News

Greer Park North pursues ban on two-story homes

Eichler-style neighborhood meets skepticism, earns limited victory in front of Planning and Transportation Commission

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."

Comments

31 people like this
Posted by homeowner
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 15, 2015 at 5:12 pm

We support this single-story overlay.

And we support the councilperson's attempt to honor the process that has been followed by this neighborhood of homeowners.

We are not anti-2-story, btw.
There are a examples of tasteful and considerate 2-story renovations, some of them borrowing Eichler themes and fitting right in.

Blame the architects or blame the new homeowners, I don't know, but the vast majority of 2-story rebuilds in South Palo Alto are out-of-character Orange County monstrosities, dwarfing and crowding their 1-story Eichler neighbors.

Congrats to Greer Park North and Los Arboles for putting in the time and effort.


1 person likes this
Posted by Harvey
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 15, 2015 at 10:06 pm

The notion of an overlay seems at surface valuable but the notion falls short. There is far less value
in a historic home and a property that can not be built out.


17 people like this
Posted by Palo Alto Native
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 15, 2015 at 11:12 pm

"We're making these homes less appealing to new homebuyers. . ."

Really? This seems like some desperate speech & debate argument of a losing contestant. Everyone knows that even a shack in Palo Alto will sell in a New York minute.

My son is studying computer science at an out-of-state university and the CS students said they should all take a road trip to Palo Alto! When he told them he grew up here, they were all speechless.

Agree with homeowner's statement: "2-story rebuilds in South Palo Alto are out-of-character Orange County monstrosities. . ." I support bans on two-story homes in single story neighborhoods. If they cannot afford an existing two-story house, they don't have to live in Palo Alto. After all, lack of money is why people want to buy a single story and rebuild.


4 people like this
Posted by Multi-Generational
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 15, 2015 at 11:31 pm

My concern about these single-story overlays is not about who will buy a home and what they can do with it, it is about people who have already bought a home and are now having the rules changed out from under them. It's simply not fair to do that to existing home owners. Additionally, the resale impact of restricting improvements is also unfair. All housing markets compare sale prices based in large part on "price per square foot," which severely limits the potential sale prices of these homes in single-story overlays since the ground they exist on are subsequently worth less money.

I would much prefer that neighborhoods adopt building guidelines that work to protect neighbors' privacy but allow standard lot coverage, including a second story. If you want to impose flat roofs that blend better with the neighborhood, so be it, but forcing people to limit their homes to 1800 square feet or so is just unreasonable.

It seems that many of these people demanding that their neighbors not be allowed to add a second story of any kind forget that that some strategically placed trees and/or tall shrubs can completely protect their privacy and add beautiful greenery to look at. It need not be super tall, often just 15 feet or so. Once established, many types of vegetation are also quite drought resistant. Trees bring birds and wildlife to your yard - they are much more attractive than 6' gray, wood fences separating you from your neighbors.


26 people like this
Posted by Taco Bell homes
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 16, 2015 at 10:10 am

[Post removed.]


2 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 16, 2015 at 10:17 am

Interesting to read this article along with the one about Granny Flats being allowed to be built on properties. I suppose it doesn't matter about the size of a home as long as it is only one storey.


9 people like this
Posted by Jane
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 16, 2015 at 2:32 pm

Screening trees can take ten+ to grow tall enough for privacy from a second story window. Also, asking the neighbor who wants to add a second story to be considerate of their neighbors and plant screening trees is no protection from a subsequent owner who wants more sun and cuts down or trims the tops off.


10 people like this
Posted by Ben Lerner
a resident of Palo Verde
on Oct 17, 2015 at 9:42 pm

Ben Lerner is a registered user.

The planning commissioners erred in their assertion that a homeowner must build up to get more space. A few years back Palo Alto changed its lot coverage rules so that if a home is 1-story it may have as as much floor area as if it were 2-stories (setbacks must still be followed).

This is best understood by example: For a typical 7000 sq ft lot, the maximum allowed lot coverage (footprint of the house) is 2450 sq ft, and the maximum floor area is 2850 sq ft, across 2 stories. But if the house is 1-story, it may exceed the 2450 sq ft lot coverage, and be as large as 2850 sq ft in 1 story. Considering that a 2-story house needs a staircase, which is about 100 sq ft or more, you can actually get more usable sq ft from a 1-story house (which doesn't need a staircase), although you will have less yard space as a result.

Hence, you don't lose the option to build a larger house under a SSO, and you gain the comfort of knowing that an out-of-scale, incompatible 2-story "monster home" won't be built next door looking into your glass-walled home.


4 people like this
Posted by Multi-Generational
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 17, 2015 at 10:09 pm

@Jane:

There are many options that require much less than 10 years to grow tall, and you can always do a combination of fast-growing hedge/shrubs and medium-growing trees and remove the fast-growing hedges/shrubs when the trees are big enough (or don't remove them - some are very attractive). I wasn't suggesting your neighbor plant them, I was suggesting homeowners whom want to maintain their privacy when a two-story home is (legally) going up next door plant them on their own property. It's not that big of a deal.

@Ben:

Problem is, if forced to build a single story home at max lot coverage there is no yard left.

I agree with reasonable guidelines so massive and incompatible structures are not built such that they destroy the value of neighboring properties, but I also think a demand that no neighbors can improve their homes is equally unreasonable. Seems there would be better options that could be worked out between those that want noting to change and those that want to scrape and max out with a monster house.


4 people like this
Posted by OPar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 18, 2015 at 9:03 pm

Actually, having to plant a bunch of trees to get back the privacy one once had is a nuisance--it makes for a shadier yard, which limits what one can grow (good-bye fruits, vegetables and most flowers.) It means making sunny rooms darker.

Neighborhoods with one-story overlays have a more open, airier feel to them. I wish I lived in one.

As for having the rules changed under them--that cuts both ways--plenty of people bought their homes thinking they had a certain amount of privacy and light--a two-story goes up next door or even across the street and all that changes.


8 people like this
Posted by The PTC misunderstood
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 21, 2015 at 9:46 am

By arbitrarily removing two streets from this application, the PTC side-stepped the super majority will of the residents on this one. Greer Park North has a CC&R dating back to the start of the neighborhood which states One-story. That should have been disclosed to EVERY home buyer at purchase so this should not be a total surprise to anyone, nor viewed as changing the rules.

With a one-story CC&R, they only need to reach 60% in favor of an SSO. This is spelled out in the PAMC (the code). Every single street in this application surpassed 60%, most surpassed 70% and one reached 80%. Do the rights of one recent homeowner trump the rights and will of the super majority of home owners - whether they are long time or recent? Why even have rules if they will be completely disregarded when someone says they disagree?

It should also be noted that just because there is no "yes", it does not mean a property owner is against. Many "absentee landlords" do not respond, even after multiple attempts. Do elections count all the non-voters as a "No"? The fact that three-quarters of residents proactively said Yes should not be arbitrarily cast aside.


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

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