News

Neighborhood wins support for banning two-story homes

Palo Alto's Planning and Transportation Commission backs grassroots move to adopt 'single-story overlay' for Eichler neighborhood

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."

Related content:

Palo Alto's Eichler uprising: City looks for ways to promote architectural — and neighborhood — harmony

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

Comments

15 people like this
Posted by Neighbor
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 9, 2015 at 11:30 pm

What about neighborhoods that have two-story homes and just don't want to be confronted with having to referend against three-story and four-story exceptions??? Can we please have the option of a two-story overlay??


Like this comment
Posted by Alex
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 10, 2015 at 1:49 am

[Post removed.]


12 people like this
Posted by fighting from behind
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 10, 2015 at 7:31 am

Since the Single-Family Individual Guidelines are ignored by the staff in terms of limiting two-story construction and massing even when surrounded
by single-story houses, along with inadequate setback requirements in the zoning code,the rest of us are subject to the same loss of privacy, light,aesthetics,change of neighborhood character that the Eichler neighborhood is reacting to. I have as much glass exposure as the typical Eichler in my house. Across the board here we are always fighting from behind in terms of trying to maintain quality of life and neighborhood and city character and we are losing as the City as a whole spirals down, and down. It is a constant fight with a city which is on a different page from its own residents and its own heritage and values. That is the fundamental problem here.







22 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 10, 2015 at 7:35 am

Can we ban basements in residential neighborhoods too. I am concerned about what these basements that have to be continually drained are doing to the water table and to the trees as well as whether subsidence or sink holes will be a result of these.


39 people like this
Posted by Evan
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 10, 2015 at 8:32 am

Congrats Palo Alto, you continue to find new and innovative ways to be selfish, and prevent more people from living in Palo Alto.


40 people like this
Posted by Neighbor
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 10, 2015 at 9:36 am

This idea that preventing the urbanization and densification of Palo Alto is equivalent to selfishness is just self-serving hogwash.

Remembering that we live in an arid region, that we live on a Peninsula and more densification means less sustainability and more need to bring resources in from further and further away, and that more people has already caused care of the natural environment to fall by the wayside in civic discourse -- that false correlation is what is selfish. New people come in and don't want to pay the dues the people who are here paid, don't want to make the hard tradeoffs, in order to live in a desirable place, so they attack them. That's selfish.

It might make some sense if we were an island like Hong Kong, but we are not, we live in a vast and beautiful country in need almost across the board of renewal and investment, and where diversification and more even distribution of assets across the nation would be more environmentally sound and make use economically and strategically stronger. If things are too expensive here, it is absolutely selfish to insist on taking away from people and environment here in order to destroy the place for the profit of a few people who will move on to the next place, instead of letting the conditions her spur investment in places that could truly benefit from it, including other parts of California.

Nice try, though.


2 people like this
Posted by PAmoderate
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 10, 2015 at 10:33 am

PAmoderate is a registered user.

[Post removed.]


2 people like this
Posted by Neighbor
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 10, 2015 at 10:49 am

[Post removed.]


18 people like this
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 10, 2015 at 10:54 am

I do not wish to dismiss your concern about basements and the water table. However, if you do a little research, including our own city website, you will find that your concern is not an issue. Most tree roots in PA don't grow deep enough (avg of 5ft) to reach the water table that basement excavation reaches.


5 people like this
Posted by Tony Carrasco
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 10, 2015 at 11:06 am

Good News and congratulations to all who got this done.
I have lived in an Eichler for over 25 years and enjoyed the one story nature of my neighborhood in spite of the train noise.
I would suggest that the zoning regulations should address these one story zones as they are presently written for the normal two story house.
Basements and setbacks should be reconsidered and relaxed in my opinion.


13 people like this
Posted by Neighbor
a resident of Duveneck School
on Sep 10, 2015 at 11:08 am

The current regulation is already pretty straight to build new houses on height, windows, setback, and etc. Of course we don't want to see monster houses around us. I don't live in an Eichler neighborhood, but I believe new rules and regulations need to be reasonable. This city need progress over time.

If most of the neighborhood in that area has the same opinion, I will respect that. But I would like to see an expiration day (such as 10 years) of the new regulation so the next generation of that neighborhood will have an option to decide what they want after 10 years. Probably high percentage of the "new neighbors" will want to build a 2nd story so they have more rooms for their younger kids.


6 people like this
Posted by MD from TO
a resident of another community
on Sep 10, 2015 at 11:12 am

MD from TO is a registered user.

It appears that the "stucco box" fans who like lots of gables on their roofs aren't happy with this decision. As far as "preservation" of Eichlers, Mr. Alcheck has no clue. Individual homeowners can apply for historic status thru the county or the federal gov't. Historical Overlay Preservation designees receive property tax reductions. That's certainly motivation for Eichler owners/neighborhoods. What do the McMansions contribute to the city landscape?


28 people like this
Posted by Connect the dots
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 10, 2015 at 11:42 am

Congratulations to everyone involved on their effective community activism. I have never been a particular fan of Eichler homes, but I support any neighborhood's effort to protect its originating character and particular charm. Sorry Evan, but home owning tax payers have every right to protect their neighborhood and community from an onslaught of insensitive development and "want-to-live-here-too" sourpusses.


23 people like this
Posted by Palo Alto Native
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 10, 2015 at 11:52 am

Geez, traffic is absolutely outrageous now. I support less people moving to Palo Alto! The selfishness is those who want to tear down houses to build houses that are out of character for the neighborhood - I don't want those kind of neighbors.


10 people like this
Posted by fighting from behind
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 10, 2015 at 1:19 pm


"Resident" is absolutely correct
The root system for a redwood may go down ten feet to the water table
and the root system extends out long distances 50 feet or more so an excavation on an adjacent property can do direct damage to the root system.
The redwood is a protected tree under city ordinance as are oak trees.
Even temporary drawdown of the water table during dewatering can cause subsidence damage to structures on adjacent properties.


10 people like this
Posted by Jane
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 10, 2015 at 1:45 pm

As the stock of smaller and more (relatively) affordable homes is reduced as one after another are torn down to be replaced by 4,000+ square feet luxury houses that only the really wealthy can afford, this overlay also means the homes in these Eichler neighborhoods will remain for those who don't have quite such deep pockets.


4 people like this
Posted by PAmoderate
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 10, 2015 at 2:23 pm

PAmoderate is a registered user.

Palo Alto Native: "The selfishness is those who want to tear down houses to build houses that are out of character for the neighborhood - I don't want those kind of neighbors."

Not sure if you get the irony of your statement, but you pretty much have summed up everything about what's wrong with this kind of regulation.

Jane: "his overlay also means the homes in these Eichler neighborhoods will remain for those who don't have quite such deep pockets."

[Portion removed.]


6 people like this
Posted by PAmoderate
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 10, 2015 at 2:25 pm

PAmoderate is a registered user.

One more thing:

Connect the dots: "Sorry Evan, but home owning tax payers have every right to protect their neighborhood and community from an onslaught of insensitive development and "want-to-live-here-too" sourpusses."

I seriously doubt these owners of Eichlers are paying their fair share of taxes, thanks to Prop 13. In fact the so-called McMansions are disproportionally paying taxes on behalf of these selfish individuals who stay in their houses over 20 years.


11 people like this
Posted by Homeowner
a resident of Menlo Park
on Sep 10, 2015 at 2:29 pm

I second the idea that these overlays should be subject to a new vote every decade. My neighborhood in Menlo Park is full of small single-story homes (1200-1400 sq ft). But every young couple here is either tearing down and rebuilding to have space for their family, or has already done so. (Most would prefer to move, but bigger houses either cost several million dollars or come with very long commutes nowadays.) I know people used to raise large families in 1200 sq ft homes, but I don't know how they managed it!

Obviously, Palo Alto prices are much higher than in Menlo Park, so there probably aren't many young families in Los Arboles. But, as older residents age out and the neighborhood turns over, fewer of the new residents are likely to be attached to the architecture of the 1950s and 1960s, and may want the option to make a change.


11 people like this
Posted by Connect the dots
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 10, 2015 at 3:18 pm

PAmoderate: Take a look at the capital gains rate these days. It's payback big time and it's why many long-time residents of Palo Alto have no choice but to remain in their homes. And, by the way, why is it selfish to want to maintain what you've worked hard and cared for over the year (with respect to both home and community)? Where in the world does this sense of entitlement come from in those that would change things to suit their own self-serving purposes without any regard or sensitivity to those around them? I'm not one for name calling, but that's the very definition of "selfishness."


6 people like this
Posted by Mike Alexander
a resident of St. Claire Gardens
on Sep 10, 2015 at 11:28 pm

Congratulations to my neighbors in Los Arboles. Well done!


4 people like this
Posted by unbelievable
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 11, 2015 at 12:12 pm

I can't believe for the price you pay for the land in Palo Alto they can now tell you you can't build a two story home. Change the daylight plane would be acceptable and understandable. The restrictions in Palo Alto are getting rediculous. Sorry but Eichlers are ugly


2 people like this
Posted by PAmoderate
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 11, 2015 at 1:12 pm

PAmoderate is a registered user.

@connect the dots: "It's payback big time and it's why many long-time residents of Palo Alto have no choice but to remain in their homes. "

Yes, and you know why? It's *because* of Prop 13.

"And, by the way, why is it selfish to want to maintain what you've worked hard and cared for over the year (with respect to both home and community)?"

It is. Just because you have your property should not give you special rights to keep others out. Sounds just like the people who promoted the idea of poll taxes and only property owners can vote. Is Palo Alto becoming more conservative than the "conservative" South?

"Where in the world does this sense of entitlement come from in those that would change things to suit their own self-serving purposes without any regard or sensitivity to those around them?"

Sense of entitlement? Which group that feels the sense of entitlement? Certainly not the ones who are being kept out.


2 people like this
Posted by Paul
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 11, 2015 at 7:47 pm

I'm glad I don't live there.


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

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