Just weeks after they endorsed a proposal to ban new two-story homes in the Los Arboles neighborhood, Palo Alto's planning commissioners took a decidedly more skeptical stance toward a similar request from the residents of Greer Park North.
After an extensive discussion that culminated in several commissioners changing their positions, the Planning and Transportation Commission voted 6-0, with Przemek Gardias abstaining, to recommend approving a single-story overlay for the Eichler-style tract just west of Greer Park.
In doing so, however, the commission decided to exclude from the restriction about two dozen properties on Greer Road and along Amarillo Avenue, both of which lie along the perimeter of the tract.
The rectangular tract with 72 properties comprises the northern half of a larger Eichler-style subdivision. The southern half, around Van Auken Circle, obtained its single-story overlay in 2002.
If the council ultimately approves the commission's recommendation, the restriction would apply only to the 47 homes in and around Metro and Moffett circles and not to the 25 along Greer and Amarillo, where the level of support from property owners wasn't as high.
The commission's vote makes it exceedingly likely that Greer Park North will soon become the 14th neighborhood in Palo Alto to obtain the restriction on two-story homes and the second to go down this path in less than two weeks. On Sept. 30, the commission unanimously supported a similar proposal from Los Arboles, which like Greer Park North is dominated by Eichler-style buildings. Both of these proposals still require the City Council's approval.
Proponents of the overlay see it as a necessary tool to protect residents' privacy and preserve the distinct character of Eichler neighborhoods, where homes tend to be squat and glassy and where the border between indoors and outdoors is purposefully porous.
In their application, Greer Park North residents made the same argument that was offered in prior application: Two-story homes threaten the Eichler character.
"Mid-century Eichler neighborhoods like Greer Park are a valuable part of Palo Alto's heritage and preserving them is worthwhile," the application for the zone change states. "In addition to long-term Eichler homeowners, there is a new generation of people who greatly appreciate the clean lines and open spaces of mid-century homes. There is a community benefit of preserving neighborhood character and history where the vast majority of residents are in favor of this protection."
The drive toward the overlay district was spurred by a recent plan by a homeowner to demolish a home on Metro Circle and replace it with a two-story home. The project at 1066 Metro Circle is still going through the city's pipeline, but after a neighborhood outcry about its size and mass, the homeowner agreed to change the design to a one-story building.
Now, residents are hoping to prevent similar disagreements in the future. Under city rules, a neighborhood seeking a single-story overlay needs to demonstrate support for the zone change from at least 70 percent of the property owners. In neighborhoods that have deed restrictions limiting the building height to single stories (restrictions that the city doesn't enforce), the threshold is 60 percent.
While the Greer Park North tract fit in the latter category, it still managed to clear the higher hurdle, with 72 percent of the property owners contributing their signatures in support of the zone change.
David Hammond, the applicant for the zone change, said the neighborhood began to talk about the overlay in April, when a survey showed a support level of about 70 percent. The residents' decision to pursue the ban on new two-story homes was cemented after the council agreed in June to waive the fees for the overlay application.
"What we want do is maintain existing scale," Hammond said.
More than a dozen residents came out in support of the application. But Rhea Tahiliani, who lives on Greer Road and who did not sign the petition, asked the commission for an exception to the proposed rule.
She noted that two homes on her block are already two-stories tall and while she has no immediate plans to add another story to her single-story home, she asked the commission to allow her and her husband to have that option in the future.
Commissioner Michael Alcheck was the only member who supported making an exception for her.
"I'm sympathetic to the notion of buying a home and spending a few years in accumulating a home to rebuild the home," Alcheck said.
Tahiliani wasn't the only dissenter. On the two perimeter streets, about two thirds of the homeowners signed the petition in support of the overlay.
Chair Greg Tanaka noted that this is far below the "near unanimous" level of support enjoyed on Metro and Moffett circles. Tanaka first made the suggestion to exclude Greer, which serves as a boundary between the two Eichler tracts, and Amarillo from the overlay area.
His argument proved persuasive. Commissioner Eric Rosenblum, who initially proposed approving the application as proposed, withdrew his motion and supported Tanaka's proposal to exclude Greer and Amarillo.
"It does seem clear there are two cohorts: One on the smaller lots in the periphery and one on larger lots in interior," Rosenblum said. "They seem to vote differently. It's a pretty dramatic thing that is being imposed upon the people who object. The burden of proof is very high."
Gardias disagreed with the decision to modify the boundary. The city, he said, has given the citizens clear guidance on how to obtain a single-story overlay. They invested their time and followed the process, he said. Failing to grant them their request would not "look right from the perspective of the citizens."
"I think the citizens of this community met the threshold. They exceeded it," Gardias said. "By limiting their expectation, we're making the process unclear."
But Michael Alcheck argued that getting the signatures doesn't guarantee a zone change but only enables the "discussion about whether this is appropriate" (the code discusses the 70 percent threshold in the context of materials that should be submitted as part of an application for a single-story overlay).
"It does not suggest they by right should receive this," Alcheck said.
He also argued that the restriction in Greer Park North would place a significant burden on property owners because the neighborhood is located in a flood zone and, as a result, residents don't have the option of expanding their living space by building basements.
"We're making these homes less appealing to new homebuyers because there's very limited options because they can't build down and now they can't build up," Alcheck said. "And that's a strong consideration."
Given the commission's vote, it will now be up to the council to decide whether to approve the single-story overlay and whether the restriction should apply to Greer and Amarillo.
After the meeting, Hammond told the Weekly that while he understood the commission's "good intention" in excluding these streets, the action was based on several inaccurate assumptions.
Not all of the lots on Greer and Amarillo are smaller than in the two circles, Hammond said. Furthermore, some of the residents on these two streets are among the most vociferous proponents of the single-story requirement, he said.
"It's not over," Hammond said after the hearing. "We'll have to make a better case to the council."