News

Planned home brings angst to Eichler block in Palo Alto

Neighbors near Richardson Court property concerned about new two-story house

With its leafy sidewalks and quiet air of suburban serenity, Richardson Court appears an unlikely battlefront in Palo Alto's ongoing debate over growth and architecture.

But residents on this Midtown block, like those in downtown and Palo Verde, have grown anxious in recent months about development -- in this case, a two-story house that is poised to replace a much smaller one on the Joseph Eichler-developed street.

Critics of the proposed home claim it will threaten their privacy and damage the neighborhood's character, arguments that resonate in other Eichler communities, where glass doors, flat roofs and single-story homes predominate.

On Monday night, the City Council will consider one resident's appeal of the proposal at 808 Richardson, an application that the city's planning department has already approved.

The appellant, Frank Ingle, lives next door and has been fighting the plans since last fall. The new home, initially proposed at 27 feet tall, would be nearly three times the height of Ingle's 10-foot-tall home. Its Mediterranean design features, which include sloped roofs, stucco walls and columns in the front, would bear little relation to the mid-century modern homes populating his block.

Ingle and his neighbors have been pushing for the plans to be revised, with limited success. During a recent tour of the block, Ingle said the concern shared by his neighbors is that this home, if allowed, would "set a precedent that every house on the street can be built bigger."

In addition, the new house would have windows that look into his bedroom and bathroom, as well as into the backyard of the another house, which has a swimming pool.

"I'm not opposed to new developments and new beautiful houses," Ingle said. "It's just that they shouldn't overwhelm the existing neighborhood."

In emails to city officials and in neighborhood meetings, other residents have made similar arguments. In October, Jackie Norgord wrote to project planner Stephen O'Connel that the home, if approved, "would change the character of our neighborhood forever."

"It would pave the way for more homes to be built which overlook the backyards and master bedrooms of our Eichlers," Norgord wrote. "It would change our street view from Modern to McMediterranean due to the availability of inexpensive cookie-cutter plans that legally maximize the square footage of each lot."

Sheila Himmel, who lives next door to Ingle, called the proposal the "first 'scraper' in our neighborhood." In a December email to the city, Himmel noted that all other remodels, "including those that added second stories, have respected the street's mid-century modern style and size."

"This demolition/construction would set a terrible precedent for a hodgepodge of giant houses and absentee owners, as have occurred in other neighborhoods," Himmel wrote.

Even though the Eichler style dominates Richardson Court and Murray Way (a small street that intersects with Richardson and that, with Richardson, makes up a roughly 35-home subdivision known as "Faircourt"), a few exceptions exist. A key one is on the corner of Ross Road and Richardson, next door to 808 Richardson. That two-story house, Ingle noted, predates the Eichlers and is one of Palo Alto's original "farm houses," owned by the eponymous Richardson. It also faces Ross, not Richardson, and has no windows pointing north. As such, it is an exception that should not determine what the new houses will look like, neighbors maintain.

City planners, however, disagree. In the June approval letter, city planners found that the proposed two-story house complies with Palo Alto's "individual review guidelines" for single-family homes and thus should be approved. Planners cited the planned home's location next to the Ross house as a reason for finding it consistent with guidelines for "basic site planning."

"Overall the site plan is not a strong fit with the patio-house typology prevalent in the neighborhood, but it does take cues from the context and benefits from being next to the 3337 Ross Road corner property, which is not an Eichler home," the city's "findings of approval" state. "If it were not next to the 3337 Ross Road property, making a finding that the house complies with the guidelines would be more difficult."

The neighborhood's pleas have not been entirely ignored. Earlier this year, project architect Roger Kohler (who is also member of the city's Historical Resources Board and could not be reached for comment) changed the design to emphasize the building's horizontal features, reduced the height to 24 feet 4 inches and the set the building's second story further away from Ingle's home. The revised plans also add sills to certain windows to block the views of neighboring properties. A balcony has been relocated, and the clay-tile roof replaced with flat concrete.

Even so, neighbors continued to their protest. After the city's planning director affirmed on June 3 the department's earlier approval, Ingle filed an appeal to the City Council. The appeal is scheduled to appear on the council's "consent calendar," a list of items that get approved with no discussion by a single vote. Unless four council members agree to pull the appeal from the consent calendar, it will be automatically rejected and the planning department's approval will stand.

The Yuan family, which bought the house last year, has also submitted a letter to the city that highlighted the revisions and vociferously objected to the neighbors' arguments. The proposed home, Guangwei Yuan wrote, is comparable to the one on 3337 Ross and to another two-story home near the middle of Richardson. Yuan also noted the second-story windows are small and high above the floor, higher than the eye level of an adult with average height. Yuan argued that this complies with the city's guideline that designs should "reduce opportunities for individuals to be casually observed."

"The neighbor's request of completely blocking any possible intentional viewing is both unrealistic and unfair," Yuan wrote.

Yuan also asserted that the plans comply with the city's zoning regulations and individual-review guidelines. As homeowners, the letter stated, "We have legal right to build a two-story home on our property."

"We do not tolerate false evidence and false claims," Yuan wrote. "We do not accept unreasonable expectations that are unfair to our legal right."

But Ingle questions Yuan's legal rights. In researching the history of the property, he has found a covenant restricting construction of new houses in the subdivision until plans for these houses get approved by an architectural-control committee. The 1956 document, a photocopy of which was provided to the Weekly, names as the three members of the committee Joseph Eichler and his sons, Edward and Richard Eichler.

The covenant states that "no building shall be erected, altered, placed or permitted to remain on any lot other than one detached single-family dwelling, not to exceed one story in height and a private garage for not more than two cars."

The document also states, however, that if the committee or its designated representative fails to approve or disapprove the plans within 30 days of submission and if no suit has been commenced in that time frame, approval will not be required.

Ingle said more research is needed to see if the 1956 agreement has been overridden by later agreements. He notified the city about the document this week and suggested that it might be worthwhile to delay the appeal while this is being researched. Though he conceded that his appeal is a longshot, he said he hopes to bring attention to an appeals process that he sees as flawed and to design guidelines that he believes are routinely ignored by architects.

"The guidelines may have been intended for a certain purpose by the planning commission, but the architects don't treat them like requirements," Ingle said. "They put their plans down and if no one protests, they go through. That's my biggest complaint."

The city's appeal procedure, he said, "is extremely strong on process and extremely weak on interpretation of the guidelines and requirements."

"The way the city is interpreting the words is almost the opposite of what the document has initially intended," Ingle said.

Editor's note: Resident Sheila Himmel reviews restaurants for the Palo Alto Weekly.

Comments

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Supply & Demand
a resident of Green Acres
on Jul 31, 2014 at 8:58 am

Let owners decide the Style as long as they don't violate the codes and zoning. We don't live in a bygone era. If you like the older style house preserve your own house.
As long as this house was not designated as historical landmark, owners should be able to change the style!
Haven't you heard the would "diversity".


 +   Like this comment
Posted by neighbor
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jul 31, 2014 at 9:12 am

Eichler homes are a uniquely Californian, and Eichler neighborhoods are from a simpler era when a home was more a part of a community and less a showpiece of wealth. And sadly, changes in a neighbor's home have a huge impact on your own because of this community design. I'm surprised the city planners are blind to this.

As Mr. Yuan, he may get his way but at what cost? Not everything is measured in money.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by MD from TO
a resident of another community
on Jul 31, 2014 at 9:57 am

MD from TO is a registered user.

Mr. "Supply and Demand"-

Doo you know anything about Eichler Homes? Joe Eichler was a developer way ahead of his time and made it one of his company's missions to sell the houses to people of ALL races and religions. Which is called "Diversity". Obviously, your term applies to the "mansionization" and "yuppiefication" of these signature homes. Suggest that you Google "Eichler Homes" and become educated.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Harmony
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 31, 2014 at 10:12 am

Diversity is good BUT harmony is more important.

The gigantic houses look weird in a quiet & subtle neighborhood.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 31, 2014 at 10:13 am

Kohler designs what his clients want. From the drawings this is not A work. The question is not even whether it's B work, but is it compliant B work.

Why not bring in a panel of independent architects to assess compliance with the IR guidelines? The city doesn't really enforce the guidelines except on a complaint or exception basis. Neighbors don't typically have great resources available to evaluate guideline compliance. Get a few independent experts (who aren't part of the usual "want to play nice with the planning staff" group) to score this design for IR compliance.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by John
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jul 31, 2014 at 10:28 am

Don't understand Palo Alto City's guidelines or rules if you look at the new buildings in Downtown. Some of them are overwelming and become an eyesore.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Midtown Resident
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 31, 2014 at 10:32 am

I live on Ramona and our neighborhood doesn't allow two story homes, period. Hopefully the residents will prevail. These McMansions being built by newcomers look ridiculous.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Hermia
a resident of Triple El
on Jul 31, 2014 at 10:33 am

Our neighbor's home was scraped when he died, and the final touches are being put on a mediterranean mansion in that spot. There are a lot of reasons to object to this construction, but for us the primary one is that our once private and peaceful back yard has now become an entirely public space, where we could not find a single corner to sit and kiss without being looked down on from their windows. This does not promote harmony.

Our home, and the one they tore down, are of no architectural interest at all, but consideration for the character of life in a neighborhood is a real and serious matter even so. People think they buy property and may proceed as if they were the only people in the world, so long as they are physically within the boundaries. It's just like pouring poison in the ground... you affect more than just yourself.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by green gables
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 31, 2014 at 10:33 am

Good ole Roger Kohler designed a house with a basement in my neighborhood, and my neighborhood is in the FLOOD Zone. We all went to the Planning Department and argued the point; what's to argue since we are in the flood zone. What is wrong with him? Is he interested only in the money he makes and not Palo Alto? Appears that way.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Bill
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 31, 2014 at 10:47 am

The design of the proposed house is positively unattractive. No imagination. McMansions are typically created but developers with creative skills and this one seems to be a perfect example. A Modern style (new) Eichler could have been designed, but alas, it seems that the owner and developer are not "design aware".


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Annie's Biped
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 31, 2014 at 10:49 am

Sadly "style" has been reduced to filling the lot with the largest amount of house the zoning ordinance will allow. While there have been remodels that fit into the "development" neighborhoods, the new trend is to scrape the house and replace it with something big, usually pink/beige, with columns, red tile roof, and a garage which will never garage a car. An architect worth their salt should be able to design a home to fill the spacial needs of the client while simultaneously presenting an interesting exterior that would reflect and fit into the existing "style" (Eichler, ranch house, bungalow, Sterling Gardens, etc.) of the neighborhood. One questions why someone would purchase a home in a neighborhood that has a prevailing style, and proceed to replace it with something that doesn't retain the essence and flavor of the neighborhood.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 31, 2014 at 11:30 am

@Anonymous and Green Gables. Kohler designs what the clients want,yes, and the City approves it. That basement proposed in the flood zone with special grading was provisionally approved by the City, then stopped by FEMA. Kohler
got his full basement at the corner of Newell and Northhampton, in dewatering right now.

The Single-Family Individual Review Guideline Two which covers "Neighborhood
Compatibility for Height,Mass and Scale" has the approval citerion that "the scale and height of a new house... shall be consistent with the existing neighborhood pattern with special attention to adapting to the height and massing of adjacent homes".

The footnote says "meeting this guideline may require a house to be substantially lower than the maximum height limit set forth in the R-1 regulations". Then in Key Points, Number 1 says "Avoid overwhelming adjacent one-story homes with large masses,monumental forms and sharp contrasts in height".


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Green Bean
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 31, 2014 at 11:32 am

To me it looks like a handsome improvement to an ordinary space. As people age it becomes more and more difficult for them to accept changes. I'm afraid our aging population is becoming rigid......I'm one of them.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Support Richardson court
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jul 31, 2014 at 11:39 am

Approval should WAIT until the CC&Rs approved in 1956 are reviewed to determine their current validity. If they tear down, there will be no turning back and there will be a domino effect. The Planning Dept and City Council should stand up for the residents and for what remains of culture in Palo Alto and not let one person's wealth and sense of entitlement dictate the livelihood of a longstanding cohesive neighborhood.

The Eichlers on this street are not dilapidated or run down. The house in question has many original features and was bid on by over a dozen potential buyers who really wanted to live in an Eichler and in an Eichler neighborhood. It appears the new owner outbid everyone so he could tear it down. That is just plain sad.

Does anyone here have any integrity these days?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 31, 2014 at 12:13 pm

In above post, meant to say Kohler's basement in the flood zone
was "conditonally" approved" by the City, then stopped by FEMA.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Gethin
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 31, 2014 at 12:36 pm

Gethin is a registered user.

The problem I see from living in Midtown and knowing the streets well is that too many of the new larger houses built are very ugly, often practically blank in terms of their street side view. They don't fit in in terms of either scale or the general look of the neighborhood. On the other hand I see examples of tasteful smaller homes being built or renovated that do work well with their neighborhood. The fact that someone can afford to buy a property, erase it and build anew does not entitle them to creating a carbuncle.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Evolution
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 31, 2014 at 12:38 pm

I like the comment in the article objecting to "inexpensive cookie-cutter plans." This coming from an Eichler owner! Nice irony.

I've heard it said that a McMansion is just a house that's bigger and newer than mine. What if the Richardsons had objected to all the cookie-cutter Eichlers being built all around them? Let people build the houses that they like and let the neighborhood evolve.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 31, 2014 at 12:39 pm

Wow, I'm with Mr. Ingle, the neighbor, on this controversy. So sorry to have to deal with such out-of-place home designs at close range. It is not precisely about respecting the Eichler design, though I do generally do that, but about reasonableness and harmony to the eye in the neighborhood!


 +   Like this comment
Posted by aux ramparts mes amis
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jul 31, 2014 at 12:45 pm

This is ridiculous, a violation of Eichler neighborhoods. Let's pack the chamber, and if they don't listen, throw the [portion removed] out at the next election. This must not stand. Eichler residents unite!


 +   Like this comment
Posted by For flood zone administrator
a resident of another community
on Jul 31, 2014 at 12:47 pm

Resident,

I'm pretty sure you have it backwards. FEMA regularly approves flood zone exemptions that shouldn't be approved. They are just looking at elevation numbers written on a piece of paper sitting in an office in DC. The local floodplain administrator is much more aware of what is really exempt. I know of properties that were damaged in 1998 where the current owners have now gotten exemptions from FEMA. And no grades have been changed since 1998.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by concerned voter
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 31, 2014 at 12:49 pm

""But Ingle questions Yuan's legal rights. In researching the history of the property, he has found a covenant restricting construction of new houses in the subdivision until plans for these houses get approved by an architectural-control committee. The 1956 document, a photocopy of which was provided to the Weekly, names as the three members of the committee Joseph Eichler and his sons, Edward and Richard Eichler."

Was the new owner made aware of this covenant before he purchased the house? If not, why not? Has this coveneant ever been dredged up for other construction on this subdivision? If not then why not? Since, I assume the committee members are deceased who is to pass judgement now? And hasn't the 30 day period long elapsed?

Sorry, but loooks like the new owner is following the rules and has made changes. I find it shocking that neighbors want to have the final say on a persons home--in fact more of a say than the owner has himslef!!!!

As for those that say that the house is "ugly" or a "carbuncle"--that is a matter of taste. And shouldn't the owner actually have a say in the house he will live in. It sure is nice that all these people that do not have any money invested in the matter should decide what someone can build. Personally, I am sick and tired of these greedy neighbors and their outrageous demands


 +   Like this comment
Posted by George
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 31, 2014 at 1:43 pm

Eichler homes are basically ugly and cheap housing that is outdated
none of the homes are energy efficient.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 31, 2014 at 2:30 pm

Look at example 3D "Does NOT meet guideline" on page 11 of the Palo Alto Single-Family Individual Review Guidelines.

The 3D description is:

o Disorganized layout randomly blankets large floor plan; accentuates mass
o Primary roof form large, bulky; multiple tacked-on gables cluttered, busy
o Over reliance on gables creates unbalanced composition; increases scale

Kohler's design is Mediterranean in a modern Albanian sort of way: Web Link


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Bent iris
a resident of Monroe Park
on Jul 31, 2014 at 2:31 pm

[Post removed.]


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Community Center
on Jul 31, 2014 at 2:38 pm

It is a conflict of interest for Roger Kohler to be on board with the city of PA and asking for various exceptions. He needs to step down and work for the good of the city and not for the bad!!


 +   Like this comment
Posted by MD from TO
a resident of another community
on Jul 31, 2014 at 2:39 pm

MD from TO is a registered user.

Hi George-

Sounds like you need to be educated about Eichler homes. Most houses built in the 50s and 60s were not energy efficient. Through the use of modern technology Eichler roofs have now been upgraded to spray-on foam or rigid foam and windows are now available with double-pane glass. Ductless A/C has allowed the houses to be comfortable during summers and maintain their architectural rooflines without ugly ducting on the roof. Replacement low-energy radiant heat boilers are available also. Your posting has a tone of some "Eichler envy" - sounds like you may reside in a "stucco box".


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Meadow Park
on Jul 31, 2014 at 2:41 pm

The planning department is nothing more than therapy for the neighbors, and individual review "guidelines" mean nothing. The mayor seemed to think hiring another 55 planners (paid by us) helps, when all that was really needed was one person with common sense. This is a slow leak in the bathtub....Palo Alto slowly turning into Milpitas. Why Palo Alto doesn't have similar rules (not soft guidelines) like Los Altos and Saratoga is beyond me. As someone aptly said, we should outsource planning to Stanford University who does a much better job.

I wonder if city council needs another loud wake-up call like with Maybell low cost housing project.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Efficient Eichler owner
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jul 31, 2014 at 3:50 pm

The "greener" house is the one standing there now. The environmental impact of dumping an existing house in the landfill and replacing with by a house twice it's size is huge.

Our Eichler has double-paned windows, programmable thermostats, and a foam roof and we have no A/C and don't need it. Let's compare utility bills w/two-story owners.

Bottom line is the city that talks about Zero Waste and environmental leadership needs to find its spine and deal with the unchecked madness.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 31, 2014 at 4:13 pm

Crescent Park Dad is a registered user.

If you look at the changes made for the other recent 2-story house, they changed the exterior but still have a larger home going in.

However, I'm guessing that even if the design changed on this house, the neighbors are going to be very NIMBY. Even though the owners have every right to build a 2-story home (the ancient (and completely inactive for decades) CC&R seems like a Hail Mary to me).


 +   Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jul 31, 2014 at 4:37 pm

I looked up the design for this home at the planning department's website.

The design shown on the official planning department webpage is totally different from what was described here. The planning department website shows a contemporary design with low-pitched roof and horizontal wood siding, I think this new house will be an improvement and in harmony with the rest of the neighborhood.

Web Link

I don't understand why this article is not presenting the correct information here. Also it seems to me that the neighbors should be more open-minded.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Not a Kohler fan
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 31, 2014 at 4:44 pm

I am impressed that Kohler made any changes to the design. His houses are stamped out all over Midtown, often totally unlike neighboring houses, and the "Kohler look" is obvious. Just as seen in the original design submitted for Richardson Court. I've often wondered if he pays any attention to the site or the surrounding houses. For example, many houses he has designed have a large overhang across the front north-east face blocking the already limited sunlight.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 31, 2014 at 5:09 pm

There should never be upstairs windows allowed that look into a neighbor's bathroom or bedroom. There would be something pervert about wanting that!


 +   Like this comment
Posted by anony
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 31, 2014 at 6:34 pm

Here Web Link is a great example of an Eichler that was expanded from one story to two in keeping with the mid-century modern style. It can be done.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Palo Alto
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 31, 2014 at 6:42 pm

There are several two-story homes on Richardson. The "first scraper" comment is imaginative.
By looking at the correct plan from the link above. Apparently Unlike a previous story on another planned home, the writer of this article is biased, wrote a one-sided story and trying to be provocative


 +   Like this comment
Posted by renter
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 31, 2014 at 7:01 pm

First world problem, millionaires fighting millionaires. Think of how much more your property will be valued at once they complete it.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Bystander
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 31, 2014 at 7:52 pm

@Palo Alto: Didn't you see that the neighbor Shiela Himmel is a writer working for Palo Alto online? Where did professional journalism go?!


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Yikes
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 31, 2014 at 8:52 pm

[Post removed.]


 +   Like this comment
Posted by ugly architecture
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 31, 2014 at 9:13 pm

[Post removed.]


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Cynthia
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 31, 2014 at 9:15 pm

[Post removed]


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Neighbor
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 31, 2014 at 10:04 pm

The only neighbors that should have a say in this matter should be the ones directly living next to this project. Not a bunch of snivelers that live a few blocks away.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Sparty
a resident of another community
on Jul 31, 2014 at 11:05 pm

Sparty is a registered user.

[Post removed.]


 +   Like this comment
Posted by MD from TO
a resident of another community
on Aug 1, 2014 at 12:08 am

MD from TO is a registered user.

[Post removed.]


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