With Castilleja School's proposal to rebuild its Bryant Street campus inching toward approval, supporters and opponents of the contentious plan brought their frustrations to the city's Planning and Transportation Commission on Wednesday night.
Though their views contrasted sharply, members of both camps expressed significant misgivings about the process in front of the planning commission. Those who oppose the plan characterized the Castilleja project as illegal and detrimental to the surrounding neighborhood. Those who support it pointed at the city's seemingly endless review process and argued that it's well past time to grant the school approval.
The Castilleja plan, which has been moving through the city's review process for more than five years, involves the replacement of numerous academic buildings, the relocation of a swimming pool and the construction of an underground garage.
The planning commission, which had previously approved the project in 2020, was scheduled to deliberate Castilleja's request for a variance that would to enable it to demolish and replace academic buildings as well as a zone change that would the address construction of subterranean garages in residential neighborhoods — a policy that would have a ripple effect well beyond the school.
The project has undergone numerous revisions over since March 2021, when the City Council voted to request further design revisions to the school's façade, to consider new garage options and to further analyze the zoning issues at the center of the application, including the question of whether an underground garage should be included in calculations of project square footage.
After that procedural setback, Castilleja secured a victory earlier this month when the Architectural Review Board voted to advance a revised design with a modified façade and to recommend a parking garage with 69 spaces. But the complex zoning questions remained unresolved after Wednesday's meeting, with the planning commission agreeing to dedicate most of its time to public comments and to defer its own deliberations and decisions until April 20.
Like many other supporters of the Castilleja plan, resident Jochen Profit lamented on Wednesday the "Groundhog Day" vibe of the review process and noted that factors such as traffic and environmental impacts have already been extensively debated and are baked into the proposal that the commission had previously approved. He called the city's approach on Castilleja's plan "an example of failed governance."
"Casti really is making a huge infrastructure investment in the city of Palo Alto," Profit said. "At this juncture, the school has provided you with an incredible amount of information about traffic mitigation measures and how they will be held accountable."
Dozens of other residents, many speaking in groups of five, shared his frustration. Roger McCarthy, who lives about a mile from the school, said Castilleja's proposal to expand enrollment from the current level of 418 to 540 is critically important at a time when the nation is trying to get more young women involved in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. McCarthy, an engineer who holds board positions at the National Academy of Engineering, the National Research Council and the National Academies Corporation, lamented that the city has "reached a point where this horrendous NIMBY delay has become unjust to the future of young women."
Opponents also came out in full force, with dozens arguing that the school's proposed reconstruction project is an affront to the single-family character of the surrounding neighborhood. While many said they have no objections to the school modernizing its facilities, some slammed the proposed garage and characterized Castilleja's plans to grow enrollment as overly ambitious.
Numerous critics lamented the environmental impacts of construction, while many others suggested that the variance request runs afoul of the city's zoning regulations. The school, which has occupied the Bryant Street campus for more than a century, requires a variance because it does not conform with the density regulations in the current zoning code. While its status as a nonconforming structure allows it to continue operating, its proposal to demolish the existing buildings and construct new ones require permission from the city by means of a variance.
While the commission had previously voted to approve a variance, Leila Moncharsh, the attorney representing the neighborhood group Preserve Neighborhood Quality of Life Now (PNQL Now), argued that the school's request is inappropriate given the large amount of square footage at stake. Approving the variance, she suggested in a letter, would encourage other property owners to argue in the future that they too should be granted similar exceptions.
"Basically, the City Council will be chipping away at its own ordinance and inviting lawsuits for similar rights as what is now contemplated here," Moncharsh wrote. "Moreover, what does the City Council propose to do when Castilleja comes back before it in the future, wanting another variance for even more square footage? Its history shows that it has an unquenchable thirst for growth and the City Council will have already made findings here that Castilleja is a 'special case' deserving of additional square footage over what is legally allowable."
Several opponents of Castilleja's plan similarly argued on Wednesday that the city should reject the variance on technical grounds. Jeff Levinsky noted that the variance would give the school a privilege that none of the surrounding properties get: more density.
"Castilleja is getting to build already far more floor area than many of its neighbors," Levinsky said.
Other critics of the reconstruction plan brought up broader concerns about the environmental impacts of demolishing buildings and constructing a garage. While Castilleja has consistently maintained the proposed garage is an "environmentally superior" alternative and one that the school included at the behest of neighbors, Mary Sylvester was among those who argued that the underground structure is not needed. Sylvester who lives near Castilleja and who is affiliated with PNQL Now, noted that the relocation of the swimming pool will require pumping out a vast amount of groundwater and extracting many tons of soil.
"Our community's environmental future is being threatened time and time again by giveaways of fragile, irreplaceable natural resources to the politically well-connected and to the highest bidders," Sylvester said. "It's time now to put a pause on this."
The commission had already discussed the project at length on Jan. 19, at which time it focused on the school's plans to manage traffic impacts and increase enrollment. It left open, however, the murky question of whether underground garages should be allowed in single-family residential neighborhoods. Though underground parking is prohibited for residential properties in the single-family zone, city's planners had determined that the prohibition does not apply to nonresidential developments.
For precedent, the city cited Congregation Kol Emeth, a synagogue that was recently allowed to construct an underground garage. While this interpretation favors Castilleja, city planners were ambivalent over whether underground parking should count toward the square footage calculations (it did not in the case of Kol Emeth). The council directed planners last year to clarify that issue through a "text amendment" that would count underground parking as floor area. Council members also leaned toward not counting the garage toward square footage in Castilleja's case as long as the underground structure would accommodate no more than half of the school's required parking spaces.
Castilleja's attorney, Mindie Romanowsky, argued on Wednesday against adopting a text amendment, which she said is "legally unnecessary" and "arbitrary."
"The City approved a prior nonresidential project in an R-1 zone and concluded that an underground parking for nonresidential accessory use like a parking garage does not count as gross floor area," Romanowsky said, alluding to Kol Emeth. "It would be arbitrary to take a different position now."
Nanci Kauffman, head of school at Castilleja, suggested that the school's buildings would conform more closely to the city's zoning code than the ones they'd be replacing. The plan, she said, reduces the school's gross floor area and is "compatible with the residential character of the neighborhood."
"After years of listening to our neighbors, city staff and leaders like you, we have a proposal built upon compromise that checks all of the boxes," Kauffman said.