Fall Real Estate 2000

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

It's business as usual in most cities It's business as usual in most cities (September 22, 2000)

Both Menlo Park and Los Altos are experiencing a surge in demolitions but officials in two of Palo Alto's less affluent neighbors, Mountain View and Redwood City, say the number of tear-downs in their cities will remain--as they have for years--in the single digits.

Mountain View had only five demolition permits requested through August, Principal Planner Michael Percy said. As in most local cities, however, Mountain View homeowners are remodeling with greater frequency, Percy said.

"But we just haven't seen much activity in demolitions," he said.

He attributes that to several factors. He said Mountain View's housing stock is newer than Palo Alto's, primarily built in the 1950s and 1960s, and therefore is less likely to need complete replacement.

He also said Mountain View allows fewer square feet of housing to be built on residential lots than Palo Alto, thereby discouraging the building of so-called "monster homes."

"And then, of course, there's the financial aspect," Percy said. "Mountain View property simply isn't as valuable. If you spend several million dollars, you're much more likely to want your own house, rather than somebody else's."

Similarly, Redwood City has also seen only a trickle of recent home demolitions. John LaTorra, the city's building and inspection manager, said from July of last year through June of this year, only seven demolition permits went through City Hall. As in Mountain View, however, LaTorra said home remodeling has sharply increased--some of it extensive.

"What we're seeing is a lot of people applying for what amounts to near-demolitions," he said.

LaTorra said he suspects Redwood City is being spared from the demolition craze because it is one of the few cities on the Peninsula that still has available property--Redwood Shores--for new single-family homes. The Redwood Shores area, now with close to 5,000 residential lots, has made it so homebuyers don't need to buy an existing home and tear it down.

In neighboring Menlo Park, however, home demolitions are running at a steady clip, but far below those in Palo Alto.

Building Official Donald Johnson said 30 demolition permits were issued from July 1 of last year to June 30 of this year. That compares to 21 in the same period the year before. Almost all the new construction is east of El Camino--in West Menlo, Sharon Heights and Felton Gables.

"I'd say the homes that are replacing the ones torn down are 50 to 100 percent bigger," Johnson said.

Many homebuyers are also using an underground tactic to get more square footage: They're building basements--most between 1,000 and 2,000 square feet in size--that don't count against space limits.

"It makes for some very large homes," Johnson said.

In Los Altos, Acting Planning Director Jim Mackenzie said there has been "a very substantial increase" in the number of home demolitions and major remodels in the past two years. While he couldn't provide statistics, Mackenzie said the demolition trend has become so pronounced that it's not uncommon for homes that were remodeled as few as five years ago to be torn down.

"The volume has become so great that the City Council gave the Planning Department an extra, full-time staff position to handle the flow in building activity," Mackenzie said, noting that the department previously had only four positions.

Another sign that demolitions have reached a worrying level can be seen in recent action by the Los Altos City Council. The council approved a law allowing residents to petition the city if they want to ban second-story homes in their neighborhoods.

--Marc Igler