project that are named in the DEIR: improved aesthetics in the neighborhood and sustainability measures that exceed Palo Alto's goals, to name a couple. Palo Altans are so tired of the NIMBYism that continually is voiced about this project, whose intent from the get-go has been to educate more young women, modernize a terribly aging campus, and do both by removing cars from neighborhood streets. Let's follow the advice of the Editorial Board - work toward compromise and let our City leaders focus on pressing issues that are FAR more important than a minor enrollment increase at a nationally regarded girls school.


7 people like this
Posted by PAR
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 23, 2019 at 3:33 pm

I appreciate this thoughtful editorial. Thank you for that clear synthesis. I agree with the three essential issues that will need to be resolved. I am especially impressed by that the editorial board has offered such productive and constructive ideas to the conversation. As unbiased observers who have been watching this debate for a long time, the board has a unique perspective. I see the strong feelings on both sides, and I agree that the city leaders will have work to guide this through to a compromise. I also agree that it can and should be done. Finding a way to work on this with an ad hoc committee could save city staff valuable time to address the many other important issues facing our community. I hope city leaders will take this good advice to heart.


3 people like this
Posted by I think you mean "vibrant"
a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 23, 2019 at 3:34 pm

I think you mean "vibrant" is a registered user.

Old/New writes: "Palo Alto is evolving, it is growing, it is dynamic and exciting."

I think you mean "vibrant".


31 people like this
Posted by Informed
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 23, 2019 at 4:40 pm

The proposed parking garage IS a problem for Palo Alto - and this newspaper is mistaken when it states that the garage will only have a major impact on a" few property owners on Emerson and Melville Avenue. The phrase "build it and they will come" applies - and this garage will result in more drivers focused on the two entry/egress points. The garage as proposed has its entry point on Bryant and its egress on Emerson. Problems:1) Bryant is a bike boulevard (!!)used by huge numbers of public school kids heading to Paly and the elementary schools as well as commuters to work. More cars turning left from Embarcadero onto Bryant will be interacting with these cyclists, most of them young people. 2) In the afternoon, large numbers of students leaving Paly travel by bike using the sidewalk on Embarcadero. They will have to deal with more cars turning right onto Embarcadero 3) There are also many afternoon drivers/cyclist who use Embarcadero to to to after school activities, sports practices etc. 4) Knocking down two houses and taking out mature redwoods will drastically alter the corner of Emerson and Embarcadero and the residential experience for everyone, not just the people who live across the street.


28 people like this
Posted by JR
a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 23, 2019 at 8:21 pm

PA should refuse to negotiate unless Castilleja comes back with a plan that doesn't put a parking garage entrance on Bryant Bike Boulevard. The idea is absurd on its face and isn't worth considering for one second.


22 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 24, 2019 at 6:48 am

mauricio is a registered user.

The expansion would not impact just a few nearby residents. Embarcadero is a major arterial and is used widely during the time Casti is open, the additional traffic mess would impact many.

Again, I fail to understand how an elitist private school that has been blatantly violating its user permit for years is [portion removed] allowed to submit further expansion plans. [Portion removed.]


26 people like this
Posted by Traffic conerns
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 24, 2019 at 11:00 am

Living at Kingley and Emerson I am more than just a little concerned about traffic - even as is. In the over 4 years I have lost count of the times cars have sped through the stop sign at this corner. More unnerving are the times of almost getting hit by those cars while I try to get out of my driveway to the road there. Bikes also are riding up/down the length of Kingsley here.

The thought of adding more traffic on Kingsley due to changes in traffic pattern to accommodate the school distresses me. It adds my concern for bicyclists there too.


19 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 25, 2019 at 10:09 am

Annette is a registered user.

I agree that this editorial makes some very good points. But I think the statement, "While most Palo Altans will not be significantly affected . . . " is overly optimistic. A major project that impacts Embarcadero traffic circulation impacts every resident and visitor who drives in that area; traffic there is significant more often than not; during commute hours it is a prime example of gridlock.

We've grown to a point that more than ever before the context of a project matters tremendously. The Castilleja project comes along at a time when we don't know what the grade separation solution will be and when the only thing we know for sure about the impact of the growth in Stanford's proposed GUP is that it will be significant.

We've pretty much developed ourselves into a corner by pursuing job/commercial growth w/o balancing it with adequate housing growth and transportation/circulation solutions. If we don't proceed more thoughtfully, starting immediately, the currently untenable situation will only worsen. Unfortunately for Castilleja, I think their development plan has been submitted at a time when the City cannot afford to approve it as is.

I doubt the Castilleja project will stand alone as a project that is negatively impacted by the City's failure to adapt principles of smart growth. But it's not too late to step back, reassess, and proceed more thoughtfully.


16 people like this
Posted by Chip
a resident of Professorville
on Aug 26, 2019 at 12:55 pm

Castilleja continues its over-enrollment, long after that was made public. In what world are we to believe that after 20+ years of ongoing violation this institution offers truth & transparency?

The 50,000 sq ft parking garage is a huge problem. If Casti's transportation system greatly reduces traffic, why do they need so much parking? Aside from ingress/egress issues in the daytime, might we expect that the facility will sponsor numerous weekend & after-hours events which will bring additional traffic to neighborhood on weekends & evenings? One acre = 43,560 sq. ft, which allows 242 parking spaces. Do the math.

Casti was an "asset to the community" 100 years ago. It was both a day and a boarding school. Now, not so much. It certainly isn't among the top 10 attractions anyone thinks of when they hear "Palo Alto." People now think of Stanford, top public schools, lovely residential neighborhoods, tree canopies, appealing downtown, office parks, thriving VC, software & medical research companies, reasonably proximate major airports, varied recreation, etc. Does anyone move to Palo Alto for Castilleja School?

Students commuting from other Peninsula communities do have other choices: Menlo School, SHP, Crystal Springs, Notre Dame de Namur + more choices in SF & San Jose areas. Nueva & Pinewood both have H.S. campus sites separate from the lower schools. In the published private school rankings Casti is so proud of, the enrollment is always listed at 434. We know that's incorrect. Btw, the above schools + others are all graded A+ on Niche.com. Castilleja, per web sites has 15 AP classes. Most of the others above have at least 19. Is it worth the community disruption so Casti can add some AP classes? Not to most PA residents, for a school which is only supposed to have 434 students including middle-schoolers.

Traffic is a major issue, not only for neighbors, cyclists, & pedestrians -both students & adults, but for everyone else who must use Embarcadero Rd. For many Stanford, PAMF, and PAUSD personnel, including teachers, Embarcadero is the only viable access from 101. A couple of PA teachers I know may leave because it already takes 25 minutes to get to 101 after school. It was slightly better before MP's Willows residents got their restrictions to through-traffic enacted. Nobody wants more traffic. Except Castilleja, to fill its garage?


11 people like this
Posted by George
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 26, 2019 at 7:09 pm

Castilleja needs a second campus. Adding another campus elsewhere could be a major benefit for the school and a move towards peace at last between the perpetual arrogance of the school administration and a community that simply wants to retain the character it bought into. A residential neighborhood is not the place for a fully built institution with certain needs to grow a no land of its own to do so. Not to mention to clear and daily traffic issues.
Castilleja needs to look for a Castilleja 2 somewhere else.


7 people like this
Posted by Rebecca Eisenberg
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 29, 2019 at 12:18 am

Rebecca Eisenberg is a registered user.

This editorial is what happens when the writers do not have kids or at least don't consider the needs of people of ALL ages in the community. This construction WILL impact negatively MANY residents, not just those who live nearby.

For example:

- ALL Paly students and most students at Walter Hays -- the two PUBLIC schools closest to Castilleja -- will face dangerous conditions due to greatly increased car traffic on our city's BIKE BOULEVARD. This will lead to cars hitting bikers and pedestrians. Many victims will be children; some will be seniors. This is a safety issue.

- ALL public school students and families will face a continued drain and opportunity cost on their financing given the lost millions of dollars of potential property tax revenue due to this tax-exempt private (NOT open to the public at all!) organization existing on 42 lots of RH-1 zoned property.

- ALL Palo Altans will suffer from increased traffic, increased noise, increased pollution due to construction, right in the heart of our most sought-after residential neighborhood.

And in return, what does Palo Alto receive in exchange for foregoing property tax revenue on these 42 lots of RH-1? NOTHING. Castilleja is one of the best schools ion the country, but it has benefited from Palo Alto protection at the expense of our public schools. Castilleja's new parking lot will NOT be open to the public, and its state of the art new swimming pool will NOT be available to be used by the community. Castilleja is not a community resource.

Castilleja is a private institution that has been supported by our public funds for decades. While it was a boarding school, maybe that made sense. As it transitioned from a boarding school to a day school, it made less sense. Now that we are facing the biggest housing crisis in our state's history, at a time where our public school students are facing budget cuts regularly, WHY would we consider giving so much more to an organization that gives us nothing back in return?

It's time to return those lots to the purpose for which they are zoned: single family housing. Even multi-family housing (possibly, say, for TEACHERS?) would fit better in with the character of the neighborhood. A 5 story-building (HEY PALO ALTO ONLINE, read the building codes! you need to include underground space in these situations) with a giant parking lot and a state-of-the-art high-tech pool does not belong in RH-1. And when that huge building pays no taxes and shares none of its resources with the community, why is this even a conversation?

Time to direct Castilleja to find a location more suited for its admirable, exciting expansion plans. It is certain that the school will have many central locations in correctly-zoned neighborhoods, just like its peer schools, including Menlo (El Camino), Sacred Heart, Nueva, and frankly, every other high-integrity independent school in the area. Why not?


5 people like this
Posted by Important facts
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 4, 2019 at 2:24 pm

These facts bear repeating:
what does Palo Alto receive in exchange for foregoing property tax revenue on these 42 lots of RH-1?

NOTHING. Castilleja is one of the best schools in the country, but it has benefited from Palo Alto protection at the expense of our public schools.

Castilleja's new parking lot will NOT be open to the public, and its state of the art
new swimming pool will NOT be available to be used by the community. Castilleja is not a community resource.

Castilleja is a private institution that has been supported by our public funds for decades


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