Resident seeks to get home off of historic inventory
City Council to deliberate status of Palo Alto home Monday
If a Palo Alto homeowner succeeds having his 1895 home taken off of the city's Historic Building Inventory, it would only be the second such instance in a dozen years, according to the city.
Christopher Pickett will ask the City Council Monday to approve the removal of his Queen Anne-style home at 935 Ramona St. from the list. His home is among 500 structures the city has designated as historic since 1980.
City staff supported his request in September, citing many alterations to the house since its construction. But the city's Historic Resources Board rejected that recommendation 6 to 0 on Sept. 21.
The difference in perspectives on the historical merits of the home demonstrates how carefully the city guards its historic inventory. The 116-year-old building looks like a Queen Anne-style home and has the curb appeal to fit in with the character of the neighborhood. But the house underwent $500,000 in alterations between 1976 and 2005, according to a consultant's report.
The Ramona Street home is a Category 4, the least restrictive designation on the inventory list, and changes were allowed without first undergoing a Historic Resources Board review, historic-preservation planner Dennis Backlund told the board. The home is also not located in the downtown zone or in a historic district, a September staff report noted.
The homeowner's consultant, Garavaglia Architecture, evaluated the property and concluded the alterations caused it to lose its "physical historic integrity" since its historic-inventory listing in 1980. Backlund told the Historic Resources Board that staff used standards practiced by the National Park Service and California Office of Historic Preservation and came to the same conclusion.
But board members said the building, although altered, fully meets the requirements for Category 3 or 4 designations and should remain on the list.
Palo Alto Stanford Heritage (PAST) member Richard Brand, who has lived in a historically designated home on Addison Avenue for 20 years, argued before the Historic Resources Board that he has seen much of the city's historic inventory disappear. Removing historical designation from 935 Ramona could allow the homeowner to demolish the house.
"The neighborhood needs to maintain its integrity," he said.
Homes, structures, sites and districts receive their historical designation after an individual or group proposes the designation to the city, according to the historic-building ordinance. The Historic Resources Board reviews the proposal and makes a recommendation to the council, which approves or rejects the application.
Homeowners and commercial-building owners can receive incentives and property advantages when they choose to have a historical designation. Incentives include reduction of or exemption from on-site parking requirements; bonus square-footage allowances; exemptions from full upgrading to current standards; modified seismic upgrades; and exemptions from disability-access mandates, state energy standards and state flood-hazard area regulations.
But only Category 1 and 2 buildings receive the incentives. There are no incentives for Category 3 and 4 structures, said Steven Turner, city advance planning manager.
Palo Alto has four categories for historic preservation: Category 1 (exceptional building) is a structure with no exterior modifications or minor changes that maintain the overall appearance and original character; Category 2 (major building) might have some exterior modifications but the original character remains; Categories 3 or 4 (contributing building) is a building that maintains an appropriate design for its neighborhood and maintains its historical integrity, such as not having been moved from another location.
"When you go by this building, it has a very strong feeling of significance and history," board chair David Bower said of the Ramona property. Any structure of similar age would require new siding and other changes as part of its upkeep. But the Queen Anne fašade still remains to the degree that "it is still a physical record of its time," he said.
In the 12 years Backlund has worked for the city, only one home, a Category 3 Mission Revival style house located at 445 Colorado Ave., has been removed from the list, he said. That occurred in 2005.
Palo Alto Realtor Ken DeLeon said removing a historic designation is difficult.
"It's a huge procedural battle and even then there are no guarantees," he said.
One Professorville client ran afoul of his neighborhood's historic status when he wanted to demolish a building on his property. The building itself was not deemed a historic structure. He spent $500,000 on legal fees and finally won the council's approval in 2010 to demolish it.
Many people buy historically designated homes without understanding the full implications. Often they fail to consider their future home needs, DeLeon said. When they realize they want or need to do more with their home, they bump up against restrictions.
"There are only so many changes you can make. The cost is usually a little higher (to remodel), and you don't get what you want," he said.
Homes with a historical designation are a niche market, often attracting people from the East Coast and Boston area who want older houses, he said. But the cultural preference for the old-town charm of a small home on a big lot is changing, he added.
Palo Alto is a magnet for many wealthy immigrants who are changing the cultural norm. Many desire to build larger homes, and that could affect home values of historic properties in the future, he said.
DeLeon conservatively estimated that homes with historical designations are valued 15 to 20 percent lower than other properties. The disparity is likely to rise as more people seek out larger lots for bigger homes, he said.
Pickett said he regretted not having attended the Historic Resources Board meeting, when he and his wife were on separate trips as chaperones for more than 70 schoolchildren each.
"I think it was a matter of first impressions," he said, noting that it might have seemed insulting to board members that the couple didn't attend. He plans to attend the council meeting, he added.
"Pretty much everything stopped because of the (Historic Resources Board) decision," he said, noting he and his wife have looked at a variety of things they could do to the house.
The Historic Resources Board members based their decision in essence on a walk-by, he said, not having any requirement to view the inside of the house. The previous owners gutted the inside and remodeled it in an ultra-modern style.
When the couple purchased the home 4 1/2 years ago, they had no idea of what they were facing, he said. They had only remodeled a bathroom. Since the Historic Resources Board decision Pickett hired a second consultant from the planning department's list to do a peer review of the Garavaglia report. The consultants, Page and Turnbull, came to the same conclusion that the home did not meet the test on seven city criteria for historic integrity, he said.
Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at email@example.com.