Council decides it can’t decide on Castilleja project right now; another hearing set

An illustration of what Castilleja School's campus will look like after it is renovated. Illustration from Castilleja.

Daily Post Staff Writer

Palo Alto City Council early this morning punted the Castilleja School expansion project and its contentious underground parking garage to its March 29 meeting, which will delay a final verdict on the project that has been in the works since 2015.

Vice Mayor Pat Burt made a motion to hold off on a decision on the project because council wanted to take more time to figure out how to interpret the project’s proposed underground garage, which the council decided with a 4-3 vote last night should be considered a garage and not a basement.

The garage would be built under the playing field that faced Embarcadero Road. After the garage is built, a new playing field would be built on top.

Now that it’s considered a garage, it’s likely the school may have to either redesign it or possibly abandon it entirely.

Most of the council members favor reducing the size of the garage or dropping it.

The exclusive all-girls school at 1310 Bryant St., which charges $52,000 a year for tuition and fees, wants to expand from 426 students to 540 and build a new 78-space underground parking garage, which neighbors say violates city building codes and is too big.

Opponents at last week’s hearing focused on the garage, which city planners and Castilleja wanted to call a “basement.” Opponents also said if council approved the garage, Castilleja should be charged thousands of dollars in additional fees.

Burt said the city’s planners took an “insidious path” to move the project forward knowing the garage was not allowed under current city code — “not a malicious, but an insidious one that we risk getting sucked into.”

“I think this was a bad path to follow to try to rationalize it as a basement, and I hope that we’re going to not do things that will make it look like to the public that we’re putting our thumb on the scale,” Burt said.

Burt said the school could have a smaller garage, and that would help the project’s case. And he added he wants to see more Palo Alto and East Palo Alto girls enrolled at the school as a public benefit to the community.

Council members Alison Cormack, Greg Tanaka and Eric Filseth voted against Burt’s motion, with Burt, Mayor Tom DuBois and council members Lydia Kou and Greer Stone voting in favor.

The council will later decide whether to allow the project’s garage, which outspoken neighbors have vehemently opposed in dozens of letters and public comments to council.

Kou said “it actually kind of starts sounding like Castilleja might have outgrown this site here in this area.”

Filseth pointed out that other schools have chosen to split their campuses in similar situations, or left their spot for others. And he said that the city shouldn’t allow the underground garage under current zoning standards.

“I don’t particularly want to tell Castilleja that they have to leave. But the reality is Castilleja is running into these constraints that other destination schools in residential neighborhoods hit too,” Filseth said. “Mitigating all those impacts is difficult and expensive. And it’s not really right to ask the neighborhood to shoulder all that cost.”

Cormack said that if the council ends up deciding the underground garage is permissible at the site that the council should narrowly amend the city’s code so that this project doesn’t become a precedent for others who build in the single-family home R1 zone.

She also shared concerns that the garage would increase traffic near the city’s Bryant Street Bicycle Boulevard.

Tanaka wanted to move the rest of the council’s discussion on the project to another day as discussions continued past midnight.

“I think it would be better for us to make these kinds of big decisions when we’ve actually had a chance to think about it more. And we can probably come up with better ideas,” said Tanaka.

Stone said the project was like “trying to place a square peg into a round hole.”

“We may not have a clear definition for what is considered an underground parking facility in an R1 neighborhood, but I know a parking garage when I see it. And this is clearly a parking garage and not a basement,” Stone said.

And DuBois agreed with Stone, pointing out that “just the sheer volume of activity around this project I think should signal all of us that we may be forcing a very large square peg into a round hole.”

“We have an explicit ordinance that prohibits cars underground for residential, and I believe the past councils intentionally did that because large underground structures under R1 is an intensification of use,” DuBois said. “Because this is not a basement, it is a parking facility, it is inconsistent with the zoning code.”

DuBois also said he was concerned that allowing the garage would change precedent for other schools and churches in R1 zones throughout the city. And he said he wanted to explore waiting to approve the full expansion project until the school can prove it won’t overenroll students and increase traffic to the area too much.

When council takes up the project again on March 29, the public will be allowed to comment again. The original plan was to have the public comment last week and then council would deliberate last night (and this morning). But City Attorney Molly Stump said that if council holds another hearing on March 29, with new information about the project, the public hearing will need to be reopened again.


  1. This project is totally out of proportion to a residential neighborhood. If council says yes to this, you can kiss goodbye neighborhoods all over town.

  2. Everybody agreed it’s a garage. The (not terribly strong) 3-4 dissent was about a different part of the Motion, involving a directive to Staff.

  3. Casti’s history of deception should be enough to disqualify its expansion and wasting OUR money. When is a basement not a garage? When it’s a basement with parking spaces or a parking facility. When is a protected tree not protected? When we say it isn’t. It’s shameful that our “planners’ and transportation “experts” failed to anticipate the effect of cars creating backups trying to access the basement/parking facility/garage will do to Embarxadero traffic.

    Just say NO, enough. Casti should stick to its existing enrollment, the one it’s violated for years while getting only a minor fine.

    Eric, it’s time to demand that the city stop “putting its thunb on the scale” for Casti’s benefit and demand an overhaul and accountability,

  4. And why was Michael Alcheck allowed to discuss and vote on Castilleja’s expansion plan when, per Fred Balin and Bill Ross’ 10/26/20 letters to the City Council, Molly Stump and Cari Templeton, Alcheck/Alcheck Properties hired Castilleja’s attorney, Mindy Ronanowski to represent Alcheck Properties in a dispute against the City of Palo Alto?

    No response on this question from Molly Stump, Ed Shikada or others. After 5 months? There is a story here; why is no one picking it up for some investigative journalism?

  5. Castilleja has never been satisfied with the beautiful tax free residential site it has occupied The administration and board always feel entitled to more, and the City Council seems to cave: more students, more traffic, more events, greater noise, pumping 6 months of groundwater into the street during the gym’s construction, penalty free. Who is paying attention at City Hall? And who there is facilitating the school’s excesses? A dysfunctional relationship seems to exist between the City and Castilleja and it’s time for that relationship to come under scrutiny.
    After 20 years of over enrollment, amid lies, distortions and obfuscations, it’s unfathomable the City Council is even considering an increase in enrollment, construction of an underground garage, destruction of protected and mature oaks and redwoods, threats to our kids safety on the bike boulevard, and increased traffic and congestion problems on City streets. If approved, this project makes a MOCKERY OF OUR LAWS! Keep a close eye on the Council members who vote “yes” for the project, it will tell you something about their political ambitions vs. their commitment to the laws and well-being of the Palo Alto community. It’s time for some ethics in government, not deal-making. Castilleja first show you can obey the law, then Council and the public can consider reasonable and fair-minded approaches to your growth request.

  6. Why does Castelleja have to expand? Palo Alto and the entire Bay Area is already too crowded. Local municipalities should be looking for ways to decrease the population, not increase it. Continuing to increase population will only further exasperate and perpetuate the problems associated with the area already being too crowded.

  7. Since the last CC meeting it has been reported that XCAP recommends closing the Churchill crossing. Should that be the final decision, the impact on traffic flow in the Churchill/Embarcadero area will be substantial (unless of course it is evaluated by a group prone to conclude “no significant impact”). It makes no sense to approve a garage for Castilleja when this possibility is on the horizon. It would be foolish, even irresponsible, for CC to overlook this development and its possible ramifications.

    Also in the news: this headline in today’s Daily Post: Castilleja head prefers garage. How is her preference even relevant? What is relevant is zoning and city ordinances and what is/is not allowed in R1 and how FAR is calculated. Per the reporter, Ms. Kaufman isn’t sure “why there is as much confusion as there is”, going on to say that “We’ve always worked with (city) staff on how they recommended how we do this.” And there it is: clear indication that Staff has, as Burt speculated, had its thumb on the scale vis-a-vis this project. Former Council Member Morton asked the right question: how did this project advance to this point? I think we are learning the answer.

    Ms. Kaufman complains that “there was some bias coming into the project.” BINGO. But it wasn’t on the part of City Council. What is coming into focus is that the bias is with Staff. Two examples: the planner who often sounds more like an advocate for the applicant than an objective City planner and the City Attorney’s office bogus basement definition.

    Someone commented that Castilleja doesn’t need the garage to continue doing what they do so well: educating young women. I hope CC asks the school to eliminate the garage and, if necessary, scale back the project so that it doesn’t exceed what is allowed at the location.

  8. Casti has completely outgrown its lovely suburban site. It cannot responsibly add 100+ students and the increased traffic, noise, and congestion that would bring. If it wants to grow, it needs to move.

  9. Bingo, Annette. Embarcadero traffic is already horrendous and closing Churchill AND expanding Casti will logically make it even worse. Ms. Kauffman’s “preference” for garages is both irrelevant AND disingenuous since — after all these years — she still can’t answer the simple question of how many students commute by car.

    “BINGO” indeed re staff bias. Whenever a big new project is proposed, staff accepts the “no significant impact” / “no new car trips” claims as if people commute by broomstick and their vehicles don’t need parking.

    Yet traffic, congestion and parking problems keep growing — as per EVERY city satisfaction survey in the last decade.

    It’s high time for our city “planners” to get their fingers off the scale, face reality and start representing us, the residents. Also time for City Council to demand realistic, UNBIASED project reviews from “planners” and the City Manager and Attorney overseeing the planners.

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