A new alternative that seeks to reduce traffic impacts of Castilleja School's proposed expansion is included in a much-anticipated final environmental impact report released Wednesday evening by the city of Palo Alto.
The final environmental impact report (EIR), which is hundreds of pages long, documents a new project alternative proposed by Castilleja, required mitigation measures and responses to comments received while the draft environmental impact report circulated for public review last year.
The yearslong, divisive project has driven a wedge between the private all-girls school and residents in the surrounding Old Palo Alto neighborhood south of Embarcadero Road. The final EIR still flags impacts related to land use and traffic as "significant and unavoidable."
But school administrators on Thursday said they're hopeful the new alternative Castilleja proposed to address neighbors' concerns — reducing the size of an underground parking garage, retaining two homes on Emerson Street and creating multiple drop-off and pick-up locations to ease traffic — provides a path forward for the project. With certain mitigation requirements, the alternative would reduce both land use and traffic impacts, the final EIR states.
"This is the one alternative that does not have any significant and unavoidable impacts, therefore giving Castilleja ideally a path forward toward approval," said Lorraine Brown, the school's director of communications and community relations.
Neighbors, meanwhile, were concerned that they are seeing this proposed alternative for the first time and won't have adequate opportunity to review and comment on it before a series of public hearings begin in August to continue the review process.
"It's pretty harried from this end, and we don't feel we're getting a good chance to have input and participate," said Andie Reed, who lives on Melville Avenue.
Under the proposed alternative, Castilleja would demolish five campus buildings and the existing at-grade pool and replace them with an academic building, underground parking structure with 98 spaces, a new below-grade pool with sound wall, below-grade delivery and trash enclosures/waste pick-up and reconstruction of the Circle in the center of the Bryant Street campus.
Most significantly, the new plan proposes that drop-off and pickup traffic would be distributed to three locations — the parking garage, a loop driveway on Bryant Street and a loop driveway on Kellogg Avenue — and students' families would be assigned a specific drop-off/pick-up location. By contrast, the proposed project would limit drop-offs and pickups to the garage, requiring all traffic to enter and exit the facility.
Under this alternative, the parking garage would have a single entrance off of Bryant Street and a single exit onto Emerson Street. Reconfiguring the parking garage would mean two homes on Emerson Street don't need to be demolished and a row of six redwood trees at the western edge of the school's Spieker Field would also be retained.
"We heard loud and clear from some neighbors that preserving housing on Emerson was really important to them to maintain the neighborhood feel. By reducing the size of the garage in the project alternative we were able to do that as well as preserve even more trees than we had originally anticipated," said Kathy Layendecker, Castilleja's associate head of school. "All of those things we knew were important to neighbors and the community."
The transportation impact analysis for this alternative found that the new pick-up and drop-off locations would "result in a significant increase" in traffic levels (defined as the Traffic Infusion on Residential Environment, or TIRE, index) and potential queues of cars that exceed capacity for the Bryant Street drop-off location. A recommended modification is to assess the drop-off assignments routinely "to balance traffic flows sufficient to avoid a significant TIRE Index increase in the project vicinity and maintain appropriate vehicle queues."
Neighbors said they also worry the alternative drop-off and pickup locations could exacerbate the traffic around the school.
However, the final EIR states that with implementation of a transportation demand management program, this alternative "would eliminate the project's significant and unavoidable land use compatibility impact." This alternative would not create any additional land use or traffic impacts, the document states.
Under this alternative, compared to the proposed project, the campus' number of total parking spaces would decrease from 143 to 124.
This alternative includes no changes to Castilleja's proposed enrollment cap of 540 students or the number and frequency of special events the school can host, two issues that are still of concern to neighbors.
The final EIR also includes analysis of four other alternatives the city studied: no project moving forward at all; a moderate enrollment increase (with a cap of 506 students); a moderate enrollment increase with reduced parking (the same enrollment cap, plus a smaller parking garage and increased surface parking); and a no-garage design. The moderate enrollment alternatives "would not substantially reduce the project's significant land use impact, and impacts would be similar to that of the proposed project," the EIR states.
Several other alternatives were also considered but ultimately rejected "because they were determined to be infeasible and/or incapable of reducing the project's environmental effects," the document states. Those alternatives were relocating the entire campus, relocating some Castilleja students to another site, moving special programs and events offsite, requiring surface parking, modifying circulation routes from the garage and establishing a lower enrollment cap of 489 students.
Neighbors continue to advocate for splitting the campus, however, pointing to examples of other Bay Area private schools that have done that, using shuttles and offsite parking for teachers, students and parents.
Special events also continue to be a thorny issue for neighbors. Castilleja has proposed several restrictions that would reduce the land use impact of special events to less than significant, the final EIR states, including no on-campus events on Saturdays, athletic competitions only on weekdays and before 8 p.m., a maximum of 90 events with more than 50 guests each year, providing event parking on Spieker Field (all parking for events with fewer than 50 guests would be within the campus) and no events on campus that do not directly relate to Castilleja.
But Castilleja is "misleading in how they promote what their conditions of approval are currently," Reed said, maintaining that the school's conditional use permit doesn't allow for that many events. The permit allows for five major events annually, including back to school night and graduation, and an "undetermined number of events of 50 to 100 persons," the final EIR states, and requires Castilleja to publish online and distribute to neighbors annually a list of special events for 50 to 100 people.
Resident Mary Sylvester said the final EIR has one notable omission that she hopes will be addressed: the potential impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the school's expansion plans.
"This is another area that could be studied: Does the school need to have all the students and teachers and support staff on campus five days a week for 8 to 12 hours a day?" she said. "I think that's a critical piece."
In February, Castilleja had submitted a revised plan to the city that reduced the size of the proposed garage and retained the two homes that had been previously slated for demolition.
The project has several more hurdles to clear before reaching the City Council, including reviews by the Architectural Review Board, Planning and Transportation Commission and Historic Resources Board, which will provide recommendations to the council.
The Architectural Review Board will hold a hearing on the final EIR on Aug. 20 and the Planning and Transportation Commission on Aug. 26. Neighbors said they've asked the city to space the meetings further out to give them more time to provide input.
"This is an important step along that path and one that will inform decision-makers," Layendecker said of the final environmental analysis. "There's still a considerable number of events ahead of us in the process."