Perhaps the only extant examples of developer Joseph Eichler's vision for a commercial retail center, the buildings were part of a 2009 lawsuit by members of the Duveneck-St. Francis neighborhood against developer Sand Hill Property. Residents sought to preserve the 56-year-old structures after Sand Hill planned to redevelop the site into retail and about 25 single-family homes.
But Sand Hill settled the lawsuit, known as the Architectural Control Committee for Tract No. 1641, after it was discovered that any development required authorization from residents through the property's Declaration of Restrictions, Conditions, Covenants, Charges and Agreements, or CC&Rs.
Sand Hill then won the goodwill of residents when it held informational meetings and reduced the number of homes to 10. It agreed to preserve the two Eichler structures. One building, which is closest to Embarcadero Road and St. Francis Drive, was to be deconstructed and moved further back toward the neighborhood. The move would have shifted parking along the residential side into the center.
But while residents expected the building to come down, they were shocked on Monday and Tuesday to discover that many of its most recognizable features had been splintered, they said. Worse, they did not receive any communication from developer John Tze about changes to the building's renovation plans, they said.
By Wednesday morning, all that was left was one masonry wall.
"We were not notified about the demolition and were surprised, shocked and dismayed," Diane Sekimura, an Architectural Control Committee member, said in an email to the Weekly.
"Along with the city, we also believed that the building was to be dismantled and moved. We were told by Mr. Tze that some components would have to be replaced due to new building codes. He mentioned doors, which must be widened for disabled access and windows, which today must be double paned and use safety glass. He also said he needed to comply with regulations for heating and cooling equipment on the roof. We expected other materials such as beams, siding, panels, etc., would be recycled and reassembled at the new location.
"What remained after the demolition was a pile of shards and pieces of these components. They were hauled away Tuesday. It did not appear anything was salvaged except the single masonry wall still standing," Sekimura said.
Reached while on vacation in Europe, Tze apologized in an email to Sekimura on Tuesday for any surprise. He did not dispute the residents' account of the demolition.
"We have been working closely with the city and (historic-architecture consultants) Page & Turnbull and have consulted with Page & Turnbull continuously throughout this design and construction process.
"I do not take this lightly but basically, what we found through the design process was that much of the old material could not be re-used. The glass does not meet current safety and energy codes — it is single pane, non-safety and we need double paned with light and heat reflecting glass. The doors likewise do not meet handicap widths. However, the signature Eichler concrete block walls will be re-used and incorporated into the building that is staying in place.
"When we began construction, we opened up walls and found surprisingly that many were not original. However, we walked the entire project carefully with Page & Turnbull, who concluded that many of the structural members were also in poor condition and structurally unsound," he wrote. He offered to meet with residents upon his return perhaps as soon as next Friday.
In an email on Wednesday, Tze said the other Eichler building would remain. He did not specify how much of it might be altered, however, or if it was found to be in similar condition.
Elena Lee, city senior planner for the project, said a condition of the project's approval required the historic preservation of the buildings. The developer is required to dismantle and reconstruct the building in compliance with the U.S. Secretary of the Interior's standards.
"There should be no exception made. They are supposed to be in full compliance," she said. She said she would be checking with Tze to find out what had happened.
Carolyn Kiernat, a principal at Page & Turnbull, said on Wednesday that she had just found out about the alleged demolition and removal and had to talk with the city and Sand Hill prior to commenting.
"It has all just come to light," she said, adding that the company's role has been as a preservation consultant. A site walk was done a couple of weeks ago, she said.
Sekimura said her group "believe(s) this demolition violates our October 2009 Superior Court Stipulated Judgment and Injunction agreement.
"We thought we had a collaborative process with the developer with frequent communication over the past 2-plus years, not to mention a binding court order stipulating that the two historically and architecturally significant buildings would be renovated. We actively supported the presentations of the developer in front of the Historical Resources Board, the Architectural Resources Board, the Planning and Traffic Commission, and the City Council — all of whom approved the project plans for the preservation of these two buildings," she said.
She added that she isn't sure what the residents' next action will be. One possibility is to seek an injunction to stop construction.
"We would like to find some resolution short of stopping work on a project which is so important to everyone in Palo Alto. I hope there is a way to regain trust in the relationship with this developer," she said.