Castilleja School's polarizing bid to rebuild its Bryant Street campus and construct an underground garage will return to the spotlight this week, when Palo Alto's two main land-use bodies start reviewing the school's plans.
The school's bid to expand its enrollment and reconstruct its facilities has been moving through the city's approval process since 2016, when Castilleja applied for a new conditional-use permit that would allow it to gradually grow its student population from its current level of 426 to 540. In 2019, the school submitted plans to rebuild most of its campus, which calls for demolishing and rebuilding three buildings on its campus, relocating the swimming pool and adding an underground parking structure.
The school's modernization plans have polarized the Professorville and Old Palo Alto neighborhoods, with some residents panning Castilleja's construction plan as a colossal overreach and an affront on the surrounding single-family neighborhood, and others calling a sorely needed upgrade for an acclaimed institution dedicated to educating young women. The City Council concurred with some of the arguments from the project's critics in March, when it reviewed Castilleja's plans and directed it to reduce its proposed underground garage — a target for project opponents — and to further refine the design of its buildings to make it more compatible with the residential areas that abut its campus at 1310 Bryant St.
The revised plans, which seek to respond to the council's direction, are now set to undergo a series of reviews by the Architectural Review Board, which will consider them on Dec. 2, and the Planning and Transportation Commission, which will review them on Dec. 8. In both cases, the public hearings are intended to solicit early feedback and will not include any formal action.
Among the biggest differences between Castilleja's prior plan and its current one is the size of the proposed underground garage. The school's new plans include five garage designs, though only three comply with the council's request that underground parking make up no more than 50% of the total spaces on campus. Because Castilleja needs to provide at least 104 parking spaces to be zone complaint, this means no more than 52 can be below grade, according to staff. Three of Castilleja's proposed designs include 52 underground parking spaces, while two other options have 57 and 69 underground spaces, respectively.
So far, planning staff is leaning toward what's known as "Scheme E," which combines a 52-space underground garage with 11 new at-grade parking spaces. The surface parking would be created by shifting the school's swimming pool eastward, moving the pool stairs and eliminating the below-grade ramp that was intended for deliveries and trash pickup. These activities, which would be relegated to the underground garage in the original proposal, would now take place in designated loading areas in the Emerson parking lot.
When added to 26 surface spaces that currently exist and that would remain, Scheme E creates a total of 89 spaces. While this would require a 14% reduction in the parking requirement, Planning Director Jonathan Lait suggested in a report that staff would be amenable to adjusting the parking requirements, given Castilleja's suite of measures that discourage driving to school. The school's "transportation management plan" includes, among other features, shuttles, carpool programs and a 2015 policy that requires staff to rely on alternative modes of transportation at least three times per week.
"Staff conceptually supports a parking adjustment for the project given the Council's direction to reduce the size of the garage and Castilleja's robust TDM plan," Lait wrote. "The TDM plan has been further enhanced and is expected to result in reduced parking demand."
The other two alternatives with 52 underground spaces have drawbacks that make them either less feasible or less desirable. One, known as Scheme B, would create a total of 83 spaces and, as such, require a 20% parking reduction, the maximum allowed under the zoning code. The other, known as Scheme A, creates 104 spaces but it does so by utilizing space on an athletic field, an option that both staff and Castilleja are hoping to avoid.
If approved, the underground garage would have 24 fewer spaces than the structure that was previously proposed. It would occupy about 24,294 square feet, which is 8,186 square feet less than in the original proposal. As such, it is "anticipated to have fewer impacts on protected trees and construction-related disturbances," according to a new report from the Department of Planning and Community Environment. "Additionally, such reduction responds to concerns expressed by some community members about the size of the originally proposed structure."
To assuage the community's fears about the traffic impacts of its expansion, a key area of concern for council members and project opponents alike, Castilleja is now proposing several new policies to discourage driving near the campus. These including new shuttle and bus routes, a bike-share program, a "guaranteed ride home" program for employees who don't drive but who need may need to leave the school for an emergency (they would be reimbursed for the cost of transportation) and a new Castilleja Lyft program that will provide free midday rides for faculty and staff, according to the plan that the school released last month.
If the school fails to meet its trip cap numbers, it would also establish a "Kiss n' Ride" program that allows parents to drop off and pick up their children at an off-site location about 15 minutes before school starts. A shuttle would then bring them to the campus.
While project critics, including members of the group PNQLNow, have advocated for such a program, the revised plans are unlikely to satisfy all their concerns. Andie Reed, one of the group's co-founders, noted that even the revised project includes elements that residents have consistently deemed to be problematic — namely, an underground garage that many believe is incompatible with the neighborhood. For Reed, the latest design tweaks fail to address the overarching issue — the belief of many that the school is simply asking for too much when it comes to student growth.
"We think a 30% increase in enrollment excessive," Reed said in an interview. "If they were to request a 10% enrollment increase, we'd be looking at about 450 students and there's there's sufficient parking on-site for 450. In fact, even if they got more students, they have enough surface spots on-site to accommodate them with the (planning) director's discount."
"There is no reason for the underground garage," Reed said. "They just want to have less parking on-site so that they can have a bigger more massive building."
Castilleja, for its part, has consistently rejected the notion that it is looking to "expand." While its plans call for increasing student enrollment, the project would actually constitute a reduction in total building area, according to planning staff. Based on recent reviews by an independent consultant, the city determined that Castilleja has an existing gross floor area of 138,345 square feet. If the project advances, the floor area would be 128,687 square feet, according to planning staff.
Nanci Kauffman, Castilleja's head of school, told this news of organization that the school believes its new plans "check all the boxes" when it comes to addressing concerns from residents, city commissioners and the council.
"We are saving more trees in the newest version and we're actually reducing our footprint," Kauffman said. "It's often called an 'expansion,' but the footprint would be smaller."
The length and complexity of the approval process has not discouraged the school, Kauffman said, given the improvements in the project.
"We just want to be educating girls," Kauffman said. "I feel this plan is better than ever because of all the feedback and iteration and response. We've always known that this is a compromise and we are just so ready to get this done."