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.