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Guest Opinion: Be creative in embracing change, preserving neighborhood

 

I am in favor of the proposed single-story overlay for the Royal Manor neighborhood of Eichlers in Palo Alto. I am also in favor of the City Council making it easier for those who want to modernize or enlarge their homes to do so. It's time to act to preserve our property values, our community and our way of life.

New owners do not just buy a house; they buy part of a neighborhood. Royal Manor houses consistently outsell homes that on paper look like a better deal. This is because of our schools, parks, community and job availability but also because this neighborhood is special with its winding roads, large trees and compatible homes. Our neighbors enjoy their personal space (both inside and outside) and chat out front or walk, often to nearby coffee shops or parks.

Joseph Eichler laid out these "backwards facing" houses so that the back and side yards are an integral part of the living area and the glass walls invite us to enjoy this amazing climate. The fences separating our yards are called privacy fences for a reason, but they do not do much if the neighbor's house is 20 to 35 feet high. If our neighbors added a second story, they would gain some living space, but we would lose a substantial amount of ours. Since one lot can impact the privacy of six or more neighbors, one two-story addition often leads to a significant net loss of usable living space to the neighborhood.

This does not mean that homeowners should be expected to leave their house exactly as it is now. Many people now want or need an in-home office, separate living space for extended families or to lease out, and more bathroom space, including handicapped access. All of this is possible in most of our houses without adding second stories. The city can and should provide incentives to make it easier to make these changes.

It would not cost much to develop preliminary plans that could be adapted to each homeowner's needs. These plans could allow a fast track for approval that would save the homeowner and the city money and would lead to architecturally compatible designs. If this were combined with guidance for developing leases, we would increase the number of living units in Palo Alto at very low cost. These lots are not large enough for separate "granny units" but modifications to the existing home could create studio space and allow flexible uses over the lifetime of each owner. For example:

• Younger owners might live in a studio apartment and rent a large part of the house to others in order to help them afford a mortgage.

• Families with children could use the studio as space for grandparents or a nanny while the children are young.

• Studio space could provide much-needed separation during the difficult teenage years or could be rented out to defray part of the cost of college.

• Older residents could age in place but generate additional retirement income and the security of having someone else in their home, or they could use the studio space for a caregiver.

The following ideas would enable our neighborhood to live together in peace and harmony and could be adapted for other neighborhoods.

• Many people have converted half their garage into a home office. A small amount of design help would ensure that these conversions are safe and cheerful places and could include the possibility of adding a bathroom. Oftentimes this space is used as a bedroom, which may or may not meet zoning restrictions; if firewalls and outside exits are designed carefully, it should be possible to make future garage conversions safe for many uses.

• The master bedroom can be converted into a studio for students or young professionals at very little cost. Guidance from the city would make these spaces safer and more convenient.

• On most lots the bedroom closest to the street could be enlarged and a bathroom and small kitchen could be added to make a truly separable living space. On some lots a two-room master suite could be created. These changes would increase the current footprint and would often require relaxing the current setback requirement but would maintain the feel of the neighborhood and look better than many of our current un-lawns.

Lastly, a clear set of rules for fences for corner lots would allow these homeowners to enjoy the same privacy as the rest of us without harming the neighborhood aesthetics. Current rules allow a low fence with a huge hedge, which can restrict sidewalk usage and the ability to see oncoming traffic around the corner when driving. Building a taller fence requires the homeowner to start construction, halt if any neighbors complain, and then go through a lengthy process of approval with the yard partly fenced in. (Our neighbors' master bedroom, living and dining rooms were exposed to the street for months while their three boys were small -- shortly before it was discovered that a pedophile was living across the street! The fence was eventually completed as planned and it is quite attractive.)

I support the proposed single-story overlay, but I also support beginning a process to allow our houses to be modified to meet individual needs while preserving this wonderful neighborhood. In a democracy, we are each called to give a little, and in return we all gain a lot. There is a win-win solution -- if we do not reach for it we risk killing the goose that laid the golden egg and having all of our properties lose value.

This item will come before the City Council again on May 2. Please come and give your ideas, but let us seek the common good rather than the "my way or the highway" discourse that too often has characterized recent testimony.

Diane Reklis is a 35-year resident of Royal Manor. She is a former Palo Alto Unified School District board member, chaired the City Needs subcommittee of the city's Cubberley committee, and served on the district's recent Enrollment Management Advisory Committee. She is the neighborhood coordinator for Janice Way.

Comments

5 people like this
Posted by Marc Vincenti
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 29, 2016 at 11:32 pm

What a marvelous article!

This is full of good sense, wisdom, and creativity. We're very much in need of this kind of thinking and writing--productive of light rather than heat, opening doors instead of closing them, knowledgeable to the very fingertips, steeped in community feeling.

Marc Vincenti
Gunn High English Dept. (1995-2010)


36 people like this
Posted by Disagree
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 1, 2016 at 12:22 pm

I have to disagree, the SSO is a way for a group to force others to their views and preferences after they have purchased their houses. My understanding is that the people opposed to the SSO in royal Manor offered to work with the neighbors to come up with design elements that would help protect privacy when adding a second floor (high frosted windows on the sides, etc., they were told the only compromise that would be accepted was a complete ban on second floors, Period!. Not very neighborly if you ask me. Since the required 70% was only met through deception and pressure tactics and has since dropped below the required support level the City Council has no choice but to deny the SSO Application or face a very costly lawsuit for violating their own policies.


17 people like this
Posted by royal manor resident
a resident of Palo Verde
on May 1, 2016 at 8:44 pm

I can only respond to "Disagree" by saying that I live in Royal Manor (I don't have to say it's "my understaning," I can speak from personal experience) and I was approached by the proponents of the SSO and found absolutely no elements of deception or pressure tactics at any point in multiple interactions. The explanation about the initiative was clear, coherent, balanced and it was presented with absolutely no pressure or manipulation. Post hoc it's easy to scream these accusations towards the proponents of the SSO, but the only seeming pressure or deception I have encountered has come from the opponents of the SSO (e.g., claims that this initiative will greatly diminish property values, claims that the current individual review process protects us from the problems of a second story addition next door).


27 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on May 1, 2016 at 9:48 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Ask yourselves if SSO is not simply a way of protecting the narrow self interests of those who are in the "lifeboat" against those who want and need to get into the "lifeboat"?

How can we talk about the need for more housing but then insist that it not be in my back yard?


23 people like this
Posted by Disagree
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 1, 2016 at 10:19 pm

"found absolutely no elements of deception or pressure tactics at any point in multiple interactions" Good for you but your experience was not the same as others. To begin with, there is documentation of the flier that claimed that by signing the petition you were just putting the SSO to a vote, that was in fact not true, signing the petition was your vote. Proponents claim that an updated flier was sent out clarifying that, but interestingly many people who oppose the SSO did not receive that. There have also people who have gone one record saying that they were pressured to sign it without giving any time to read the petition or ask questions. I think there is ample evidence that some of the information and tactics used to collect signatures was not done in an honest and open manner. That said it should not matter at this point, the approval rate has dropped below the the required number to get council approval.


1 person likes this
Posted by JFP
a resident of Palo Verde
on May 2, 2016 at 10:27 am

The council can approve the SSO regardless of the current level of support. It's a zoning change like any other at this point.


14 people like this
Posted by Judith Wasserman
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on May 2, 2016 at 10:40 am

Judith Wasserman is a registered user.

These discussions often assume that the family wanting the bigger house is new to the neighborhood. In my experience as an architect, my clients who wanted bigger and/or 2 story houses were all long-time inhabitants who either had a change of fortune or a change in their family status. They did not buy into the neighborhood with the intention of changing it.

The IR process gave us grief, even when no neighbors complained about the project.


11 people like this
Posted by Liz
a resident of Professorville
on May 2, 2016 at 11:05 am

Completely forgotten is the reality that many if not most secondary (granny) units or add ons for supposedly "extended" family or to lease out will actually be used as much more profitable Airbnb cash cows for the homeowner. Neighbors will then absorb the parking impact of short term out of town lodgers. There is no real regulation now and if there were, Code Enforcement is ineffectual to the point of dysfunction in enforcing our regulations. There is no way to prevent misuse.
Careful of what you wish for.


2 people like this
Posted by reader
a resident of Midtown
on May 2, 2016 at 11:26 am

Web link above doesn't work. It is
Web Link


12 people like this
Posted by mutt
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on May 2, 2016 at 1:03 pm

I'm baffled that so many in Palo Alto who pride themselves on being "green" and "ecologically aware" still want to live in huge houses. For many years in Palo Alto a 2,000 sq ft house was considered quite large. Now people think they need twice that. I think it's really good for children to share bedrooms -- they learn cooperation and compromise. If extended family are moving in, they should share the house, not be relegated to a separate space. Kids and grandparents who actually live together learn a lot from each other. Who needs a home office? Put the computer in the kitchen or family room where all can share and parents are aware what their kids are doing.


22 people like this
Posted by Marc
a resident of Midtown
on May 2, 2016 at 2:44 pm

@mutt How long have you lived in Palo Alto? If you own a home, what did you pay for it and what percentage of your annual salary did that represent? 2X, 5X, 10X?

Times have changed from the 1950's. What people want in homes has changed. Life-styles have changed.

I am not against what you are saying you want, just that for many people that is not what they want. What works for you doesn't work for others. A lot of this problem is people trying to retain a long distant memory of what Palo Alto was in the 50's - 70's.

/marc


2 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on May 2, 2016 at 3:01 pm

Curmudgeon is a registered user.

"A lot of this problem is people trying to retain a long distant memory of what Palo Alto was in the 50's - 70's."

Oh man, do they ever need your wisdom over there in Europe, what with all those medieval cathedrals and castles and even homes.


5 people like this
Posted by Marc
a resident of Midtown
on May 2, 2016 at 3:45 pm

@Curmudgeon Actually I like old castles. The difference is that in Europe they made a conscience decision to keep the past. They have a culture that wants to retain the older buildings and they are very clear where you can and cannot make changes. Santa Fe, NM has done this and everyone has know for a long time exactly what you can and cannot change.

The problem is that for the last 60 years Palo Alto couldn't care less about the past and now suddenly people are upset that it isn't they way it was.

The ship has sailed on having Palo Alto a quaint, little sleepy town with dirt roads and the Grateful Dead passing through.

/marc


21 people like this
Posted by Disagree
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 2, 2016 at 6:26 pm

Liz, if you think the problem is Airbnb (which is probably not an issue at all), then why not pass a use ordinance that prevents residents from renting out their houses for Airbnb? That would actually go after what you think is the problem and leave the people who want to expand their homes to accommodate more children or extended families able to do so. If you think parking is the issue lobby for on street parking restrictions that alleviate that problem.

JFP, yes they can approve it but since they have stated that the threshold for considering an SSO is 70% and that has not been met, they will be opening up the city to a lawsuit that they are unlikely to win. If you look at previous decisions they site the 70% as the reason for approving a SSO in other neighborhoods. The No SSO group seems to have already have a lawyer, you can bet a very expensive lawsuit will follow with the city probably losing.

Mutt, I respect your opinions and agree that you are entitled to live any way you want, but you can't expect other people to want that and you can't force them to live like that. You might want your kids in the same room, I want to let each of mine have their own room and privacy. I plan to expand my house in the future and would not want my neighbors telling me that I can not, especially since many of them have already added a second floor. In return I will be respectful of their privacy when I design my addition.


5 people like this
Posted by Me
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 3, 2016 at 8:09 am

"I'm baffled that so many in Palo Alto who pride themselves on being "green" and "ecologically aware" still want to live in huge houses."

I'm baffled that so many in Palo Alto who pride themselves on being "green" and "ecologically aware" are encouraging sprawl and burning gasoline by being against development and infill to create more housing in the core of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Oh, the irony.


14 people like this
Posted by title 24
a resident of Barron Park
on May 3, 2016 at 8:52 am

"I'm baffled that so many in Palo Alto who pride themselves on being "green" and "ecologically aware" still want to live in huge houses."

It's amazing how these people think (or don't).
They believe that a house built so long ago is somehow "green". None of those single story house would pass today's title 24 requirements. If anything houses in neighborhoods wishing to get an overlay should be forced to upgrade their houses to meet today's requirements before an overlay is considered. Once 70% of the houses meet today's requirements the city could consider the overlay. Otherwise these houses will NEVER be green.


11 people like this
Posted by Downtown
a resident of Community Center
on May 3, 2016 at 12:14 pm

If you take away peoples rights for your own self interest, you need to compensate them for it. I wonder how many people would want the single story overlay if they had to write their neighbor a check for $100K for the value they are taking away from them?


4 people like this
Posted by Disagree
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 3, 2016 at 12:54 pm

Happy to see that some level of common sense made an appearance last night. I am willing to bet there will be several additions going up in royal Manor over the next year.


2 people like this
Posted by Dan
a resident of Midtown
on May 3, 2016 at 1:08 pm

Houses aren't "green", unless you choose that color paint. Knock down an existing small 1-story house to replace it with LEED certified platinum, super duper greenie, and it will probably take 50+ years to recover the energy expended to knock down, trash, transport, generate/ship building supplies and re-build. Smaller houses in our mild climate don't consume very much energy ... no need for air conditioning and only heat occasionally for 2-3 months during the "winter" nights. So you are fooling yourself with shady accounting if you think that your "rebuild" is greener than the house its replacing.

"I wonder how many people would want the single story overlay if they had to write their neighbor a check for $100K for the value they are taking away from them?"

I wouldn't mind writing the check to neighbors, but its very hard to quantify... besides, wouldn't it be a net sum zero since I pay my neighbors and they pay me (but the government could skim off 50% in extra taxes, hurray!). On the flip-side, those building 2-story houses next to glass walled 1-story homes could be required to install an internet live feed in their living room as a requirement for building permit approval. Always two sides...


Like this comment
Posted by pickpocket
a resident of Palo Verde
on May 3, 2016 at 3:13 pm

Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton

"...How can we talk about the need for more housing but then insist that it not be in my back yard?"

What a laughable comment coming from an Atherton resident!!! I'm pretty sure:
a) Atherton hasn't added a housing unit in decades
b) virtually 100% of Atherton residents commute (by car!) to other localities for employment.


1 person likes this
Posted by Different folks
a resident of The Greenhouse
on May 3, 2016 at 7:32 pm

Peter Carpenter finds this strange: ...How can we talk about the need for more housing but then insist that it not be in my back yard?"

Because they aren't the same people. These are different views by different people.
It is the new wealth that has moved into the neighborhood that is pushing for expansion.


7 people like this
Posted by Opinion came too late - the damage is done
a resident of Palo Verde
on May 4, 2016 at 7:52 am

Dear Diane,

As the city council pointed out to-date not one Royal Manor resident applied to build a second story home.

Nothing was in the pipeline.

So in the "spirit in creatively embracing change and preserving neighborhood" you and your "friends" decided the best idea was to take the SSO APPROACH -----start an aggressive movement instead of a more gentle, congenial, "neighborly" approach like circulating your article, holding coffees...and taking a COMMUNITY BUILDING APPROACH?

IN MY OPINION, you and your SSO "gang" caused more than 43% of your neighbors to feel threatened, confused, disrespected (and the list goes on...)

You and many of your "friends" do not seem to BA able to comprehend the damage this approach has done [portion removed.]

The proponents of SSO should make every effort to MAKE AMENDS and try to heal the wounds [portion removed.]


7 people like this
Posted by Me
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 4, 2016 at 8:31 am

"It is the new wealth that has moved into the neighborhood that is pushing for expansion."

You're probably right. It's one group who is getting away with cheap property tax telling the other group, who is subsidizing their government services, that they are not allowed to do anything to change anything.

That's Palo Alto in a nutshell.


4 people like this
Posted by PAmom
a resident of Evergreen Park
on May 5, 2016 at 12:06 pm

I agree with "Mutt" We bought our home in 2012, it's 2k square feet, our 3 children share a room and if they want/need more space we go outside. It keeps them close. Eventually when they get older yeah we'll have to figure out what to do. Besides, keeping a 2k square foot house is hard enough. I wouldn't want any bigger...but then again, I'm probably one of the few Palo Altons who actually cleans their own house.


7 people like this
Posted by pot meet kettle
a resident of Palo Verde
on May 6, 2016 at 9:25 am

re: The proponents of SSO should make every effort to MAKE AMENDS and try to heal the wounds [portion removed.]

I don't live in RM, but I do know many people on both sides of the aisle on this one and I beg to differ with the above sentiment.

It was the Say no to SSO group that mis-represented and mis-characterized this effort. The were unwilling to listen to facts and correct mis information on their website. The SSO proponents are HONEST and TRIED incredibly hard to meet with you for several months. Instead you chose to call them racist and spread false claims of bullying (we are adults, not on a school playground). You and your group slandered people by name on Next Door and in the city council meeting. Say No to SSO are the ones who need to extend an olive branch and to start spending their personal time resolving this issue. They claim to want to work on a solution - so please share what you are doing or is that false, too?

The people who worked tirelessly with the City in seeking solutions to protect what everyone in this neighborhood claims to hold dear have been falsely accused for long enough. Say no to SSO group needs to step up and get busy fixing the toxic environment you created that has turned in to a terribly hurtful situation for many many families.


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

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