Fall Real Estate 2000

Publication Date: Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2000 & Friday, Sept. 22, 2000

Demolishing Palo Alto Demolishing Palo Alto (September 22, 2000)

With tear-downs running at a record pace, residents worry about what the city is becoming

by Marc Igler

Sometimes Barbara Hiken hardly recognizes her neighborhood.

She's lived in the Midtown area of Palo Alto since 1968, but every year-- sometimes every month--the landscape seems to change.

Other stories...

Living next to construction that never ends

It's business as usual in most cities

How to protect yourself and your neighborhood

In defense of large homes

"It's all the new homes," she says. "You'll blink and a little old house you've driven past all your life won't be there anymore and in its place will be a big, ugly thing that sucks up all the land around it."

Within a three- or four-block radius of Hiken's Moreno Street house, dozens of homes have been demolished in the past couple years. Replacements are "big pretentious things that look like funeral parlors and make the whole neighborhood seem lopsided," she said.

"The problem is I don't know when, or even if, it's ever going to end."

Indeed, if it sometimes strikes you that Palo Alto's residential neighborhoods seem like one big demolition zone these days, you're not too far from the truth.

More Palo Alto homes have been either torn down or soon will be--86 demolition permits have been granted so far this year--than in any previous year in the city's 106-year history. And that's only through August. If home-demolition permits continue their torrid pace, so-called "tear-downs" in 2000 will more than double the 1999 total and far exceed the previous record of 79, set in 1996.

City officials say homes are coming down throughout Palo Alto. No neighborhoods--other than those heavy with Eichler homes--are being spared. Replacement homes fall into two distinct categories: either large, custom-built homes or large, box-like structures that come from boilerplate architectural drawings.

The number of demolitions has reached such a crescendo that the city's Planning Department now plots them on a map with colored stickers--much as police officers do with crimes or accidents--just to keep track of where "tear-down fever" is hitting and to see if any geographical trends are afoot.

"It's going to be a record year, and it's happening all over town," said Russ Reich, a city planning technician who tracks demolition permits.

"People are buying smaller homes, tearing them down and putting up large ones with as much square footage as they can get."

The sizzling rate of demolitions so far has not provoked the sort of backlash seen in 1996 when a rash of tear-downs, as well as the demolitions of several historic homes, prompted residents to demand that the city crack down on speculators and tighten demolition rules.

Early signs of frustration, however, are starting to bubble up. Police officials report that in the past year the number of complaints has nearly doubled about construction crews violating work hours at home sights. The high rate of demolitions has been mentioned several times at recent meetings of a city panel studying what should be done about so-called "monster homes" invading neighborhoods. In addition, several new petitions calling for "single-story overlay zones"-- neighborhoods that have collectively requested a ban on future two-story construction--are pending at City Hall.

The pace of demolitions doesn't surprise builders and developers, many of whom say they saw this current surge coming. They say it's a natural outgrowth of the local economy that saw the birth of many Internet companies --eBay, Excite, Yahoo--in the past decade. Early-bird employees now have fully vested stock options worth millions.

"I can't tell you how often I'm approached by people between 20 and 30 years old who can pay $2 million, $3 million--cash," said Tamara Riley, an interior designer and builder who works primarily in Old Palo Alto.

She said another reason for the jump in demolitions is that many of the buyers--young or old--are accustomed to a lifestyle that includes features such as large, modern kitchens, big bedrooms and bathrooms, walk-in closets and homes fully wired for the Internet with appropriate computer/office space. Remodeling older homes for these amenities is simply too expensive, time-consuming or just too much trouble.

"The fact of the matter is that, in many cases, it's cheaper to tear down," Riley said. "If a house has good bones, you can work with it. Otherwise, if you're talking about a big scope of work, it's much more easy and straightforward to bring it down. . . . It's sad because a lot of these houses have a lot of charm. It just all depends on whether the buyer recognizes that."

The drive to demolish is graphically displayed--as of mid-September--on Seale Avenue between Waverley and Bryant streets in Old Palo Alto. Within 500 feet of each other, no fewer than five homes are in various stages of construction--all replacing houses that were torn down. At one location on Seale, passersby can see straight through to Tennyson Street because back-to-back homes were razed.

The pace of demolitions this year will likely bring the total number of homes torn down in Palo Alto since 1995 to more than 450.

More homes have been demolished in the past five years than the 350 that have undergone major (more than $100,000) remodeling. Combined, the figures mean that nearly 6 percent of the city's 14,500 single-family lots have undergone radical or complete change in recent years.

This scale of change worries people such as Debbie Mytels, president of the Midtown Homeowners Association.

While Palo Alto for years has been out of reach to most homebuyers, the current trend is quickly eliminating the remaining housing stock that even reasonably wealthy people can afford, she fears.

"The old 1950s homes are coming down and being replaced by ones that go for twice or even three times as much," Mytels said. "If this goes on much longer, I don't know how many families can conceivably afford to move here."

Mytels, a former director of the Peninsula Conservtion Center and a longtime member of Canopy, a Palo Alto group that plants trees throughout the city, also worries about the environmental consequences of new building--particularly the loss of old trees on properties where old homes are demolished.

She pointed to a new home near where she lives that used to boast a towering and flourishing Modesto ash. That tree "is now just a skimpy little thing, practically dead," she said.

"What killed it was all the heavy machinery that sat in the yard for so long. It just destroyed the root structure," Mytels said.

Most homes being demolished, city officials and residents say, fall into one of two categories: The homes were either owned by an older couple (or surviving spouse) who have moved on to a different living arrangement or they were longtime rentals whose owners want to cash out.

The problems posed by the rash of demolitions and new construction haven't escaped the notice of a city advisory group that is drafting new design suggestions to limit the building of overly large homes.

The "Future of Single Family Neighborhoods Advisory Group" has been holding regular meetings since January and will soon pass along its recommendations to the city's Planning Department and Director of Planning, Ed Gawf, who created it.

"The basic question we've been grappling with is, 'What do we want Palo Alto to be?'" said Annette Ashton, one of three co-chairs of the 17-member group made up of residents, building professionals and city officials.

"All this new construction is giving people plenty of pause. There's the lack of privacy, the noise, the clash of building styles. People say their neighborhoods aren't the same anymore. What can we do about that?"

The committee and planning staff are working on a detailed list of recommendations designed to restore some sense of order and scale to building new homes in individual neighborhoods. The recommendations will include crackdowns on property setbacks, the size of entryways and garage doors, construction schedules, and the percentage of property that can be covered by concrete.

The group, however, has not shied away from trickier issues. Among its recommendations will be strict rules to protect neighbor privacy and to ensure the use of quality building materials. Also, the group will propose a process of individual review of all two-story homes. Builders will need to submit designs to a city committee for review. Single-story homes would be exempt.

Back on Moreno Street, Hiken's world has shifted a bit more. In late August, a bulldozer took about three hours to level an old ranch-style home on the corner of Louis Road and Moreno. Within three weeks the foundation had been poured for its replacement, and framing was underway.

"I don't know what they're going to build there," Hiken said. "I just hope it's not another big fake palace with huge columns."