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Deep-Dive: Analyzing Castilleja

Plans for making Palo Alto a fair city for everyone

Dear Community Members of Palo Alto,

I am a huge fan of all-female education. I have read the studies and I believe, without qualification, that educating girls and women in single-sex setting is beneficial to women's equality. While at Stanford, in 1987, I received a Boothe Prize for Excellence in Undergraduate Writing for a philosophy essay that relied on both Rousseau and Wollstonecraft in supporting and defending the single-sex education of girls and women. I always have supported and will continue to support, single sex education for girls and women.

I also have great respect for Castilleja as an educational institution. Castilleja is recognized internationally as a top rated all-female middle school and high school. Castilleja deserves its international prestige.

My problems with Castilleja lie not in its performance as an educational institution, but as a campus in Palo Alto that has not complied with zoning law. Castilleja is subject to a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) issued in 2000, which limits its enrollment to 415 students, and its car usage to that which would be generated if it had only 385 students, the maximum enrollment in Castilleja's CUP prior to 2000.

Since 2002, Castilleja has been in violation of both of these primary aspects of its CUP, and by means of not coming into compliance since that time, also is in violation of our municipal and building codes. Importantly, without the CUP, Castilleja could not operate a school at that location.  Castilleja sits on approximately 55 lots that are zoned for residential use (RH-1), and the City of Palo Alto granted the CUP in a manner that is necessary to preserve the integrity of this quiet, residential neighborhood. In other words, Castilleja operates due to a zoning variance provided by the City that binds Castilleja to strict requirements that Castilleja agreed to when the CUP was issued, but Castilleja has not kept its word.

Pursuant to Castilleja's own records, Castilleja has enrolled more than 415 students since 2002. Despite numerous warnings from the City, as well as complaints from third parties regarding safety hazards, Castilleja has not come into compliance. If Palo Alto enforced its own municipal code, Castilleja would be liable to the city for $500/day per violation of the CUP.  Each additional student constitutes a violation of the CUP.

During the many years that Castilleja has enrolled 20 students above the CUP, the zoning fines amount to $500/day per 20 students = $10,000 in fines per day. Figuring 300 days a year, the zoning fines amount to $3 million/year. Palo Alto has not collected these, so Castilleja has not paid them. Castilleja also is legally obligated to show through a Transportation Demand Management plan that the traffic it generates is equivalent to that which would be generated if enrollment remained at its pre-2000 maximum of 385 students.

In fact, Castilleja's violations of its CUP have been so severe and so long standing, that in 2013, the City and Castilleja signed a settlement agreement that provided a reduced penalty for Castilleja ($365,000) in exchange for Castilleja making two promises:

(1) that Castilleja would come immediately into compliance with its CUP limiting enrollment to 415 students by reducing enrollment by 4-6 students a year

(2) that Castilleja would NOT file for an amended CUP unless and until it became fully compliant with its existing CUP.  The agreement provided that if Castilleja were to break these promises, the City of Palo Alto would consider all legal consequences, including pulling its permit and requiring Castilleja to leave its site.

Nonetheless, Castilleja broke both promises. It never reduced its enrollment to the legally mandated 415 students. Nor did it wait for compliance to file for an amended permit.

Castilleja instead filed a permit requesting a 30% increase in enrollment as well as an underground garage abutting the bike boulevard used by elementary school students.  And instead of enforcing its settlement agreement, the City has done nothing.

Why is this important?

1. All people and companies should be required to comply with the law.
Consequences for illegal behavior should be applied equally.

2. Castilleja operates on its site due to a variance given voluntarily by the City of Palo Alto. It does not have the legal right to operate on 55 residential lots if not for this variance (the CUP). The land is zoned for houses, and was zoned for residences when Castilleja first acquired it. In fact, Castilleja used to be a boarding school, so its location on residential lots was easier to justify then.

3. Now that Castilleja is a commuter school, Castilleja's existence on these 55 residential lots is expensive to the city's housing supply.  Palo Alto is subject to the requirements of state law, mandating that the city add housing every year, Cities that fail to meet the state-mandated minimum new housing subject themselves to State intervention, where the State will enter the city and put housing where the State wants.

Palo Alto is among the very most behind in its housing minimums in the state. Palo Alto needs those 55 residential lots much more now than it did during the time when it gave Castilleja its CUP. Given that CUP's must be given only to the extent that a public interest is furthered by the granting of the CUP, if Castilleja had applied for its original CUP today, it is unlikely that the City of Palo Alto would have granted it.

4.  Castilleja's non-compliant existence on the 55 residential lots also significantly costs Palo Alto financially. Castilleja is tax exempt as a private school under the IRS Code's Section 501(c)(3), so it pays no taxes to Palo Alto. That means that the residents of Palo Alto currently pay for all of Castilleja's use of city services, including street maintenance, tree safety, fire fighters, delivery of utilities, stoplights, traffic enforcement, local parks, and all other public services that students and staff at Castilleja use.  For each additional student and staff member, that use increases, and those costs are borne entirely by the residents of Palo Alto, not by Castilleja.

This is what the law provides, which we cannot control. That said, the City of Palo Alto is facing a severe budget crisis that has led the City Council to cut services to our public school students, funding to our public schools, hours and services offered by our public libraries, and even community programs for children such as the Palo Alto Children's Theatre. Castilleja's over-enrollment contributes to that budget crisis.

5. Castilleja's continued growth beyond its legal size limit has had growing negative impacts on the community.  Despite Castilleja's legal promise to Palo Alto to reduce the impact of car commutes, Castilleja has continued to make driving the most convenient way for its students to attend school. In its most recent application for an amended CUP, Castilleja admits that it prefers that its students drive, asking for the right to build a large parking garage on its campus to enable more driving. Already Palo Alto's aging population faces risk from the increase in traffic due to so many new drivers filling the streets - elementary school bikers are also at increased risk of getting hurt. This is neither sustainable or safe. What Castilleja could do is encourage carpooling - a more environmentally sustainable solution.

6. Construction at the Castilleja site will create hazards for Palo Alto residents for years.  In addition to construction noise, the monumental construction project that Castilleja requests for its 6 acres will create the hazards that large construction projects always create: air pollution, traffic, toxic materials, and  reliance on public services such as public safety and the fire department.

Construction fires are common. Construction trucks also pose huge safety risks to neighbors. Only 4 months ago, a construction truck near California Ave struck and killed an 11 year old bicyclist due to lack of lighting in the residential neighborhood. Old Palo Alto is a residential neighborhood and is not set up to sustain the type of huge projects that Castilleja is demanding to build. What if an actual lock-down emergency were to happen at Palo Alto High School, or Walter Hays, but first responders cannot reach the students because of the hazards at the Castilleja construction site?  

What I would like to see happen:

1. Castilleja needs to comply with its current Conditional Use Permit.

2. If Castilleja cannot comply with its CUP, I will work with Castilleja to find a second campus that is zoned for schools rather than for residences.

3. Castilleja can sell its extremely valuable parcel of land and use the proceeds to invest in a new location that is zoned for schools. This would allow those 55 RH-1 lots to return to residential use -- and would allow Palo Alto to collect property tax from those lots as the city had planned when Palo Alto zoned the area RH-1.

4. If Castilleja would like to increase its enrollment over its legal limit of 415, it can open discussions with the City about ways it can pay the City of Palo Alto for its use of city services. This is what Stanford does, and is why Stanford historically has paid millions of dollars to our public schools, and why Stanford is required to provide its electric shuttle bus system - the Margueritte - as well as make the Margueritte available to use by the public.  

Stanford also has committed to keep many areas of its campus open to the public, so that Stanford's art, biking paths, streets, and even many of its buildings, facilities, and programs are open to the public.  Castilleja has not made any similar offers, for example to open its proposed pool to low-income residents for swim lessons, or to set aside fully paid up scholarships for needy children from nearby neighborhoods. Both of those things are done by many prestigious private schools nationally, even without needing to offer them in order to be granted a conditional use permit.

Although many organizations have called for Castilleja to invest in communities of needs through full scholarships set aside for poor neighbors, Castilleja has not announced any official program doing so.

Both Castilleja representatives and Palo Alto residents are unhappy with the current situation. If we do nothing, we could potentially be endangering everyone involved. I would love to work with Castilleja, and negotiate a situation where we can maximize both safety and women's education.


Rebecca Eisenberg