Palo Altans often gripe about the frustrations and complexities of the city's permitting process, but few can match the ordeal that Alan Akin and Michelle Arden slogged through as they tried to demolish their home in the historic Professorville district.
Though their home at 405 Lincoln Ave. was found to have no significant historic value, it took Akin and Arden three years and $500,000 to get the city's approval for the demolition. Even after completing a comprehensive environmental review and modifying their plans repeatedly, they almost saw their plans thwarted last fall when the city's Historic Review Board rejected the plan.
When the City Council decided in October to overrule the board and finally grant Akin and Arden the approval they sought, then-Vice Mayor Sid Espinosa called the process "embarrassing."
On Monday, now-Mayor Espinosa and the rest of the council began an effort to reform Professorville rules to clear up some of the issues that muddied up the permit process for 405 Lincoln Ave. Among the main questions the council wrestled with was: How hard should it be to demolish a home that, in of itself, isn't considered "historically significant" but that contributes to the character of a historic district?
Several members of the Historic Resources Board argued Monday that the city should consider the district as a whole, rather than focus on individual projects. Some homes, such as Akin's and Arden's, are listed as "contributing structures" rather than historically significant ones. Under a staff proposal, which the council unanimously endorsed Monday, applicants seeking to demolish homes with no significant historic value would not be required to complete an Environmental Impact Report (EIR), as Akin and Arden had to.
Instead, the applicants would have to perform an "initial study" to examine the impact of the demolition on the district. If the study were to show that the loss wouldn't be significant, the applicant would only have to complete a "mitigated negative declaration" -- a document that is much less comprehensive than an environmental review.
Staff also proposed getting the Historic Resources Board involved earlier in the process to avoid eleventh-hour surprises and establishing "compatibility criteria" to evaluate new developments and remodeling proposals in Professorville. The council adopted these suggestions after being assured by staff that neighborhood residents would participate in creating the new criteria.
The council agreed that staff's proposals consider both the rights of the property owners and the desire to preserve Professorville's character. Councilman Greg Scharff said these reforms are a "good balancing act between the different concerns people have in this area."
"I wouldn't like to see what happened at 405 Lincoln happen again," Scharff said.
Councilman Larry Klein agreed.
"It was a terrible process that Ms. Arden and Mr. Akin were put through," Klein said. "If this will prevent this from ever happening again, that will be good."
Some residents warned the council not to ease regulations for demolishing contributing structures. Natalie Loukianoff, the Historic Resources Board's vice chair, said that if the city allows these homes to be demolished, it could jeopardize Professorville –- a nationally recognized historic district that originally housed Stanford University professors.
"I believe we need to stop viewing buildings in the districts individually and start viewing the district as a whole," Loukianoff said.
Architect Scott Smithwick, president of Palo Alto Stanford Heritage, agreed and stressed the importance for preserving the existing homes in Professorville, even if these homes aren't listed as "significant" structures.
"A district is made up of all its parts -- both significant and contributing structures," Smithwick said. "If those are allowed to be demolished, at a certain point we'll reach a point where a district is no longer a district."
Councilwoman Karen Holman, a conservation consultant who serves as director of the Palo Alto History Museum, suggested creating a process in which "contributing" structures could be designated as significant for the purposes of getting environmental clearance. She agreed with the Historic Resources Board that the neighborhood's "whole" is greater than the "sum of its parts."
Her proposal failed by a 2-7 vote, with only Vice Mayor Yiaway Yeh endorsing it.
But Holman joined the rest of the council in accepting staff's suggestions. Espinosa characterized the proposed reforms as a good way to make sure future applicants won't feel the kind of land-use pain that Akin and Arden suffered.
"I know it caused a lot of angst among council members that a member of our citizenry went through such an arduous and expensive process," Espinosa said.