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.