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Long-term construction raises questions in Old Palo Alto neighborhood

Original post made on Jul 11, 2008

The four-year-long construction of a luxurious house in Old Palo Alto has sparked renewed complaints from frustrated neighbors and prompted the city to assess whether expired building permits are a large problem in town.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Friday, July 11, 2008, 8:49 AM

Comments (26)

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Posted by palo alto parent
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 11, 2008 at 8:01 pm

This is an issue with more then the Wongs. Permits should be for a finite amount of time - with a penalty for going past it ( a year should be sufficent for outside, noisy constrution). If your project takes much more then that, perhaps you should get a life instead....We have renovated and built 12 homes over the past 20 years, it is a rude imposition on your neighbors, not to mention a waste of resources and a total lack of organization for a project to take more than a 1 1/2 years.


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Posted by New Winchester Mystery
a resident of Professorville
on Jul 12, 2008 at 12:18 am

This sounds like The Winchester Mystery House in Old Palo Alto.

She kept building, and building, and building . . .

Until The City of San Jose decided they needed a Planning Department to issue building permits with a time limit. -

(Joking)


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Posted by History in the making
a resident of Green Acres
on Jul 12, 2008 at 4:13 am

Maybe this house is going to be a historical house before it is completed.


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Posted by Get Control
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 12, 2008 at 8:52 am

San Jose has the Winchester Mystery House. Palo Alto has the Wong Monstrosity House. Next we'll build Satan Row (sic) across the street and really have a mess.

Planning, please get a grip on the excessive development in Palo Alto. There have to be limits and controls.


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Posted by trudy
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 12, 2008 at 12:37 pm

It sounds like the Wongs are not abiding by the rules that limit the times during the day and the days that constructing work can be done on.

Having lived next to a house where this was the case, I can say it is maddening. The builders had workmen camping out in the house, and they would start work sometimes at 6 am go on until 10 pm or on a Sunday. There was never any peace, and if the police were called, the guys stopped work temporarily and the police did nothing.


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Posted by Remodler
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 12, 2008 at 1:12 pm

Having just gone through a remodel ourselves, it looks to me that there are problems on all sides.

The biggest problem is that when you start remodling you know nothing. You are at the mercy of the architect, the contractors and the city. When problems occur, and they certainly do occur often, one blames the other and you are left in the middle not knowing where to turn.

The city process appears simple at first, but once you get the permits, if you want to change anything slightly, problems occur. If you get an inspection you may or may not pass. If you fail, you sort out the problem then the inspection is repeated and you fail on something else. Sometimes a certain inspection can happen 3 or 4 times and each time fails on something different. Sometimes it is down to having different inspectors and sometimes it is down to the fact that when an inspector fails a certain condition on his list, he doesn't look any further so next time the fail is down to something further down the list. Normally, when an inspection is due, the contractors are stuck not able to go any further until the inspection happens or until it is passed. This can hold up work for weeks.

Often, you have to wait weeks for something small but crucial to arrive. I ordered what I thought was a regular faucet for my kitchen sink. It was ordered along with other plumbing fixtures. What I didn't realise was that my faucet was discontinued and although the manufacturer said they had one in stock, it had to be traced to a warehouse in Florida and then get transported across country. If I had known this in the first place I would not have ordered it, but you don't get told these things. This wait took nearly a month and my kitchen inspection was held up until it arrived. This is just one instance of how something small can hold things up.

I have sympathy for the neighbors, but I also have sympathy for the homeowners. They are rookie remodlers like we were and bound to make mistakes. We think we are paying people to look after our best interests, but to them it is just a job and generally they don't really mind how long it takes unless they have a time penalty clause in their contract and many won't sign a contract if it has one.

Throughout all the remodling and the extra work (and there is a lot of work) the homeowners have to do to get stuff done, family life goes on as well as the professional lives of the adults. During this time, there are still kids' to look after and regular life problems with things like cars and medical issues that we still have to work through.

I hope that the neighbors and homeowners can get on together when the work is finished, but knowing PA, as soon as this project ends, someone just down the street will start with theirs.


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Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 12, 2008 at 1:20 pm

well, you have to admit this sounds excessive - this is not a normal case by any means.


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Posted by palo alto parent
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 12, 2008 at 2:39 pm

Every a rookie, DIY remodeler can finish a project in 4 years. In general I have great sympathy for remodelers, but taking 4 years is beyond ridiculous and implies a great lack of organization skills and decision making ability.

A polite neighbor would have found a way to finish all the noisy work within a year and continue inside after that. Even elaborate painted ceilings are quiet. Wet saws for the tile work can be set up in a garage with doors closed (much quieter) compressers can be muffled, decisions can be made in a timely manner, etc.

Issue number two with remodeling - people finish with the city permits and then continue on phase 2 - the part without permits to make all the changes the city would not allow...


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Posted by Could it be....?
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jul 12, 2008 at 5:45 pm

We all remember the racism that surfaced during the permit process for the Wongs (no need to repeat the comments that were made). Is this a case of people being unhappy because it is the WOng's remodeling the house?


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Posted by Mike
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 12, 2008 at 8:57 pm

"As to whether the city should have been more vigilant in monitoring the Webster house, Perlin said it's not the city's role to constantly check on thousands of permitted projects. The assumption is that owners will renew permits by scheduling regular inspections because they otherwise face fines, he said.

Nonetheless, Perlin said uncovering the expired permits made him wonder if the city could notify owners when a permit expired, perhaps by generating an automatic mailing."

Incredible that the chief building official says there is no way to know when a permit has expired. Do you think that permits issued are not on the city computer? And he just now thinks that maybe he should look into fixing this? It seems fundamental to me that permits be in force when building/grading is going on.

I spent a number of years as a developer and builder (not in Palo Alto), and had to renew permits a number of times or risk red tagging or fines if I did not. We hear so often how good the people are who work for our city, but things like this situation, and the recent public works fiasco and the current Children's Theater episode make you wonder if the 'cream of the crop' mantra is true. Or maybe the other Bay Area cities have it really bad, and relatively we do have the top performers.


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Posted by OhlonePar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 12, 2008 at 8:59 pm

Hmmm, my recollection of this is that there was no overt racism, but only hearsay claims made by the Wongs for which no evidence was ever shown. Kind of like an ugly child-custody dispute.

It was clear the Wong's neighbors didn't want a mega-house next to them. I've never known why the Wongs didn't just sell and pick one of the many areas of Palo Alto where McMansions go up without a battle--parts of Arastradero, Colorado Ave., etc.

After four years--particularly with all the enforced <g> pre-planning, it is strange that the Wongs aren't done with their mega-remodel.


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Posted by Could it be....?
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jul 13, 2008 at 6:36 am

Why should the Wong's have had to sell--don't they have some say about what to do with their property. Seems this another example of the "Palo Alto Way"---neighbors decide what you can do with your property.
Why do people who do not like someone else's home resort to derogatory name calling, like using the term McMansion?? That is part of the problem also---people do not like or want change and think every home should conform to their tastes.


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Posted by anonymous
a resident of another community
on Jul 13, 2008 at 10:40 am

It's a shame what has happened to the once beautiful city I grew up in. Beautiful, grand old Palo Alto homes being destroyed in favor of ugly, bland, boring mini-mansions. Who would want a 6,000 sq foot home anyway?


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Posted by Could it be....?
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jul 13, 2008 at 10:43 am

Anonymous--why shouldn't someone have a 6000 sq foot home. Isn't it there choice or do people like you get to decide what kind of home they should have?
Too bad everyone isn;t living in the original huts and shacks that were in really old Palo Alto


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Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 13, 2008 at 11:31 am

Rather it sounds like some people feel they are above the law and they certainly do not appear to be showing common courtesy to their neighbors


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Posted by palo alto parent
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 13, 2008 at 11:46 am

There is nothing racist in a neighbor wanting to enjoy peace and quiet in their own yard after 4 years of listening to construction. There is a reason permits in most places are for one year. Many other places charge a huge premium to renew a permit after a year - incentive to finish in a reasonable time period.


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Posted by Could it be....?
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jul 13, 2008 at 12:09 pm

So what is the problem the size of the house, the length of time for construction or the Wong's? Or is it all of the above?


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Posted by Bobby
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 13, 2008 at 12:16 pm

I live near the Wong's house and have no problem with it...mostly because I think what someone does with their house is their own business.

I know some of the nosy neighbors who are complaining about the construction delays. In my opinion, they're standing on pretty thin ice since they initially held up the Wong's construction plan for almost two years while they lobbied the Planning Commission, got the City Council involved (for an unprecedented neighborhood site visit and gripe session), and threatened lawsuits over the matter.

We should all have a little more respect for one-another in town.


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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 13, 2008 at 1:25 pm

". . .don't they have some say about what to do with their property. Seems this another example of the "Palo Alto Way"---neighbors decide what you can do with your property."

Palo Alto has a number of laws telling homeowners what they can and cannot do with their property. It might be helpful if the newspapers listed these restrictions. For example, you can not have any home-based business you choose to have.

Also there is the issue of fair distribution of resources. Because of the scarcity of water and power (unless taxpayers pay a great deal of money for new infrastructures), why should some people b allowed to build 6,000 foot homes in Palo Alto? We need a law limiting the size of homes now in the pipeline and limiting the size of future homes and developments.

"Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man's nose begins."


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Posted by OhlonePar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 13, 2008 at 2:00 pm

Could it be . . .

I never said the Wongs had to move, I said I wondered why they didn't. I mean why create a lot of enemies in a neighborhood before you even move in?

There are other (nice) parts of the city where this sort of thing doesn't arouse that kind of neighborly rancor--the Palo Alto Hills has excellent schools (Nixon) and good-sized lots. They could be living in the house of their dreams right now.

Part of the issue in that section of Palo Alto is that the houses are fairly cheek by jowl--so neighbors *care*. The Wongs have a good-sized lot--but they also pushed the possible house size to the limit. I suspect if they'd rolled back the house by a 1,000 feet instead of insisting on 6,000, all of this would have calmed down a long time ago.

That said, four years of construction in what should be a quiet residential neighborhood is a separate issue. That's four years of having a local issue that would affect your own house's value. Basically, you have to live with the construction or take a hit when you sell.

Which is part of why homeowners don't get to do whatever they want to their own property. The Wongs' actions affect the value of their neighbors' homes. Want to do your own thing--you need to move to where the houses are farther apart--Woodside, Portola Valley.

That said, I'm not without some sympathy for the Wongs--four years! That's the project from hell and they may end up with a white elephant that's worth less than what they put into it with the current state of the real-estate market.


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Posted by OK with me if they fail
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 13, 2008 at 5:09 pm

> the project from hell and they may end up with a white elephant that's worth less than what they put into it with the current state of the real-estate market.
That's ok with me. So much greed, so little consideration for neighbors, so much self importance, so much money to burn, I won't cry if the whole project fails.


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Posted by OhlonePar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 13, 2008 at 7:57 pm

OK with me,

Karma's a bitch and so are real-estate cycles?

I've been reading that there's a general trend toward smaller houses--aging population doesn't want huge homes and all the costs associated with them--taxes, maintenance, heating, etc.

There just aren't that many buyers for high-end houses.


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Posted by Could it be....?
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jul 13, 2008 at 8:05 pm

Well then PA should pass some clear, concise laws on what home owners are allowed to build--how large they can build, how much time they have to build and how much input neighbors can have.
Sounds to me that the Wong's jumped through all the hoops and even managed to sway the city council, who usually sides with vocal neighbors in these kind of cases.

Resident says ""Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man's nose begins."---what happens if the other man purposely walks into your arm when you are swinging it???


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Posted by Arden Pennell
Palo Alto Weekly staff writer
on Jul 13, 2008 at 9:32 pm

Arden Pennell is a registered user.

To clarify, in response to Mike's comment on July 12, 8:57 p.m. -- Larry Perlin didn't say there was "no way to know" whether a permit expired. He told me the permit data is all in the computer, but not actively monitored for expirations.
He now wonders if there should be active monitoring. As it says in the article, the city's current assumption, according to Perlin, is that fees are sufficient to deter homeowners from letting permits lapse. A renewal fee for an expired permit is half the cost of the original permit, which can be thousands of dollars, Perlin said.


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Posted by Peter
a resident of another community
on Jul 13, 2008 at 9:48 pm

I used to live in Old Palo Alto and endured four multi-year overlapping scrape/new house construction projects on my block. The resulting noise, trucks parked all over, dust, dirt, and everything associated with the construction became too much. I understand why the neighbors were concerned.

Houses don't take four years to build; castles do.


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Posted by Sarah
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 14, 2008 at 9:51 am

It's a mess if too many working trucks parking on the street, I can't see any upcoming cars when I stop at stop sign at interaction. I think 4 years are too much, it's a pain for the neighbors. Let's be considerate for others. And you rather be friends with your neighbors.


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