The Palo Alto City Council made the right call Monday night in upholding the staff approval of a single-family home proposed for a vacant lot on a cul-de-sac on Corina Way in the Adobe Meadow neighborhood in south Palo Alto.
The council's 6-1 vote, with Vice Mayor Greg Schmid dissenting and Councilmen Tom DuBois and Greg Scharff absent, showed that even with a new "residentialist" majority on the council, there is not an appetite to jump in and impose further requirements on homeowners who are proposing projects that conform to all zoning requirements and who have made a good-faith effort to respond to neighbors' concerns.
The Corina Way proposal for a two-story, five-bedroom house on a 7,700-square-foot corner lot is not the kind of issue one expects the City Council to be spending a good part of an evening discussing. And it was particularly odd to hear individual council members making suggestions to the property owner including moving bedrooms down to the first floor, lowering ceiling heights or reducing the size of windows.
The notion that the City Council might try at a council meeting to redesign a home that has already gone through several design iterations in response to staff and neighbor input is as impractical as it is unfair and a misuse of council and staff resources.
So we're glad that after an initial foray Monday night into design-by-committee, the council wisely concluded the smart move was to approve the project.
But that's not to say that neighbors didn't have valid reasons for objecting to a house that will stand out due to its modern design and height in a neighborhood dominated by single-story Eichlers.
Why is there even a path to council consideration of a single-family-home proposal that meets the city's building, lot coverage and zoning requirements? After all, doesn't a homeowner have the right to build the home of his choice as long as these requirements are met, no matter how ugly or incompatible it may seem to neighbors?
The answer is surprisingly complicated. Most residents will not encounter this process unless they want to add a second floor or are building a new home. It stems from a previous community debate in 2000 and 2001 when the city struggled to find the right balance between regulation and individual property rights.
At the time, so-called "monster" homes were being built that often raised the hackles of neighbors because of their mass and seeming incompatibility with other homes in the neighborhood. The standard practice, used especially by builders of spec homes, was and still is to build the largest possible house under the zoning rules.
In November 2001, after much study and discussion, carefully crafted reductions in the maximum building envelope were approved and a formal review process was created for all proposed new two-story homes and second-floor additions so that there was a way for neighbors and city staff to object.
Since then, every party proposing a single two-story home or second-floor addition has had to place a notice sign in front of the property, notify neighbors and explain in an application how the proposal meets five design guidelines relating to site layout; neighborhood compatibility for height, mass and scale; architectural form, massing and rooflines; visual character of street-facing facades and entries; and placement of second-story windows and decks for privacy.
A comprehensive guidebook was developed to assist homeowners and their architects in meeting the guidelines, and the review process takes place at the staff level within the planning department. Appeals are heard by the planning director or his designee, but neighbors can then make a final appeal of the director's decision to the City Council. Thankfully, very few appeals go that far, as most homeowners work things out to the satisfaction of neighbors so they can get on with their project.
The "Individual Review" process is not without its problems, and the City Council and staff are right to undertake an analysis of how it can be improved and to address important policy questions such as whether denials of second stories should be an option when surrounding homes are mostly single stories.
But this process has served neighbors well and has resulted in improved design and neighborhood compatibility. It has been one of Palo Alto's planning success stories.
While the immediate neighbors on Corina Way have legitimate concerns, the council's decision puts the focus where it should be: Based on more than 10 years of experience with the Individual Review process, what improvements are needed to the current building and zoning requirements, the design guidelines and the Individual Review process?