When longtime Palo Alto residents Allen Akin and Michelle Arden bought 405 Lincoln Ave. in 2007, planning to build a larger home for their growing family, they didn't expect to still be bidding for the city's approval three years and $500,000 dollars later.
But their purchase in the Professorville neighborhood triggered a debate over property rights versus historic preservation. The neighborhood has been designated a Registered Historic District by the National Register of Historic Places, and their home -- according to some people -- contributes to that character.
On Wednesday, the city's Historic Resources Board met to review Akin and Arden's plans and solicit comments from the public.
No decision was made. The board will revisit the issue at its Oct. 6 meeting, when it will review more information about the proposed design's compatibility with neighboring houses.
The current home, which sits at the corner of Lincoln and Waverley Street, is a modest, single-story Spanish colonial-revival structure, dating back to 1923. Due to its location in the neighborhood, changes to the home required an environmental-impact review be conducted.
"It was determined that the property is a contributor to the National Register, so the thrust of the environmental-impact report is to ensure that the replacement structure is designed in a manner that retains the integrity of the district," consultant John Wagstaff said.
Akin and Ardin explored a plan for adaptive re-use of the existing structure, but the resulting home would not be large enough for the family. The couple works from home, has two children and needs accessibility for Akin's disabled father.
"If we couldn't build something that could work for us, there was no sense in buying it," Akin said.
Preservationists fear that a domino effect will take hold in the neighborhood if the home is allowed to be replaced. Should it be demolished, "a precedent may be set for the demolition of other homes that are original to this historic district," Palo Alto resident Mary Ojakian said in an open letter to the city.
The structure, she said, is largely unchanged from its original design.
Other residents, including Miriam Palm and Beth Bunnenberg (a member of the Historic Resources Board but speaking as a resident) brought up the significance of the house's former owner and designer, the Duryea family, suggesting the structure should be considered more historical than its classification.
Father John Duryea became nationally famous in 1976 for publicly announcing he had "done the one thing the (Catholic Church) institution will not tolerate. I have fallen in love," according to a 2006 Palo Alto Weekly article.
Palo Alto resident Susan Beall also spoke to the fears that the Professorville Historic District designation could be lost with the demolition and re-development, she said in an open letter to the city.
"In the past, there have been demolitions in the neighborhood, and if this continues, the district will no longer meet the criteria of historic designation."
Akin and Arden, however, said they met with city planning and building staff before they bought the house, to ask whether the residence could be demolished. They said they received both written and verbal assurances to this effect, though they would not provide the details or documents to the Weekly.
"Right now we'd much rather build a house than have a lawsuit," Akin said.
According to Palo Alto Chief Planning Official Julie Caporgno, however, there was no written or verbal agreement. Caporgno said that the historic-preservation planner Akin and Arden spoke with in 2007 correctly assured them that under the ordinance at that time, they would only have to go through a demolition-delay process of up to one year.
Caporgno said that shortly after the city accepted Akin and Arden's application, however, a court ruled on the historic Juana Briones house, stating that the demolition delay for the Briones property would be subject to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). In response, the city attorney decided that all demolition delays, including Akin and Arden's, would be subject to the California Environmental Quality Act, and therefore require an environmental review.
Akin said he sees no reason to worry about a domino effect if his demolition is approved.
"If it goes through, I think it will be the last new house in Professorville -- because nobody will be willing to go through this," he said.
Comments on the draft environmental-impact report will be taken through Sept. 9. A copy of the document can be found on the city's website, www.cityofpaloalto.org.