Fall Real Estate 2000

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

In defense of large homes In defense of large homes (September 22, 2000)

Suman Gupta and her husband, Tom, prowled the streets of Palo Alto for nearly two years in search of a home.

They looked at all sorts of houses in all sorts of neighborhoods. They had two priorities. One was that their future home be large enough to suit a growing family for many years to come. Secondly, they wanted to avoid the sort of home they had at the time--a charming house in Menlo Park that nonetheless showed every one of its 60 years.

"It had two space heaters that never quite did the job, and we had mold in the bathroom--always," Suman recalls.

Finally, in October 1999, the couple took the plunge and bought a large new home in the Midtown area of Palo Alto.

It's the sort of home that residents have become accustomed to seeing rise up from the lots once occupied by old, small houses built in the 1950s and earlier. Critics have all sorts of names for such homes--lot hogs, monsters, Taco Bells, trophies, even "starter castles." Others simply view them as nice, new houses--a tad out of scale with the neighborhood, but nonetheless worthy replacements for homes that, frankly, needed replacing.

Gupta's new home has two stories, three bedrooms, an office, a high entryway and a big two-car garage facing the street. Its rooms are large, and so is its backyard. Gupta said she's never felt any resentment from any of her neighbors.

"We're very happy here," Gupta said. "We were at a point in our lives where we didn't want the hassles of an old house--plumbing, electricity, remodeling. This is a very comfortable home for us."

Gupta represents many homeowners across Palo Alto who for years have silently endured the criticism of some who say large homes are ruining the nature of neighborhoods.

The response of the large-home owners is simple: Lifestyles in the year 2000 are different from those of generations past. People want larger kitchens, walk-in closets, home offices. It's much simpler to buy a new house than to reconfigure and enlarge an old one. Besides, home designer Richard Elmore pointed out, most large homes aren't as bad as a small but vocal chorus of critics make them out to be.

"Misunderstood may be a better word," said Elmore, who has been designing homes in the Palo Alto area since 1975. "People call them ugly because they want to release emotion, and they don't know how else to describe them. The fact is many of these homes would look perfectly attractive if they were in a neighborhood of similar design."

Elmore, a member of the Future of Single-Family Neighborhoods Advisory Group, said the root of the problem is that the city has never had design standards. The result shouldn't surprise anyone, he said. People who can afford to buy a Palo Alto home and tear it down want to maximize their purchase by building the biggest house possible, and design is often the first casualty, he said. When design gives way to sheer mass, it leads to neighborhood tension, which in turn, leads to a backlash against new homes in general.

Peter Vilkin, a developer who has built more than two dozen homes in and around Palo Alto in recent years, said most new homes are far better structures than those they are replacing. In time, he said, the newer homes will be the ones that shape Palo Alto's neighborhoods.

"Most of the homes that get torn down, frankly, deserve it. They're either way too small or they're in bad condition. Either way, they are not what people want to buy these days."

Vilkin is particularly critical of residents who want to place tight restrictions on the designs of new homes.

"When you get down to it, I think a lot of these people are driven by envy. They see a new home going up. They get upset, and want to start making rules," he said.

Vilkin said it's important to keep in mind that so-called "monster homes" are hardly new to Palo Alto. He said many of the homes in Professorville and Old Palo Alto far exceed today's limits on home size. And in many cases, such homes were built next to tiny cottages, the same phenomenon that some residents today criticize for throwing a neighborhood out of balance, he said.

--Marc Igler