A grassroots effort in Palo Alto to ban two-story homes in Eichler neighborhoods is on the cusp of its first big victory after the city's Planning and Transportation Commission on Wednesday threw its support behind a zone change requested by residents of the Los Arboles neighborhood.
Once the City Council approves the zone change, as it is expected to do later this year, the 83-home community will become the city's first in more than a decade to receive a "single-story overlay" -- a zoning designation that prohibits new two-story homes or homes with heights greater than 17 feet.
Though the city already has 12 such zones, none have been created since 2004, when Allen Court achieved the designation despite opposition from nearly half the residents.
In Los Arboles, which sits just south of Loma Verde Avenue and between Middlefield and Ross roads, no such split existed. A petition submitted by the applicants, Holly Oak Drive residents Rebecca Thompson and Sherilyn Tye, included signatures from 66 of the 83 property owners -- an 80 percent support rate. This is well above the 70 percent threshold that the council established shortly after the Allen Court zone change.
The Los Arboles effort also managed to clear a hurdle that had stymied similar proposals in the past: a fee of $8,000 that officially accompanied the zone-change request (unofficially, the city's tendency has been to waive the fee and treat the zone change as one initiated by the city itself). On June 29, the City Council agreed to strike the fee from the books after a request from several Eichler neighborhoods.
The argument from each neighborhood has been the same: Eichler homes are squat and glassy, designed to blur the line between indoors and outdoors. Two-story homes, the residents argue, damage the character of the Eichler enclaves and disrupt the privacy of neighbors.
The application from Los Arobles states that the neighborhood's residents comprise several generations, "vary in their years of home ownership, and come from a wide array of ethnic and cultural backgrounds."
"Within this diversity, we share in the appreciation of our Eichler homes and a commitment to maintain our privacy and daylight as well as the unique design and character of our historical neighborhood," the application states. "Preserving neighborhoods like Los Arboles is a benefit to the larger Palo Alto community."
Bonnie Borton, who has lived on Holly Oak Drive for more than 50 years, was one of about a dozen residents to attend the Wednesday meeting in a show of support for the zone change. She described Los Arboles as a "vibrant neighborhood" where children ride bikes and residents feel safe and look out for each other. Single-story homes, which comprise 95 percent of the neighborhood, are an important part of the neighborhood's character.
"I really feel it's important that our houses remain single story," Borton said.
Philip Bednarz, who also lives on Holly Oak, said the idea of adopting an overlay came out of the neighborhood's block party last fall, when homeowners came together to protect "what we see as an increasingly rare neighborhood." Most of the residents, he said, are looking to protect their privacy, sunlight and views, as well as the overall neighborhood aesthetic.
The neighborhood isn't the only one to apply for the overlay. Los Arboles II, an adjacent tract on Torreya Court, is also seeking a single-story overlay, though its effort has been complicated by the fact that nine of its 30 homes belong to that rarest of species: two-story Eichlers.
This means that they would be designated as non-complying facilities if the single-story overlay was adopted. According to planning staff, owners of these homes are considering applying for a slightly different overlay, one that would allow rebuilding of two-story homes and that would be subject to application fees.
Another Eichler neighborhood, Greer Park North, has also submitted an application for a single-story overlay. Its request is scheduled to go to the planning commission next month.
At the Wednesday meeting, the commission didn't take a formal vote because of a technicality -- staff did not meet the required 12-day period for publishing a notification of the hearing. This means the formal vote will take place on Sept. 30. But in their comments Wednesday, planning commissioners made no secret of which way they're leaning.
"This seems like a no-brainer for me," said Commissioner Eric Rosenberg, noting that the neighborhood has clearly exceeded the required threshold.
Commissioner Mark Michael agreed, observing that not a single person in the audience has come out against the proposal.
Vice Chair Adrian Fine reached a similar conclusion, saying, "I think it really is a nice example of neighbors coming together and being unanimous on something."
But Commissioner Michael Alcheck warned the audience that the zone change will not, in itself, ensure the preservation of their neighborhood's Eichler character. All it will do is make sure there will be no new two-story homes.
"This won't preserve your Eichler home or your neighbor's Eichler home," Alcheck said. "Only a neighbor with an interest, motivation and passion to maintain their Eichler home will maintain their Eichler home. I think that's an important consideration here."
His skepticism notwithstanding, Alcheck joined his five colleagues (Chair Greg Tanaka was absent) in supporting the neighborhood's effort.
This is a community that voted in unison, according to the parameters we set up," Alcheck said. "They met the standard, they are entirely entitled to pursue the application and I support their vision."