News

City changes rules for Professorville demolitions

Palo Alto considers whether residents should be allowed to demolish homes in historic district

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.

Comments

Like this comment
Posted by Carroll Harrington
a resident of Community Center
on Mar 15, 2011 at 2:39 am

Reading recent newspaper articles and watching the City Council tonight regarding Professorville and the arduous, expensive process Akin and Arden have been going thru brought back memories of 1998 and the Palo Alto Homeowners Association incredible campaign to overturn an onerous city ordinance regarding "historic" houses. Our mantra was "We believe in historic preservation, but not this ordinance," and we won. Web Link

Then in 2001 City of Palo Alto Planning Director Ed Gawf formed a citizens task force, The Future of Single Family Neighborhoods Group Advisory Group. We spent 17 months and developed the Individual Review Guidelines for two-story rebuilds and remodels. We wanted the process to be fair, understandable and unambiguous WITH reasonable fees.
Web Link These guidelines have been reviewed periodically thru the years, and the process has been fairly successful...until now!

I urge the City to review these guidelines and, more importantly the issue of fees and the process homeowners have to go thru, and, if necessary, hold public community meetings so that the staff, city officials and homeowners are all on the same page...so to speak.


Like this comment
Posted by Enoch Choi, MD
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 15, 2011 at 3:04 am

Amen, Carroll!


Like this comment
Posted by Old Palo Alto
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 15, 2011 at 9:11 am

Why shouldn't building permits be free? Or at least inexpensive. If permits were free then this circuitous process would disappear as there would be no incentive to soak homeowners with ludicrous fees. The cost of many fees in Palo Alto is the same as a project itself, if compared with other areas.


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Posted by Give us a break
a resident of Monroe Park
on Mar 15, 2011 at 10:47 am

"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. Now we are feeling sorry for the council members who have allowed this travesty to happen? How absurd.

I guess anyone who wants to own in Professorville no longer has any personal property rights, because we now have to preserve "the district." While I would like to see preservation, I do not believe in extortion and coercion in order to achieve this goal, regardless of how we try to cloak the abrogation of property rights in rhetoric and outcomes the community approves of.


Like this comment
Posted by svatoid
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Mar 15, 2011 at 10:49 am

This is a perfect example of the mindset in Palo Alto that everything is historic. Very little is actually "historic". Many things in town are old--but old does not mean historic. We also have an example of a local organization (Historic Review Board) that is out of control--they have a particular agenda, which involves in many cases the usurpation of private property rights, in their quest to preserve "historic" structures. They need to be reined in ASAP.
Finally Ms Holman needs to recuse herself from any discussions involving "historic" resources, considering her past (leader behind the failed Historic ordinance aka everything in Palo Alto is historic) and present interests (a conservation consultant who serves as director of the Palo Alto History Museum). In the past and even now she has made her position clear regarding private property rights (She agreed with the Historic Resources Board that the neighborhood's "whole" is greater than the "sum of its parts.")


Like this comment
Posted by Wendy
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 15, 2011 at 11:32 am

Oh, here we go again......"you can't tell me what to do with my property" mantra again. I once lived in "Big Blue", the old historic house on College Ave - torn down by an insensitive owner, one of the oldest houses in Palo Alto. Replaced with two McMansions. Ugly. And the owner had a potential buyer who wanted to restore the house but didn't want to wait the extra few days or week for them to secure the loan. Very sad. Lost forever. I also lived in Telluride, Co. off an on for 20 years and was on the Historic Architectural Review Board for the town for awhile. The town is a National Historic District. When a town or a neighborhood accepts this type of designation it accepts the benefits, and there are many, and it accepts the responsibility of mainting the features that got it the designation in the first place. And for a district, that includes the historic structures as well as the contributing structures, and in the case of Telluride, all of the sheds and outbuildings. I would think that if Palo Alto wants to maintain this designation then it would want to find a way to make sure all of the structures in the district be cataloged, listed as to historic and contributing, and some guidelines on what can and can not be done to these structures before someone comes in to ask to tear it down. Why is it historic? What are the features other than age? Gables, porches, windows? Why is it contributing? Gables, porches, windows, siding, size, etc. If you want to alter it will it still maintain the features that makes it contributing or historic? If you want to tear it down what are you replacing it with and will it retain the features that will continue to maintain the historc distric? Will the new structure have the same features and feel, size and site coverage etc that will add to and maintain the designation? The historic desination can be taken away if the district becomes just a handful of old homes. If we can't be bothered to find a way to maintain the designation then perhaps we need to ask that the National Registry take it away so that we can do whatever we want to any of the homes. Maintaining a designation such as this takes work, planning, guildlines (preferably printed and handed out to homeoweners that want to make changes), and persistant vigilance. Yes, perhaps this incidence was a bit out of hand, costly and time consuming but I feel part of that blame needs to be with the city and its lack of clarity on what it means to have a National Historic district and how to maintain that.


Like this comment
Posted by svatoid
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Mar 15, 2011 at 12:12 pm

"Yes, perhaps this incidence was a bit out of hand"
That is an understatement.
The article clearly states:
"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. "

An out of control HRB, people who think everything is "historic" and a lack of respect for private property rights. Good to see that the city council turned down the last ditch effort by Holman (who has a conflict of interest in these matters and should recuse herself) from forcing her personal views that everything in Palo Alto is historic on the public once again.


Like this comment
Posted by Give us a break
a resident of Monroe Park
on Mar 15, 2011 at 12:32 pm

No one has said the aim is "you can't tell me what to do with my property," but there need to be limits or there is NO POINT in having private property. As more individuals and "historical boards" get greater input into what one can do on one's own property, the process of making ANY changes gets hugely expensive and onerous, since there is no way to please everyone in the process. It is the property owner who bears the cost of all of this, not the busybodies and snobs who feel entitled to make decisions about preservation for "the greater good."


Like this comment
Posted by svatoid
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Mar 15, 2011 at 12:40 pm

Well said, Give us a break, for too long people with no financial interest in the matter, but who feel a sense of entitlement to dictate to others what to do with their personal property have been allowed to force their views on the entire city. Another example is the Briones home--all the people clamoring that it needs to be saved have not been willing to put up the money to buy the place. Many of these people live in luxurious homes worth millions--they have access to the funds to buy that property and "save" it.
Glad to see our council is finally developing a spine in this matter.


Like this comment
Posted by renter
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 15, 2011 at 1:01 pm

I totally agree with Wendy- Mcmansions are disgusting and I've seen a lot of them recently. They tend to rob the area of character (although that shiny BMW looks nice in the driveway!) Let's face it, if you can afford to OWN a house in Palo Alto- suck up the costs the city wants and pay it. The median house cost is hovering at just over a million dollars!


Like this comment
Posted by Carroll Harrington
a resident of Community Center
on Mar 15, 2011 at 1:41 pm

Re avatoid's comment that historic preservation "is the mindset in Palo Alto." I disagree, and this was definitely proven in the 1999 election to overturn the onerous historic preservation ordinance. I think it is important for the city to hear from us about this process. Equally important is the process that homeowners have to go thru to remodel or rebuild their homes.
It should be clear, simple and not cost an arm and a leg!


Like this comment
Posted by svatoid
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Mar 15, 2011 at 1:45 pm

Carroll--I hope you mean it should NOT cost an arm and a leg.
Point taken, Carroll, about the 1999 election to overturn the Holman-led land grab. It seems in recent years the "everything is historic" crowd is back with a vengeance. The HRB needs to be reined in and Holman needs to recuse herself from ANY discussions the council has on "historic" matters.


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Posted by Give us a break
a resident of Monroe Park
on Mar 15, 2011 at 2:55 pm

Hey, renter - sorry you don't like the McMansions. I don't either, but I don't get to make decisions for everyone else and how they live based on my personal preferences. The idea that, because someone can afford to buy in Palo Alto (which, by the way, gives you a place to rent, doesn't it?) he or she should have to foot the bill for onerous and expensive requirements is nonsensical.


Like this comment
Posted by Me Me Me
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 15, 2011 at 6:16 pm

I thought the story about 405 Lincoln was a character study of people who have, and will spend unlimited amounts of money to get what they want. Even though their neighbors will look at them and wonder.
"I WANT" is more important than anyone else's values and sensibilities. or public opinion. Huge egos combined with money to burn equals ugliness in my opinion.


Like this comment
Posted by Lisa
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 15, 2011 at 6:55 pm

To the majority on this post: I am quite amazed. Apparently, you believe that your own righs to build your own monstrosity, and thus destroy a neighborhood, and a town, trump all other considerations. You have destroyed the 'cute' town that drew you here in the first place. There truly is no accounting for taste.

If you want to build your own, architecturally vapid house, you really ought to move to San Jose, or Sunnyvale. You will find plenty of those kinds of houses there, and will be in good company with the more is better crowd.

But there are those of us, who will recall this city council, who really don't want to see Palo Alto destroyed. Because the character of a neighborhood isn't driven by just one house, but all of the houses that were built, in different styles, but at the same time. That defines the character and textural feel of the neighborhood. Ersatz, large houses just don't do it. Context is important.

And the surprising thing, is that the owners of that house will probably just sell it in a few years and move somewhere else, for the reason that the character of the neigborhood was just destroyed.

The Palo Alto City Council is in the wrong, and they will be recalled.


Like this comment
Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 15, 2011 at 7:41 pm

We have remodeled and built several houses - including those in towns which truly have historic buildings. 500,000 is a ridiculous amount of money to spend just to get permission to build the home that your family needs, including accessible areas for elderly relatives. That is more than most people will ever spend on an actual home, much less just the permission to build one.

I don't like McMansions either, as a City we could pass architectural guidelines and more stringent zones that could reduce the number of boxes being built and the size of the houses related to the lot. But people are also capable of building beautiful new homes that fit into the neighborhood - new does not automatically equal bad.

Anyone who has tried to get ANY kind of permit from the Palo Alto Building Department knows that it is a complicated, expensive process, filled with govt employees that contradict each other. It is no wonder people complete whatever projects they can without permits.


Like this comment
Posted by rem
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 15, 2011 at 8:35 pm

rem is a registered user.

Why don’t we have a honest City Council that will honestly say “Developer (Contractors) Lobbyists , Developer (Contractors), “donate to us and we will approve”!!!!”

It would be great if the City Council and all the other “Councils” and “Work Shops” learned a new word – NO or new phase – DISAPPROVED….

There is no sane reason for this except MONEY, MONEY, MONEY and not caring about the people of Palo Alto/Professorville or ANY of the other communities …..

Sound to me like DEVELOPMENT, DEVELOPMENT, DEVELOPMENT !!!! Gee, the CITY has messed up so much without looking back and LEARNING from the past..

Like I said ABOVE – “There is no sane reason for these PROBLEMS except MONEY, MONEY, MONEY and not caring about the people of Palo Alto/Professorville or ANY of the other communities…..”


Like this comment
Posted by Moochie
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 15, 2011 at 9:06 pm

Simple solution - if you want to keep something the same way, then you should buy it. Neighborhoods need to evolve over time. Ossification is the last thing you want.

Palo Alto != Disneyland

It's the usual mindset of old conservative NIMBYs to try to keep others out. For such a self-proclaimed liberal and progressive area, it's funny how reactionary and conservative this place is. We live among the NPR limo liberals.


Like this comment
Posted by David Pepperdine
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 16, 2011 at 7:42 am

Thank goodness people in the past weren't obsessed with historic preservation. Else we'd all still be living in caves. These homes are not energy efficient, neither are they seismically safe.

Instead of putting people through the meat grinder, the city should abolish all historic preservation review processes, letting people demolish and rebuild subject to normal city planning procedures.

If the city wants to promote historic preservation, it should do so by offering financial incentives to property owners who follow certain guidelines.

In other words, reward property owners rather than penalize them.


Like this comment
Posted by pa residnet
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 16, 2011 at 11:49 am

I would point out 2 things:

1) most lots in my neighborhood are zoned for more than 1 residence
2) Old houses get demolished and TWO houses are build on that one lot.

Oddly enough BOTH houses come up for sale at +1.4 million a piece. So maybe when the city reviews these permits, it should look a bit more carefully at what these "owners" are asking for. Been on Hawthorne Ave lately?


Like this comment
Posted by pa residnet
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 16, 2011 at 11:51 am

added note: seems if it costs these "owners" 500,000 it's not really a big expense- does it.


Like this comment
Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 16, 2011 at 12:43 pm

PA resident - saying $500,000 is not a really big expense is ridiculous and insulting, especially in light of the fact that these homeowners still need to spend the money to build the house. The $500,000 went toward getting PERMISSION to build a new home and I assume some of the design documents, but probably not the final construction drawings. If it cost them $500K to build the house and they could sell it for $1.4 than I would agree with you.

As far as the zoning in your neighborhood, work to get it changed if you don't like it. My guess it is a result of the ridiculous ABAG requirements.


Like this comment
Posted by Give us a break
a resident of Monroe Park
on Mar 16, 2011 at 1:44 pm

The reason people own private property is to do what they want with it, within the limits of what has been determined by those who make city planning decisions, etc. Certain citizens who want to preserve the character of Palo Alto believe they have an absolute right to impose their values and aesthetics on the property owner, and call into question the character of those who have different values and aesthetics than their own. "If you don't like it, go live in San Jose," seems to be the battle cry. Diversity of thought, values, culture and aesthetics is always trumpeted around as very important by Palo Alto types, but it seems to be expected that we will all march in lockstep when it comes to certain issues. We say we want diversity, but when it goes against the grain, we fall back on stereotyping those whose opinions differ from ours with comments that are often quite pejorative concerning our opponents' character, wealth, and taste, as though there is some group that consists of the final arbiters of good taste and proper living. The namecalling and judgment don't really contribute to the discussion, which is about how much power the city council and preservationist groups should properly have over the property owner. It's a discussion that needs to take place, and it would be nice if it could be a civil one.


Like this comment
Posted by Me
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 17, 2011 at 12:47 pm

Who decides what is of good taste? In my neighborhood there are two hideous modern tear downs on Hamilton and Pitman. Those two homes got permits and they don't fit the neighborhood. I just don't get it.


Like this comment
Posted by Midtown Person
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 17, 2011 at 1:11 pm

The people who trumpet the threat to property rights of the owners of a lot apparently have no regard whatsoever of other residents of that neighborhood. Those people may have purchased their home expressly because they enjoy the older homes around them. What about their rights not to have to look at a McMansion eyesore every day?


Like this comment
Posted by svatoid
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Mar 17, 2011 at 1:28 pm

"The people who trumpet the threat to property rights of the owners of a lot apparently have no regard whatsoever of other residents of that neighborhood. Those people may have purchased their home expressly because they enjoy the older homes around them."

This is a new twist. People who own property owe something to their neighbors who may like the way a house that they do not own looks!!!!

"What about their rights not to have to look at a McMansion eyesore every day?"
If someone spends the day staring at home, that do not own, that they do not like they have more important issues to deal with.

Of course considering our HRB and council, I think that there may be a push to codify this as law---i.e. rights of neighbors to control what property owners do with their homes. I can see this happening in Palo Alto


Like this comment
Posted by PA Person
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 17, 2011 at 1:28 pm

Midtown Person: No one is forcing you to look at the "McMansion".

In order to get a construction permit the design for the house has to obey a set of rules defined by the city of Palo Alto. These people who have built new houses are playing by the rules, just not by the rules you have arbitrarily come up with. If you don't like the rules you should petition your elected officials to change them.


Like this comment
Posted by Give us a break
a resident of Monroe Park
on Mar 17, 2011 at 2:35 pm

You can purchase a home expressly because you prefer having older homes around you, but unless you purchase all the other homes around you, you cannot expect that there will not be some kind of change in the neighborhood over time, including changes you do not like or approve of. It's interesting that so many people do not believe property rights are important, or at least they don't seem to believe property rights are as important as their right not to be offended, upset or indignant by what someone else is allowed to do with his or her property.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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