Council approves Castilleja’s expansion plan after years of controversy

Castilleja's plans.

Daily Post Staff Writer

Palo Alto City Council tonight (June 6) approved Castilleja School’s permit to renovate its campus, build an underground garage and enroll more students.

It took six years, 23 meetings and hundreds of public comments to reach this point.

The all-girls private school can now go from 416 to 540 students and replace several buildings at 1310 Bryant St. 

The permit was controversial because the property is in a low-density residential neighborhood, and people were concerned about more students creating more traffic and noise.

Opponents of the project also took issue with the three-year construction time frame and the environmental impacts of putting in an underground garage. The school has a history of violating its permit, so many residents asked the city to deny the permit.

But council voted 6-1 to approve the permit and several conditions, with Councilwoman Lydia Kou voting no. Castilleja representatives in the chambers clapped after the vote.

Mayor Pat Burt added a condition that Castilleja enroll at least 40% of students from within five miles of campus before enrollment can go up. Currently, the school has 34% of its students come from Palo Alto and East Palo Alto, Head of School Nanci Kauffman said on May 23.

The school faces strict rules around transportation. The number of students driving to school can’t increase, and juniors won’t be allowed to drive anymore, except in rare cases. 

The school must also monitor the neighborhood to make sure students aren’t getting dropped off a couple blocks away, council said. Instead, they must bike, ride Caltrain or take a shuttle from a satellite parking lot. 

Katy Layendecker, the associate head of school, said Castilleja is hiring a compliance director to make sure students follow these rules.

“We really want to be a good neighbor,” she said.

Council will appoint a committee of three residents to monitor Castilleja’s compliance. If the school follows the rules, then enrollment can increase by 25 students per year, up to 540, and hold more events. 

If the school violates its permit, then Planning Director Jonathan Lait can require the school to scale back enrollment and reduce the number of events.

The school will be allowed to have 55 events each year to start, including five major events with more than 500 people. Castilleja had asked to have 70 events.

Councilman Tom DuBois added conditions so that construction workers can’t use pile drivers and the parking garage can’t have a buzzer that goes off when cars are leaving. He said both of them would be too loud for people living across the street.

The permit required council to approve a variance from what is typically allowed in a low-density residential neighborhood. The new buildings would total 128,687 square feet on six acres — less than what’s there now, but more than the 81,379 square feet that’s allowed under city zoning.

Castilleja was caught violating its enrollment cap in 2013, and the city charged a $300,000 fine. The school has steadily lowered the number of students since then, and a new administration has pledged to do better.

Castilleja’s lawyer Mindy Romanowski said that the school is OK with the conditions imposed by council, and she was appreciative of the city’s approval.