BY SARA TABIN
Daily Post Staff Writer
Palo Alto Councilwoman Lydia Kou, who is seen as a slow-growth candidate, sent an email to her supporters Thursday defending her refusal to share her opinion about one of the biggest development projects that will face the city in the coming year, the expansion of Castilleja School.
Four families with Castilleja ties donated $35,650 to Kou during the 2016 race.
She has received almost $4,000 from people with Castilleja ties this year. She got $950 each from former trustee Asher Waldfogel and his wife Helen McLean. She received $900 from former trustee Gabrielle Layton. She also got $1,000 from Jordan Jackson, one of the school’s class of 2017 representatives.
The 112-year-old girls middle and high school wants to expand its enrollment from 430 to 570 students and build new academic buildings and a parking garage beneath the playing field that fronts Embarcadero Road.
“There are rumors that my unwillingness to take a strong position on the Castilleja expansion project indicates that I am either supporting or opposed to one side or the other,” she said. “The truth is that I am legally and ethically obligated to not take a position and maintain an open mind on such matters until there has been a full hearing before City Council.”
She said she is concerned that if she shares her opinion now she will be forced to recuse herself if she is on the council when the project comes up. Kou said she has a record of not voting for exceptions for projects that will worsen traffic.
The other council candidates didn’t say how they would rule but most were willing to share thoughts on the project with the Post.
Planning Commissioners Cari Templeton and Ed Lauing declined to comment since the project is currently before the Planning Commission.
Councilman Greg Tanaka, who is up for re-election this year, said he hasn’t fully formed an opinion. He said he wants to make sure the neighborhood is protected but said Castilleja is an “amazing” school for women. Tanaka said Castilleja is the project that everyone talks about but that never comes before council.
Code violation concerns
Former Mayor Pat Burt, who is running for council, pointed out that the school was caught in violation of its Conditional Use Permit because it had more students than its allowed 415. He said he thinks there is a compromise to be had if the school introduces an “aggressive” program to decrease car trips and parking.
Burt said he is concerned that after 4½ years of waiting, the project is “racing forward” now. He suggested that businesses like Castilleja be required to self-report if they are in compliance with their CUPs under the penalty of perjury to make sure they aren’t getting away with being out of compliance.
Another council candidate, Human Relations Commissioner Steven Lee, said he wanted to be careful to not say anything that would preclude himself from voting on the project.
He said that when Stanford brought its proposal to expand to the county he was in favor of more mitigation. He said he thinks the city can support the education of young women while holding people to code.
Candidate Ajit Varma said it isn’t clear what the benefits of the project are to the city. He said the school is a good resource but it isn’t paying taxes and has violated its CUP. He suggested the school offer benefits to Palo Alto like resident-only spots or scholarships. He said he thinks it is fine for the school to remain the size it is now.
Raven Malone said she knows there are concerns in the community about things like traffic if the school expands. She said she can’t say where she stands on the issue. She said she plans to take all views and opinions into account.
Greer Stone said he has concerns with the project including increased traffic and that the school misled the community on its CUP. He said anything that adds single-occupancy vehicle trips is bad for the city’s climate goals. But he said Castilleja has a critical mission of providing women with good educations.
Rebecca Eisenberg said she thinks the school should have been fined $500 a day for every day they were out of compliance. She said she thinks private interests call too many shots in the city. She said Castilleja is a great school but she is upset that the CUP wasn’t enforced more rigorously.