Palo Alto waives fees for single-story districts

City Council agrees to accept — at no charge — neighborhood requests for single-story overlays

Residents of Eichler neighborhoods clamoring for protection from new mansions on their blocks scored a victory Monday night when the council officially struck from the books a fee for requesting bans on two-story homes.

In its final action before a month-long break, the City Council unanimously agreed that residents should not be charged $8,000 or more when petitioning for single-story-overlay districts, zoning designations in which two-story homes are prohibited. The decision came upon request from five different Eichler neighborhoods in Palo Alto where new two-story homes have recently been built, raising concerns about privacy and architectural compatibility.

Leah McGarrigh, a resident of Los Arboles, which is just south of Loma Verde Avenue and just east of Middlefield Road, told the council before the vote that her neighborhood is prepared to submit its application as soon as the fee is waived.

"Eichler neighborhoods are a significant part of the architectural heritage of Palo Alto and California," McGarrigh said. "Hence, it would be in the city's interest to facilitate their protection."

Dorianne Moss, who lives in the Los Arboles II tract, said that her neighborhood's effort to gather signatures for the overlay district is a "democratic action" for which the city should not impose a fee. Zone changes of this sort differ from those typically sought by developers looking to build a more profitable project.

"We are not seeking to benefit," she told the council. "We are citizens coming to act together, not a single developer seeking to benefit monetarily from such an action."

The council's decision came with little debate. The city has actually never charged the fee, even though it has approved 12 single-story-overlay districts, the last one in 2004. Instead, the council has traditionally treated the zone changes as ones initiated by the city, rather than the neighborhoods.

In response to residents' complaints that the fee is burdensome, the council decided that it should get rid of the fee altogether. This means Eichler neighborhoods like Greer Park, Royal Manor and Faircourt, where the new homes have caused a stir in recent years, are now free to file applications for the two-story ban. They will still have to show support from 70 percent of the homeowners on their blocks to have the overlay approved.

If the five neighborhoods all choose to go forward with requests, the number of Palo Alto lots where two-story homes are banned could go up by more than 300. The city's current 12 districts cover 846 lots.

David Hammond, a resident of Greer Park, cited the current climate of real-estate speculation as reason enough for waiving the fee. His home and others in the neighborhood have recently been assessed by potential buyers, he said. He had received a written offer of $1.5 million for his Eichler, which he noted is located in the deepest part of the flood plain. A buyer could be interested in replacing the Eichler with a home built to the maximum size, and height, allowed.

"It is urgent that it gets done now, with all the pressure from the real estate industry," Hammond said.

The council quickly assented, with members pointing to historic precedent.

"Given that this has been our practice in the past, let's continue this practice in the future," Councilwoman Liz Kniss said.

Councilman Greg Scharff agreed, saying, "I think this is absolutely the right thing to do."

The council also agreed to consider other methods for promoting neighborhood protection, including the possible creation of preservation districts or conservation districts. These zoning designations typically have specific development standards and architectural guidelines to ensure that new developments are consistent with existing neighborhood character. Explorations of these efforts will unfold over the next year as part of the city's update of its guiding land-use document, the Comprehensive Plan.

Related content:

City looks for ways to promote architectural — and neighborhood — harmony

Palo Alto residents seek to keep their Eichler neighborhoods from growing — upward

Planned home brings angst to Eichler block in Palo Alto

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Posted by Name hidden
a resident of College Terrace

on Jul 3, 2015 at 10:14 am

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?

23 people like this
Posted by allen edwards
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 3, 2015 at 10:34 am

As far as I can tell, every home in Palo Alto is a tear down. It doesn't seem to matter how grand or beautiful. Everything going up is huge. It is changing the city and not necessarily for the better imho. Good for these neighbors. I wish them luck.

11 people like this
Posted by Grace
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jul 3, 2015 at 11:15 am

Excellent decision

17 people like this
Posted by Grace
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jul 3, 2015 at 11:18 am

If a McMansion goes up behind my home the fence height restrictions should also be waived. Fair is fair. Otherwise your only choice is maybe fast growing hedges that reach about 20 feet or so.

14 people like this
Posted by MD from TO
a resident of another community
on Jul 3, 2015 at 11:23 am

MD from TO is a registered user.

Hopefully, the McMansions will now be relegated back to Southern California.

2 people like this
Posted by Greenacres
a resident of Green Acres
on Jul 3, 2015 at 11:30 am

Serious question. Why can't a neighborhood get a two-story overlay?

9 people like this
Posted by Greenacres
a resident of Green Acres
on Jul 3, 2015 at 11:30 am

Serious question. Why can't a neighborhood get a two-story overlay? Meaning, no 3-story stack and packs, etc.

6 people like this
Posted by Jean
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jul 3, 2015 at 1:39 pm

I would go for 2 story overlay because I don't think it's unreasonable in this day and age to want to replace an old house with a two story home. Also the comp plan only allows you to place opague windows or windows high up on the side of the second story of a new house, therefore, it's hard to look out into the neighbors property.

Allowing for single story overlay in certain neighborhoods, may affect property values in the future because the Eichlers are getting old and will slowly need replacing. I would not sign a petition for single story overlay.

13 people like this
Posted by Ben Lerner
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jul 3, 2015 at 2:22 pm

Ben Lerner is a registered user.

A home that's well cared for can last nearly forever. And besides, having a single-story overlay doesn't prevent tearing down and replacing a 1-story home. It just requires that the replacement also be 1-story.

The FAR rules for 1-story homes under SSO permit as many square feet as you're allowed with 2-stories (you still have to meet all the setback rules). So you don't risk much with an SSO, and you gain happy neighbors.

Thank You City Council.

7 people like this
Posted by Greenacres
a resident of Green Acres
on Jul 3, 2015 at 3:41 pm

I actually think it's great to allow neighborhoods to have single-story overlays, especially Eichler areas. I'm just not personally attached to them myself and we have too many 2-story homes in our neighborhood already - cat's out of the bag. But I'm really upset that City Council thought it was ok to put anything 3-story in our midst. Would really like the option of an absolute limit of 2-stories for the neighborhood.

Is that possible?

1 person likes this
Posted by Gethin
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 3, 2015 at 4:21 pm

Gethin is a registered user.

I think the council made an excellent decision here. This will certainly help the neighborhoods who want to apply for an SSO to do so. Although this has been brought about by Eichler neighbors it is of benefit to any area that would like to apply for an SSO. Is there anyone, if they had a choice, that would want a two story home built next to them?

15 people like this
Posted by Kazu
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 3, 2015 at 4:26 pm

Good! McMansions do not belong in an Eichler neighborhood (and many other neighborhoods). They do not provide any additional housing, only and uglified replacement for what was already there.

7 people like this
Posted by Seelam sea Reddy
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 3, 2015 at 5:08 pm

It is a great decision.

1 person likes this
Posted by Stu Berman
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 3, 2015 at 5:21 pm

In most cases the problem is exacerbated by the design quality, or lack thereof. But, there is no accounting for taste. That's too bad.

Like this comment
Posted by Wes
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 3, 2015 at 6:56 pm

To be fair, if they are going to do this they should also ease up on the basement permitting process, allow people to recoup the square footage

6 people like this
Posted by more needed
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 3, 2015 at 8:02 pm

If a 2-story house can destroy the privacy,character and quality of life of
an adjacent house, why require that an arbitary 70% of the neighbors agree to an overlay, or that it is an Eichler tract? This is discriminatory
and does nothing to stop most of the property destruction which is occurring all over the city. If the Council finally gets it- and wants to provide relief then the staff should be instructed to enforce the IR Guidelines as intended with deference to existing property owners and not the developers and architects and stop the IR sham. Secondly a 2-story house should require a use permit so the burden is on the new construction as opposed to now where the residents are on the defensive, needing an arbitrary 70% majority, and are basically an afterthought to be
trampled in a process which is a set-up with a predetermined outcome. If the new Council wants to actually change what is happening here it needs to act now, and decisively. Anything less is not enough.We are way passed that point here in Palo Alto. The destruction of this City in the last 15 years is shocking - a unique City just being destroyed.

6 people like this
Posted by Rachel
a resident of another community
on Jul 3, 2015 at 8:34 pm

Thank you City Council! This is a step in the right direction.

14 people like this
Posted by Palo Verde Architect
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jul 3, 2015 at 8:51 pm

Ten years from now the value of these houses will fall drastically as they become older and ready for tear down but no one can financially afford a tear down because there is no investment return in their reconstruction ( because of limited square footage )

Welcome to Palo Verde Tear Down neighborhood 2025 :)

11 people like this
Posted by Justin
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 4, 2015 at 2:06 am

Eichlers represent what made Palo Alto great: Egalitarian. Non pretentious. Forward thinking. Good taste. Restraint. Light. Design. Beauty. Well built.

Ghost Mc Mansions represent new Palo Alto. Pretentious, Ugly. Badly built of toxic materials. Too big.

Whatever we can do to hang on to old Palo Alto the better.

4 people like this
Posted by What's up with Water Pumping?
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 4, 2015 at 6:08 am

There are about 4-6 properties in development and look like there must be a basement in the works. There are hoses from the property and poorly done trenching under streets with water running endlessly into the city drains.

What is happening? Why is this happening? I thought there was a rule that any water must be recycled or reclaimed.

The hoses are dangerous for those bike riding and walking. I hardly think that the homeowners with blocked driveways could be happy.

Why is the City allowing permits for this? The optics during a severe drought do not send the right message.

Could you please write an article about this building trend?

6 people like this
Posted by RealSlimK
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 4, 2015 at 12:02 pm

I do not understand why people who disagree with 1 story Eichler's get a McDonalds pejorative. Isn't that like calling someone a doo-doo head simply because they are different than you? Eichlers are nothing special, they really aren't. You love them, fine, you keep yours'. There is this pretend nose upraised thing going on here about people with one story homes built more than 60 years ago being better and less pretentious and so forth. But isn't it closer to the truth that you one story flat-earthers just want to tell others what to do? PA is changing for the better, not worse every time a mediocre house is torn down and replaced by a better one. How about if you don't like it, YOU move, say to Redwood City or East Palo Alto? Some of us prefer the American dream--you know, the hardest workers deserve the rewards, not limitations by those who feel entitled (and for some reason, more holy?) for not working as hard?

3 people like this
Posted by Long Time Resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 4, 2015 at 3:34 pm

I can't imagine building an Eichler or large stucco home in a historic New England town. It would ruin the look of the community.

Many people moved here for the look and feel of a California Eichler community.

If they wanted a two story home, they would have looked to buy in areas with two story homes.

I believe it is many of the agents and architects that are marketing these homes that are to blame.
They are pushing demolition and building the structure out and DOWN on the properties they sell regardless of underlying groundwater.

The buyers are unaware of the high groundwater problems and impacts, because they did not have basements in homes where they came from. The people who buy the home with a new basement will also be unsuspecting of potential problems down the road, and there WILL be problems.

I lived in Palo Alto 47 years, and there are only certain areas where a basement will last.

6 people like this
Posted by RealSlimK
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 4, 2015 at 4:05 pm

Long-time resident: several questions.

Where in Palo Alto are there only Eichler's?
Where in Palo Alto are there no 2 story houses already?
You analogy meant to say: as New England needs to keep their cool houses, California needs to keep their mediocre ones?
I think you have a point about the basement. Do you know, many people are building homes now without basements?

Like this comment
Posted by Long Time Resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 4, 2015 at 4:32 pm

The demand for single story custom built homes with open floor plans has really grown. I have two brothers who are architect / builders residing in two other states.
We grew up in a large model Eichler here, and they have been incorporating many Eichler influences in the structures they build - from hospitals to single story residences. No basements btw.

14 people like this
Posted by I know Eichlers
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jul 4, 2015 at 9:24 pm

"Eichlers represent what made Palo Alto great: Egalitarian. Non pretentious. Forward thinking. Good taste. Restraint. Light. Design. Beauty. Well built."

Professorville, North PA, Crescent Park, Old PA, Barron Park, Sourhgate, etc are also why people want to live in PA.

Frankly you lost me on "well built". That is one phrase that does not apply to Eichlers. Cheap materials, construction short cuts, no insulation, no safety glass, failing radiant systems, electrical limitations...the list is endless.

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

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