Ahh, back in the saddle as City Council returns from summer recess on Monday, August 5! There are no action items on the council’s agenda in their first and second weeks back, but there’s still plenty to get up to speed on as we dust off our public oversight hats over the next few weeks. Perhaps most notably, public hearings will begin on the impact analysis for Castilleja’s redevelopment plan.
In this issue:
Even as council prepares to affirm its approval of the Mercedes/Audi dealership at Embarcadero and East Bayshore Road in an up or down consent vote on August 5, the city faces a demand for corrective action for alleged Brown Act violations associated with its earlier approval. The following week, on August 12, council will again vote without debate on amending the standards for Wireless Communications Facilities to allow greater heights.
New Impact Report offers data and analysis to inform contentious debate over Castilleja’s redevelopment
The Planning and Transportation Commission will hold the first public hearing for the recently released Draft Environmental Impact Report for Castilleja’s controversial redesign project on August 14. Spoiler alert: the project will create significant and unavoidable traffic impacts. The comment period will be open until September 16.
Historic significance of Fry’s Electronics site may complicate redevelopment options as NVCAP planning process advances
The North Ventura Coordinated Area Plan (for new development in and around the Fry’s Electronic site) is getting new attention as planning moves beyond the visioning stage, consultants flag eligibility for the California Historic Registry, and council prepares to offer further planning direction, tentatively on August 19.
The Parks and Recreation Commission recently initiated discussion about opening Foothill’s Park to non-residents as well as a pilot project to allow off-leash dogs in unfenced park areas during limited hours.
Get Up To Speed
Council’s Consent Calendars touch on controversial Mercedes/Audi dealership and cell equipment standards
Second vote on controversial Mercedes/Audi dealership coming up on consent August 5
On August 5, on second reading, council will vote up or down, without debate to confirm its approval of a new Mercedes/Audi dealership at the former Ming’s restaurant site at the corner of Embarcadero Road and East Bayshore Road. When first approved on June 24, the project stirred objections from the public about spot zoning, traffic, and environmental impacts at an already badly congested intersection in a sensitive area subject to the Baylands Master Plan. Residents also raised concerns about the accuracy and adequacy of the city’s analysis of the proposed project and recently submitted a letter demanding corrective action for alleged Brown Act violations, citing improper public notice and a lack of transparency whereby city council members had access to details that were not made available to the public prior to the vote. The Planning and Transportation Commission recommended approval on a narrow 4-3 vote.
For its part, the Architectural Review Board was unable over the course of three meetings to make the “Findings” required for them to recommend council approval. Rather than continue ARB deliberations, Planning Director Jonathan Lait opted to bring the project to council without the benefit of an ARB recommendation, citing a city preference for “streamlined” review limiting the ARB to three meetings. After lengthy debate on June 24, council voted 6-1 (Kou dissenting) to approve the zone change and site and design application, but also directed additional consideration by the ARB to further refine the Conditions of Approval, taking into account project lighting, trees, and consistency with the Baylands Master Plan in particular.
City may allow taller Wireless Communications Facility designs
On April 2019 the City Council adopted objective standards to regulate the design and location of wireless cell equipment installations on streetlight and utility poles throughout the city. June 17, council added an interim standard requiring a 300 foot setback from public schools. The Wireless Communications Facility, or WCF, standards are now slated to be amended once again on August 12 when council will vote, via the Consent Calendar, on adjusting the standards to allow taller WCF installation designs.
The WCF standards currently limit streetlight WCFs to 3 feet or 6 feet above the height of “similar surrounding poles,” depending on the type of design used. However, due to an unforeseen conflict with the Public Works and Utilities departments’ streetlight replacement standards, staff anticipates that the April 2019 WCF standards could unintentionally preclude an applicant from building any of the WCF designs described in the standards. Under the city’s replacement streetlight standard, over time new streetlights will exceed the height of surrounding poles by at least 2 to 4 feet, leaving insufficient space for pole-top WCF antennae or other equipment. The proposed August 12 amendments would clarify that WCFs may not exceed 3- or 6-feet above the height of the “existing pole or replacement pole,” and eliminate the vague “similar surrounding poles” reference.
The city’s approval of a spate of new wireless equipment installations in the public right of way and recently adopted standards for wireless communications facilities have stirred significant public controversy as residents have sought greater protection from potential negative impacts arising from cell antennas close to homes and schools. However recent Federal Communications Commission regulations strictly limited local discretion to reject small cell antenna equipment installations, constraining the city’s regulatory authority to “aesthetics” and allowing controls only by way of “objective standards.” Some favor the promise of improved wireless signals and argue that negative impacts are overestimated. However, residents consistently comment by the dozens objecting to health and safety, visual, and property value impacts from the proliferation of small cell antennas and their associated equipment.
Newly released DEIR informs contentious debate over Castilleja’s redesign and enrollment plans
Editors note: This story has been updated to clarify the DEIR’s conclusions regarding net new daily car trips and distinguish between total daily trips and new trips on specific roadways.
The City of Palo Alto will finally enter the fray after standing on the sidelines of a multi-year public relations battle between Castilleja and its residential neighbors over the private school’s ambitious proposal to redesign its campus and expand enrollment to 540 students over the next four years (125 more students than allowed under their existing Conditional Use Permit). On August 14, the Planning and Transportation Commission will hold the first public hearing on a Draft Environmental Impact Report for the project. The DEIR, released on July 17, is subject to a 60-day public comment period, ending on September 16, 2019. The Historic Resources Board will hold another public hearing on September 12. Council action is not yet scheduled.
The sometimes fractious tale of two projects that has unfolded in recent years has the school touting its redesign as a much needed “modernization” that will expand access to “the unique transformational power of an all-girls education,” including to the 22 percent of students who receive financial assistance. (Tuition and fees for 2019/20 school year cost $49,900; current aid recipients represent incomes from below $20,000 to $300,000.) School representatives cite 30 community meetings held since 2012 to support their claim that the plan incorporates neighborhood input and was developed in consultation with the community in order to minimize, and even reduce, neighborhood impacts.
Castilleja officials emphasize that the school’s above-ground building footprint will not increase and that their proposed enrollment growth will be incremental and closely monitored. If it results in an increase in car trips, the next increment must be delayed until the school can bring car trips back under a cap of 440 cars during peak commutes. Finally, they argue that a new underground garage (adding 68 additional parking spaces to the school’s inventory, for a total of 142 spaces) will not invite more driving, but rather is intended to reduce on-street parking and traffic spillover on neighborhood streets.
Neighbors, on the other hand, tell the story of commercial expansion by a tax exempt corporation in an R-1 residential zone, through redevelopment that would overwhelm the quiet neighborhood with traffic and noise, eliminate heritage trees, and violate the city’s municipal code by improperly excluding the underground garage from the site’s floor area limits, resulting in “30,000 more above-ground square feet than is allowed by current code.”
They describe a process that ignored or misrepresented public input, a garage that will incentivize more driving as well as change the face of the neighborhood, replacing houses with a garage exit that will shine hundreds of headlights directly into neighboring property, disrupt traffic patterns, and cause cars to queue along Emerson and Bryant Streets as they wait to enter or leave both the parking garage and Embarcadero Road.
The fact that Castilleja “increased enrollment from 415 to 450 over 12 years [in violation of the school’s Conditional Use Permit], starting 2 years after they agreed on 415,” looms large as a source of mistrust regarding Castilleja’s intentions, practices, and reliability for future compliance.
Castilleja’s plan includes removing two school-owned houses, replacing five existing buildings with a single new, three-story academic building, eliminating 47 surface parking spots, freeing up green space (including a .33 acre “park” that neighbors would be permitted to access), adding a 50,500 square foot underground parking garage, lowering the pool below grade, and rebuilding basement classroom space. On net, above grade building area will be slightly reduced and below grade built area will increase, resulting in a total expansion of 77,784 square feet, a 47 percent overall increase.
Development will occur in four phases over three to four years, with student enrollment increasing to 490 students in phase one, 520 students in phase three, and reaching the maximum 540 students in phase four. If the school exceeds the car trip cap of 440 peak trips per day, subsequent enrollment growth will be put on hold until they return to compliance.
The Draft Environmental Impact Report noted that the project would “enable improved safety, sustainability and programmatic space” for Castilleja’s student population, and acknowledged features designed to minimize “school-related disruptions on the surrounding neighborhood,” such as new limits on special events, as well as amenities designed to benefit the community, including landscaping, preservation of mature trees, and .33 acre “park” that could be used by the school’s neighbors.
On the other hand, the DEIR concluded that higher student enrollment could significantly increase daily car trips, from the current total of 1198 trips to 1477 total trips, despite Castilleja’s current Transportation Demand Management program. “The net new trips associated with the increased enrollment is 279 or an 18.9% increase from the existing conditions.” Citing a June 2019 analysis prepared by Castilleja’s TDM consultants, Nelson/Nygaard, the DEIR anticipates that the enhanced TDM program proposed in Mitigation Measure 7a could reduce total car trips by 12 percent to 22 percent. At the high end of effectiveness, that could mean a net reduction of daily trips to 1152. However, if the enhanced TDM measures perform at the lower end, the project would still produce a net increase of 102 daily trips.
Importantly, even if a successful, enhanced TDM program results in a net reduction in total daily trips, the concentration of school-related traffic on specific roadways due to the consolidation of parking in the underground garage would create significant and unavoidable project-related traffic impacts. In particular, the project would significantly increase daily car loads on Emerson Street between Embarcadero Road and Melville Avenue, and cause considerable new delays at the intersection of Alma Street and Kingsley Avenue. The DEIR deems the enhanced TDM program in Mitigation Measure 7a insufficient to reduce those traffic impacts to less than significant levels. The resulting potential to exacerbate existing land use conflicts between the school and its residential neighborhood was deemed a further significant and unavoidable impact of the project that would “create land use incompatibility or physically divide and established community.”
The DEIR also identified significant or potentially significant environmental impacts on noise, trees (biological resources), air quality and seismicity associated with the project, but concluded that mitigation measures could reduce those impacts to less than significant.
Finally, the Castilleja project was found to be generally consistent with the city’s Comprehensive Plan. However, the DEIR’s zoning consistency analysis highlights that the proposed above-grade gross floor area represents a .41 Floor Area Ratio whereas the maximum FAR allowed on the site per city code would be .3026. Existing buildings on the site represent a FAR of .43 and Castilleja has requested a variance from the city to allow it to maintain its existing above-grade FAR. Because the proposed project results in a smaller non-compliance, the DEIR deems the proposed .41 FAR to present no new adverse physical environmental effects. The DEIR analysis does not count the project’s 128,166 below-grade basement square footage in the FAR calculation.
In addition to analysis of Castilleja’s proposed project, the Draft EIR analyzed three alternatives:
- Alternative 1: No project.
- Alternative 2: Moderate enrollment increase. Reduce maximum enrollment from 540 to 506 students, allowing for slight reductions in both the size of the new academic building and the number of off-street parking spaces.
- Alternative 3: Moderate enrollment increase with reduced parking. Reduce maximum enrollment from 540 to 506 and reduce on-site parking to 92 spaces (minimum required by city code), with 52 spaces in the below grade garage and the rest in on-site surface lot at the corner of Emerson and Kellogg.
The public has 60 days to comment on the DEIR. You can email comments to Castilleja.email@example.com, offer oral comments at the August 14 Planning and Transportation Commission Hearing (6:00 pm, Council Chambers, City Hall) or the September 12 Historic Resources Board Hearing (8:30 am, Council Chambers, City Hall), or send them to:
Amy French, Chief Planning Official, Planning & Community Environmental Department, City of Palo Alto, 250 Hamilton Ave, 5th Floor, Palo Alto, CA 94301
Following the public comment period, a Final Environmental Impact Report will be prepared, including responses to each submitted comment and any additional analysis conducted. The FEIR will also be subject to a public comment period and will provide the final analysis to guide City Council’s decision on whether to approve or deny the proposed project or an alternative. A Final EIR indicating significant and unavoidable impacts would require the council to make a finding of “overriding considerations” justifying approval of the project.
Note: DEIR comments are most effective when they specifically address impacts identified in the report or gaps in analysis or offer additional relevant information that can inform the analysis.
For more information related to the project visit the following websites:
City of Palo Alto: DEIR Executive Summary with table of impacts and mitigation measures.
City of Palo Alto: Castilleja DEIR documents
Castilleja School: Castilleja Re-imagined
Protect Neighborhood Quality of Life: grassroots organization of Castilleja neighbors
Historic significance of Fry’s Electronics site may complicate redevelopment options as NVCAP planning process advances
In October 2018, the city kicked off a formal planning process to create a community-driven, integrated plan for redevelopment of the 60 acre area including and surrounding the Fry’s Electronics site in the North Ventura neighborhood. The North Ventura Coordinated Area Plan, or NVCAP, process is intended to produce a plan and regulatory framework for a walkable, mixed-use neighborhood with multifamily housing, commercial services, green space, and well-defined connections to transit, bicycle and pedestrian facilities.
With the data collection and community “visioning and priorities” stage of the process wrapping up, the city and community working group are shifting their attention to the development of plan alternatives. On August 19, City Council is tentatively scheduled to provide direction on anticipated changes in the scope of consultant services, including a likely budget increase. Staff also plans to seek an extension of the funding deadline in order to address the historic significance of the property, explore options to re-naturalize Matadero Creek, and finalize a contract for feasibility and cost estimates for open space options.
As part of the initial assessment of the plan area, the city commissioned an evaluation of the project area for potential historic resources. The evaluation found that the Fry’s Electronics building at 340 Portage Avenue and an associated office building on Ash street are historically significant due to association with the historic Santa Clara County cannery industry and retain integrity in six of the seven required categories, making the property eligible for listing in the California Register of Historical Resources. According to city staff, “the cannery is associated with the Bayside Canning Company, which was owned by a prominent Chinese immigrant [Thomas Foon Chew] and a groundbreaking figure in the canning industry. Mr. Chew was able to make the Bayside Canning Company the third largest fruit and vegetable cannery in the world in the 1920s, only behind Libby and Del Monte.”
As such, the property qualifies as a historic resource for the purposes of review under the California Environmental Quality Act and will be subject to supplemental environmental analysis. Whether the property’s historic significance will demand preservation of all or parts of the buildings themselves remains to be seen. However, the city’s Historic Resources Board was in agreement on July 25 that the buildings needed to be preserved and incorporated into the new project in some way. How to accomplish that while optimizing the underlying housing potential in that area, located in the core of the NVCAP, adds a new challenge to the planning process.
Parks and Rec Commission dips toes in fraught waters
On July 23, the Parks and Recreation Commission attracted a rare large audience with two agenda items addressing what has historically represented the “third rail” of Palo Alto’s park politics: opening Foothills Park to non-residents and allowing dogs off-leash in unfenced areas of city parks. Neither of the items, instigated by two commission ad hoc committees, was agendized for action; they were intended to merely initiate a conversation and stimulate direction to the ad hoc committees for further consideration of options.
Foothills Park Access
Current city law limits park attendance to 1,000 visitors at a time. Non-residents are allowed to enter Foothills Park via hiking trails at any time, but if they want to enter by car, they must be accompanied by a resident. In practice, however, the residency requirement is only enforced on weekends and holidays. Despite that de facto open door policy five days a week, Commissioner Ryan McCauley, a member of the commission’s Foothills Park ad hoc committee and the lead advocate for expanding non-resident access to the park, criticized the current law as a “very rough tool” for managing park use and preservation. He emphasized that access could be expanded in a variety or combination of ways.
The ad hoc committee presented three potential strategies for expanding park access:
- Update the municipal code to allow non-residents to drive into the park on non-holiday weekdays.
- Grant full access to students in the Palo Alto Unified School District who live outside city limits and students of the Ravenswood School District.
- Create a reservation system by which non-residents can purchase passes for weekend access.
Not surprisingly, public comment was split. Some favored expanded access as simply “the right thing to do” while others worried that more cars and people in the park would pose a threat to the serenity, flora and fauna, and maintenance level of the park. Commission Vice Chair Jeff Greenfield emphasized that any plan to expand access should minimize financial impacts on the city (including staff time), should be easy to understand, implement, and manage, and should readily facilitate monitoring of impacts.
It was unclear whether there was majority support on the commission for the underlying intention of expanding non-resident access. But if the city was to go that direction, commissioners generally seemed to favor strategies focused on underserved populations, students, and people who volunteer their services in Palo Alto. Commissioner David Moss wanted the commission to take note that Palo Alto is growing and that the 1,000-visitors-at-a-time limit could eventually lead to Palo Altans being turned away even if the residency requirement were retained.
Unlike expanding users in Foothills Park, expanding opportunities for residents to exercise their dogs off-leash is a priority policy in the 2017 Parks Master Plan. Attentive to that policy, the ad hoc committee on dog parks recommended that the commission support using Capital Improvement Project (CIP) funding available in FY2020 and FY2022 to expand the dog parks at Greer Park and Mitchell Park. Dog owners frequently criticize the adequacy of both dog parks and each offers potential for larger exercise areas.
In addition to moving forward on dog park investments, the ad hoc committee sought commission feedback on the desirability of a pilot program that would allow dogs off-leash in designated unfenced areas of parks for a limited number of hours a day. Eleanor Pardee Park and Heritage Park were mentioned as possible candidates for such a pilot, but the ad hoc committee is still considering appropriate options. Commissioner Keith Reckdahl strongly supported fenced dog parks, but not unfenced off-leash hours, while other commissioners thought they could get behind a plan for unfenced hours as long as it was a pilot project.
Notable Upcoming Action
August 5, 2019
City Council will return from summer recess to pass a consent calendar that includes second readings to allow an Mercedes/Audi dealership at the former Ming’s restaurant site and enact new waste disposal rules about plastic and biodegradable refuse bags, cardboard boxes, and timely removal of waste containers from the public way.
The consent calendar also includes accepting an audit of the business registry; approval of a final map to allow subdivision of 3877 El Camino Real (at Curtner Avenue) into 18 condominium units (one commercial space, six residential flats and 11 townhouses); appointment of Geo Blackshire as Fire Chief; and selection of applicants to interview for an unfinished term on the Architectural Review Board (ARB).
August 12, 2019
Wireless Equipment Standards: Council will vote on the consent calendar (up or down, no discussion) to amend the recently adopted standards for Wireless Communications Facilities (WCFs) regarding WCF height due to a conflict with the city’s replacement streetlight standards. The resolution also proposes clarifying revisions to the corresponding standard for WCFs on wood utility poles. Beginning at 5:25 pm (City Hall). Click here for staff report.
August 14, 2019
Castilleja DEIR: The Planning and Transportation Commission will hold a public hearing on the Draft Environmental Impact Report for Castilleja’s application to build an underground garage and renovate/expand facilities to accommodate increased enrollment. Beginning at 6:00 pm (City Hall). Staff report is not yet available, but the DEIR is posted here.
August 15, 2019 – Tentative
788 San Antonio Road: The Architectural Review Board is tentatively scheduled to consider a major architectural review to allow demolition of existing one-story commercial space and allow construction of a four-story mixed use building. The new building is slated to have 102 residential units and 1780 square feet of commercial space. Beginning at 8:30 am (City Hall). Once released, the staff report will be available here.
August 19, 2019 – Tentative
“AT&T Lot” addition to Boulware Park: Council is tentatively scheduled to approve the purchase of 27,829 square feet of vacant land adjacent to 3350 Birch Street.
North Ventura Coordinated Area Plan: Council is tentatively scheduled to clarify direction regarding the NVCAP.