Castilleja has new expansion plan

Daily Post Staff Writer

As Castilleja School in Palo Alto submits its most updated plans today to expand its campus, a look back shows years of contention between those who favor the expansion and those who are fed up with the school breaking the rules and exceeding its allowable enrollment.

The all-girls school at 1310 Bryant St. is currently allowed to have 415 students, but it has exceeded this number since 2002.

Currently, there are 438 students enrolled at Castilleja. The school vowed to cut enrollment to 415 by 2018, but instead the city requested the school apply for a new conditional use permit, or CUP, allowing more students at the school, according to Nanci Kauffman, Castilleja’s head of school.

The school is asking for permission to increase its enrollment from 438 to 540 students over the next four years.

Castilleja has operated in the community for more than 100 years educating girls from sixth through 12th grades. Its success has led to a growing student population that currently pays a yearly tuition of $44,465. But the school’s growth has caused a strain on the surrounding neighborhood that includes some of the most expensive homes in Palo Alto.

School fined

When neighbors found out the school was in violation in 2013, they filed a complaint with the city. The school then had to pay a $265,000fine.

For about four years now, the school has been holding community meetings to discuss its plans with neighbors.

Prior to the school’s current plans to increase enrollment, it had initially pushed for an increase in 2013, but at a neighborhood meeting in August 2013, the school announced it had ditched its plans to increase enrollment by 100 students after neighbors complained it would worsen traffic and parking on the surrounding streets.

At the time, the school wanted to seek city approval to increase enrollment to 515 students.

“It was a little bit ignorant of us to not talk to (the neighbors) first about traffic,” Joe Martignetti, director of the Castilleja School Foundation said at the time, since the neighbors deal with it on a daily basis.

Kauffman said at the meeting that the reason for the over-enrollment was that the school wants to serve as many girls as possible and demand is high.

After they were fined, Castilleja officials acknowledged the school hadn’t been following the rules under its permit.

To deal with traffic concerns, the school made changes to its drop-off procedures starting in the fall of 2013. Those measures included freeing up 155 parking spaces on Spieker Field located at the side of the campus along Embarcadero Road, loading the school bus in the school’s campus circle rather than on the street, and having two shuttles that pick up 40-60 students from Los Altos and Woodside every day.

By December 2013, city officials told the school that it must find a faster way to cut enrollment if it wants to continue operating.

The school had submitted plans to reduce enrollment, but the city wanted to see reductions sooner. The school was given until Jan. 20, 2014, to give the city a more aggressive plan to shrink enrollment. A revised proposal was submitted.

In March 2014, the school announced it would be asking for a new permit, which city planners backed saying it would give the school a chance to get resident input and take a closer look at the effect the school has on the neighborhood.

Underground parking

By 2015, the school was looking into the possibility of adding underground parking to its campus to help alleviate parking and traffic problems caused by increasing enrollment.

At a community meeting in 2016, Kauffman said the plans for underground parking had been put on hold as the school moved forward with its conditional use permit application and the traffic study of Embarcadero Road, which included looking at alternatives to change the location of the student drop-off and pick-up.

The school has hired Steve Emslie, the city of Palo Alto’s former planning director and assistant city manager, to help with planning.

By late summer 2016, Castilleja submitted its plans to the city which included the underground parking garage.

Traffic worries neighbors

Nelson Ng, who lives at 1260 Emerson St., said in August that the proposed garage exit would directly face the front of his home.

His home sits across the street from another home, which the school owns. The school’s plans included demolishing this home at 1263 Emerson St. and the neighboring home at 1235 Emerson St. to create room for an exit ramp.

Rob Levitsky, who lives at 1200 Emerson St. and also owns the home at 1215 Emerson St., said in August that the changes will transform the neighborhood into a commercial setting.

“The result would be the destruction of the 1200 block of Emerson Street as we know it,” Levitsky said.

Along with submitted plans for an underground parking garage, the school submitted its CUP application June 30, asking for permission to increase its enrollment from 438 to 540 students over the next four years.

As for construction plans, Castilleja had also proposed moving the student drop-off and pick-up from Kellogg Avenue to the garage, and lowering the center of campus and the pool to help keep noise down.

And then the City Council election came.

Five Palo Alto families with ties to Castilleja contributed more than $100,000 to candidates Lydia Kou, who won in November, and Arthur Keller. Kou and Keller are both in favor of slower growth.

The five families gave Keller’s campaign $65,300. These same contributors gave $65,000 to Kou’s campaign.

This turned the campaign around, and instead of the typical pro-growth candidates leading the campaign with contributions from developers, two candidates in favor of slower growth took the lead.

Tree chopped down

In October, just before the election, residents were up in arms over the school’s removal of a 120-foot redwood tree next to Castilleja at 1235 Emerson St.

The arborist’s report caused an uproar among residents who doubted there was any problem with the tree. They feared Castilleja officials only wanted the tree gone because it stood in the way of the school’s plans to expand and build an underground parking garage.

Levitsky told the Post yesterday that it was the bringing down of the tree that really brought the neighbors together.

“We don’t exactly know what they are doing,” he said of the school. “So we have to be up in arms.”

In February, neighbors against Castilleja’s plans to expand submitted a petition with 400 signatures to the City Council. As of this month, the petition had just under 600 signatures.

The petition asked council to enforce the school’s allowable enrollment of 415 students — a number the school has exceeded for 15 years.

Yard signs

In addition to the petition, residents have also been posting signs in their front yards. The signs say, “Stop Castilleja expansion,” “Stop 15 years of permit violations” and “Save PA neighborhoods.”

Levitsky said the hope is parents dropping off their children at the school will see the signs and realize neighbors aren’t happy with the expansion plans.

In March, the school’s project went before the city’s planning commission for the first time. Critics of the school’s plan to expand its campus were miffed when proponents of the project spoke at the meeting about how “wonderful” the private all-girls school is and the education it provides.

The critics aren’t disputing the qualities of the school, they’re concerned about what the expansion will do to their neighborhood.

The purpose of the meeting wasn’t to determine the fate of the project but rather to determine what issues will be investigated in the environmental impact report.

In addition to petitions and yard signs, residents submitted a formal complaint to City Manager Jim Keene and council on March 25. The complaint asks the city to investigate Castilleja for its violations.

Revised plan expected today

This brings us to today. The school is submitting revised plans for its projects, and one of the biggest changes shifts the garage exit directly across from Melville Avenue, instead of in front of Ng’s house.

“The new design responds to feedback gathered from the community during several years of outreach and dialogue with neighbors,” school officials said in a statement yesterday.

But Ng said that while the exit is no longer directly in front of his house, it’s still an issue. The traffic from the garage will still be in front of his home, he said.

The school invited Ng to what he called a “private viewing” to see the revised plans. He didn’t attend the meeting last night, saying that if the plans are ready, then everyone from the public should be able to see them.

Castilleja shouldn’t be handpicking neighbors to come view its plans, he said.

The public has until May 12 to provide comments on the new plans as part of environmental review process.