BY KYLE MARTIN
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.