Editorial: Council chamber is the wrong place to resolve home-design controversies


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?

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20 people like this
Posted by 38 year resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 27, 2015 at 10:46 am

Rather than describe it as "odd" to hear council members make suggestions to the owner about possible changes to an already completed plan that fell within the city guidelines, I would cal it arrogant. Not part of the job description of a council member.

6 people like this
Posted by muttiallen
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 27, 2015 at 11:18 am

muttiallen is a registered user.

I live in the neighborhood, and have followed this closely. Part of the problem with this particular house is the corner lot. The "front" is assumed to be on the short side of the lot per zoning regulations, but in reality most corner lots build with the house facing the long side. This means the 'actual back yard' only needs an 8 ft set-back. A small zoning change to recognize this quirk of corner lots would go a long way to solving the problem of houses too close to the house next door.

6 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 27, 2015 at 11:22 am

Just a small correction. Yes, the neighborhood homes as originally built might have looked like Eichlers but were in fact Brown and Kaufman homes with crawl spaces under slabs. I live in one. We've added on twice but kept the original single story look. I designed the additions and drew up the plans and drawings myself. Additions were done in 1969 and 1977.R

9 people like this
Posted by Look for yourself
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 27, 2015 at 11:28 am

There are no Eichlers on Corina, just old, small houses, several of which have had 2nd stories added in a very boxy and cheap way.

The proposed home conforms to all building and zoning codes. The neighbors have no right to dictate the style of the home (or change the setback) anymore than they did when the peach-colored two-story across the street went up. They all should have known this when they bought their homes there.

2 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 27, 2015 at 11:33 am

Good point. Mine is a corner lot also and the house is situated just as muttiallen described.

6 people like this
Posted by Cheryl Lilienstein
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 27, 2015 at 1:00 pm

It often seems that there is conflict between those who don't see the value in, and want to label the older housing stock as "outdated and ugly, " and those who see the newer housing stock as "industrial, ugly, overbearing, and boxy" ... Yet I do see pretty good harmony in some places, where our design guidelines (below) have been fully implemented.

My suspicion is that staff succumbs to development pressure and does not refer to the rules for individual review, which support harmony in design.

Residents should all be familiar with these rules before--and especially AFTER-- a home next to yours is bulldozed.

Web Link

10 people like this
Posted by Edgarpoet
a resident of Mountain View
on Feb 27, 2015 at 1:56 pm

It seems to me that this structure would make property values rise up
in that neighborhood, so why would neighbors complain about it?
Even a square modern aesthetically displeasing structure would probably
make property values increase around that neighborhood.
It should be fiesta time for those close by property owners, who can now sell their old single story houses for 2.3 million instead of just half that.

3 people like this
Posted by Look for yourself
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 27, 2015 at 2:53 pm

Corner lots already suffer from having two sides that face the street with 20 foot setbacks. Forcing the long side in the back to also have a 20 setback instead of the standard eight would mean one very long, narrow house and a long, narrow yard. Actually, according to property records the "short" side of the lot is only 42 feet wide, so forcing a 20 foot setback on both the street side and the long back side would leave two feet to build a house...

10 people like this
Posted by palo alto resident
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 27, 2015 at 2:56 pm

Neighbors object because they are invited to do so. We should simplify the comment process and eliminate most of the reasons neighbors are allowed to object. The City's various review processes should make the decisions about massing, aesthetics, etc. If the proposed project follows zoning guidelines, here is what I think should be allowed:

Unless you are in one story overlay neighborhood, the fact that the house or addition is 2 stories should not be up for debate.

If you are an adjacent neighbor, you can give feedback on placement of windows and decks that overlook your property. Your feedback should absolutely be taken into consideration, but only reasonable expectations should be considered.

Two story additions and new homes should be REQUIRED to put in substantial perimeter landscaping to provide privacy for both properties. No landscaping, no occupancy permit.

Non-adjacent neighbors shouldn't get to give feedback on building details.

2 people like this
Posted by Liberty
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 27, 2015 at 3:18 pm

Unfortunately, and in all legal likelihood, PA can't have it both ways. When PA gave so many neighbors input to an owner's plans through muni. code/rules and processes, PA gave neighbors standing to seek review.

Perhaps PA should just cut back on giving neighbors a substantial say in another's house plans.

In any event, city council review is essential for denying a property owner's plans: it is direct political accountability. For owner-staff disputes, no city council review will just send the disputes to court for judicial review. And if one thinks staff can't do harm and injustice to an owner, review a matter from the recent past of in which staff required steps that cost a family $500,000 before council allowed the family's demolition plan.

Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 27, 2015 at 3:31 pm

My understanding of standard corner setbacks are a bit different:

Front (narrow) side: 20ft
Back (narrow) side: 20ft
Side (inside boundary): 6ft
Side (facing street): 16ft (not 20)

See page 17: Web Link

2 people like this
Posted by Look for yourself
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 27, 2015 at 4:37 pm

Dad: so they would have 12 feet to build a house. You get my point. Forcing the long side to be the back would be unreasonable.

5 people like this
Posted by Home Owner
a resident of Community Center
on Feb 27, 2015 at 8:35 pm

I went through this process not that long ago. I assure you that the city staff are meticulous about ensuring plans conform to the rules. In the absence of any concerrns from neighbors (as our neighbors were fine with our original design) the staff will take the position of "hypothetical future neighbor" to ensure that not only are the current owners happy with the design, but also future owners will be OK.

If you ever want to be amused, go and read the hyper detailed book the city publishes which describes exactly how to compute the square footage of a proposed design. As you read, you can imagine the sheet number of creative ways architects have come up with for pushing the boundaries of max square footage allowed. (Example: they had to specifically outlaw building a basement out under your yard and driveway, then putting a grass and paved cap on it. To imagine that someone must have tried this...)

2 people like this
Posted by road kill
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 27, 2015 at 9:12 pm

Some years ago, a spec builder did a tear-down adjacent to my house, and submitted a plan for a two-story house. The IR process was perfunctory,
a necessary step with a predetermined outcome. The only concession was
a reduction in the size of the second story window overlooking my
property. I was road kill. I live daily with the outcome which damaged
the streetscape as well as my propery.

2 people like this
Posted by member
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 27, 2015 at 11:01 pm


You're describing an aspect of PA's problem, which no one should be content with.

Staff objections/denials based on what a "hypothetical future neighbor" may be content with sounds like arbitrary and capricious government action that can be a basis for going straight to court.

And a meticulous adherence to text is no virtue either. The code and other rules intend the opposite: they are intended to be flexible through variances, exceptions, etc.! The general standard, if memory serves me, is that relief from adherence to part of the code is due where, on showing particular facts, adherence would not allow an owner to enjoy his/her property as others in the vicinity enjoy their property.

3 people like this
Posted by Hulkamania
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 28, 2015 at 10:44 am

Hulkamania is a registered user.

If the City decides to make more changes to the building code they should also consider doing something to control the cranks and vexatious complainers that object to everything.

4 people like this
Posted by Carlos
a resident of Green Acres
on Feb 28, 2015 at 12:36 pm

If the house meets current regulations, let them build and stop harassing the new owners. If you don't think the regulations are appropriate, go through our city process to get them ammended and approved.

And regarding city council members making architectural design suggestions in this particular case, it just validates my perception that our council members aren't spending their time on the right set of priorities, but that happens when people have been in politics for too long and lose perspective of what's like to navigate through the city bureaucracy to get things done.

3 people like this
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Feb 28, 2015 at 2:32 pm

It’s not clear that City Council members actually have the requisite knowledge of the various codes to be the final arbiters of a project that has spent months in the planning and review stages. It’s also not clear who the Council members have been in contact with prior to the matter coming before the Council in open session. There is currently no requirement for Council members to reveal how much contact they have had with the parties involved in the appeal. A transparent process would require disclosure by those determining the status of the appeal request.

One would wish that there would be a standardized checklist that contained all of the required stages of the planning process. Each item on the checklist would be signed off by the appropriate planning people, with exemptions noted. When all of the items on the checklist are completed, then the project would be ready for final review/approval. At that time, interested parties would have access to the planning materials, for review. Based on the now-public materials supporting the project’s application, one, or more, a request for review by an appeals board would make more sense than sending this matter to the Council.

The makeup of the appeals board would want to have all of the key City Officials needed to make a meaningful decision about the substance of the appeal. Certainly planning department mistakes occur, particularly in calculations, or the validity of exemptions. City Council members are not the best people to navigate the morass of quasi-technical details of the various codes/laws/policies that provide the framework of the planning process in Palo Alto.

The Council can only deal with these sorts of issues in terms of minutes. An Appeals Board would have more time to fully investigate any/all claims by people opposed to a given project.

It’s very likely we are going to see more appeals in the future, than in the past. The Council Chamber just isn’t the appropriate place to deal with the technical minutia of a project review that promises a fair outcome, rather than a political outcome.

4 people like this
Posted by Counterclockwise
a resident of University South
on Mar 1, 2015 at 7:51 pm

Everybody's a libertarian until something is set to go up next door.

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

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