News

Palo Alto residents in cottages feel the big-house squeeze

Some worry these groupings of small homes are facing extinction

For more than 30 years, Crescent Park resident Marni Barnes has lived in a 1940s bungalow that is part of a cluster of four cottages at 844-850 Boyce Ave. The little grouping of homes is one of approximately 15 dotting Palo Alto's neighborhoods, where more affordable homes on small lots have helped the city maintain some housing diversity.

But Barnes worries that her way of life is about to undergo a dramatic change. A neighbor, who purchased a cottage two years ago, wants to expand it into a two-story, 2,043-square-foot house, which would tower over the remaining cottages.

Barnes and her neighbors are fighting the plans. A landscape architect by trade, Barnes has written to city planners, reasoning that the proposed house violates the city's "individual review" guidelines on several fronts. The home is "an imposing rectangular building" that is inconsistent with the single-story cottages, and it proposes a six-foot-high fence that would intrude into the cottages' shared space, she said.

On a recent day, Barnes looked to the west, where a mansion on an adjacent street looms over the neighborhood.

"I get upset when I see a Taco Bell on steroids anywhere, but in this setting, it breaks up the community," she said, referring to the planned new home. "And this is the part that breaks my heart: The Architectural Review Board was studying cottage clusters ... but the city never did anything with that research."

"I understand there are personal property rights and the cost of real estate, but there needs to be a countervailing force that talks about quality of life and (its) value," she said.

Cottage clusters are found throughout many parts of north Palo Alto, mainly throughout Crescent Park, Professorville and Old Palo Alto. Built between 1930 to 1951, the homes are arranged in groups of four to 13. Typically two structures front the street with a driveway in between. Other cottages are arranged behind around a shared courtyard, which gives a sense of openness for owners living at the rear. The arrangement creates the feeling of a small enclave that provides security, enabling people to keep an eye out for each other. It also provides a quiet space off the main street, Barnes said.

They are also generally less expensive than larger homes. The average cottage has two bedrooms and is about 930 square feet, with lot sizes ranging from about 2,500 to 5,000 square feet, according to a city survey and real estate websites. They are typically valued at $2.5 million; larger homes in the neighborhood can cost between $3.3 million and $5.8 million, according to real-estate websites Zillow and Trulia.

The existing cottages were built mainly as income properties and rented to professors and students, according to Palo Alto Historical Association Historian Steve Staiger. Barnes said that one of the Boyce cottages was constructed to make a home for a disabled veteran after World War II. He was the husband of the property owners' daughter; the other cottages generated income for the owners, she said.

But they aren't worthless relics of a time past. City staff considered them of enough value to suggest that creating a cottage-cluster zoning designation when it looked to update its policies for so-called Village Residential districts in 2005, with the idea that more cottage clusters might be built.

"Cottage cluster" was identified as one of three distinct Village Residential development types -- the others being "rowhouse" and "garden court."

Although the study of cottages was done in the context of multi-family zones, city staff also presented preliminary development standards for cottage clusters in single-family zones (R-1) to the Planning and Transportation Commission and the Architectural Review Board.

A key goal of proposing the standards was to establish "a mechanism to encourage owners to retain and improve existing cottage clusters," a December 2004 staff report to the Architectural Review Board noted.

"The existing Palo Alto cottage clusters are functional, desirable and accepted within the neighborhood community," a May 19, 2005, Architectural Review Board staff report noted.

The standards included some of the issues that Barnes now raises: limitations on house size, lot size, frontage, open space and encroachments into setbacks and parking. A March 17, 2005, Architectural Review Board staff report, for example, suggested a 24-foot height limit and a 1,200- to 1,500-square-foot maximum house size for cottages in the R-1 zone.

In the end, however, no standards for cottage clusters were formalized or added in the city's land-use update, Barnes said.

She said there is evidence that cottage clusters are disappearing from the city. Four cottages at 821-877 Hamilton Ave. were replaced by two large, two-story homes at the front that dwarf a single-story home at the back; a cluster of five cottages at 920-928 Addison Ave. has been replaced by two large residences, she said.

Elisabeth Doxsee, a 20-year owner of one of the Boyce cottages, said it doesn't have to be that way. She was able to remodel her home to more than 2,000 square feet by expanding it into her backyard. She still retained a green space and kept the cottage at one story. From the street -- and the view of the other cottages -- the house retains its bungalow appearance.

Eight years ago, Staiger purchased a home in the 10-cottage cluster on the 300 block of Kingsley Ave.

"It's a terrific community. ... (And) The joy is that I could afford to buy a house that my daughter, son-in-law and their children live in," he said.

The Kingsley cottages are now marketed as condominiums, a modern convention that may actually protect their integrity.

"Because it is a condo I can't tear my house down and build a two-story house. I have to go through the homeowners' association to make changes," Staiger said. The Kingsley cottages, designed by famed local architect Birge Clark, are also protected because they are located in the Professorville Historic District, which is on the National Historic Register.

But how many others might have historical significance, either on a state or national level or even locally, remains unknown. The city does not have a complete list of the cottage clusters, and some have not been formally evaluated and are not included in a survey of historic residences, said city historic-resources planner Matt Weintraub in an email.

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Comments

42 people like this
Posted by Uncalled for
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 29, 2016 at 8:16 am

Sorry, feel no sympathy for miss Barnes if she is going to insult other people's homes (taco bell on steroids) I am surprised the weekly allows derogatory comments in their stories, but I guess it helps Generate comments on the forum.


35 people like this
Posted by community?
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jul 29, 2016 at 9:38 am

A perfectly normal two story home is somehow going to ruin "community"? [Portion removed.]

This neighbor could have been your friend. Someone who picks up your mail when you go on vacation. Someone who comes over with soup when you're sick. Someone who watches your dogs when you're out. But you've decided that a long-lasting beautiful friendship is far less important than what this person's house looks like. [Portion removed.]


131 people like this
Posted by Que Pasa???
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 29, 2016 at 10:05 am

When it's just two people, why live in a six bedroom McMansion? There is a huge house in our neighborhood like that: six bedrooms, six-and-a-half baths. Four car garage, guest house, maid's cottage. All this for TWO people who are away in China much of the time! The maid appears to live there alone when they are gone.

Over-the-top, wasteful, selfish.


115 people like this
Posted by Carol Gilbert
a resident of University South
on Jul 29, 2016 at 10:41 am

I think the city should do what it can to protect cottage clusters. That's what we need more of, not less.


26 people like this
Posted by Uncalled for
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 29, 2016 at 10:47 am

Que pasa--because they want to. This is America. People can choose to live in the house of their choice. You seem to downs plenty of time tracking what your neighbors are doing. [Portion removed.]


55 people like this
Posted by polarized
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 29, 2016 at 11:09 am

I've been looking for a house in Palo Alto recently. Overall, it looks like the houses are polarized. They are either small and old (and more affordable) or large and recently renovated (and very expensive). There are very few that are in between, e.g. 1500-1800 square feet and in great condition.

The reason for this, I would guess, is because the housing market is hot, and prices are usually calculated per square foot. This would explain why there are always developers willing to pay top dollar to buy a teardown on a large lot, and make huge profits selling to rabid buyers.

It really sucks. Over time, all of Palo Alto will slowly become a community of giant houses with tiny yards.

I love the Taco Bell on steroids comment. It is a great visual. Just the perfect description for a lot of houses I see these days. However, the writing is on the wall, and all the complaining and wistful nostalgia is not going to stop the freight train.


82 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Jul 29, 2016 at 11:31 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

When I was a graduate student at Stanford I had the great pleasure of living in one of the Boyce cottages for two years. It was a wonderful experience.

Such cottage clusters should be protected by zoning as they provide a unique opportunity to maintain a more economically diverse community.

What goes on around the cottage clusters is much less important than what occurs within the clusters. I could have cared less what was built behind my little Boyce cottage because it was a little island already different than the homes that surrounded it.


89 people like this
Posted by Deborah
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jul 29, 2016 at 11:36 am

I'm with Marnie. The relatively unregulated construction of architectural monstrosities in Palo Alto is nauseating. How does the city allow for the construction of a three story, 3,500 sqf house on a 5,000 sqf lot (2350 Tasso)? Not only do these constructions publicly declare the builders poor taste, but also complete lack of civility. God forbid we could build low income senior housing. On no! That's an imposition! I don't get this. And what about the cowardly councils that have let this happen? Am I the only one who thinks there should be a VAT tax on monster homes to fund city services?


75 people like this
Posted by fatherof3
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 29, 2016 at 11:41 am

Loved the "Taco Bell on Steroids" description. People are so sensitive these days. One strategy to prevent your neighbor/developer from adding a 2nd story or building a new two story house that will loom over your little piece of privacy is to install a PV solar system on your roof facing their lot. As per CA Solar Access laws, no one can build a structure that blocks the sunlight from striking already installed solar panels. Suggest you research the current laws and get some idea if you can enforce it before installing the solar. And if that roof faces North, probably not much of a case to be made.


51 people like this
Posted by Mid Mod
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jul 29, 2016 at 11:41 am

Uncalled for/community?
Uh, what part of Southern California are you folks from?
You sound like narrative from city planning commissions' approvals that led to all of the dense pack housing that has now found its way north into Palo Alto.


11 people like this
Posted by MadamPresident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 29, 2016 at 11:42 am

[Post removed.]


77 people like this
Posted by NoMoPa
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 29, 2016 at 11:52 am

Two story homes definitely ruin neighborhoods when the lots were originally sized for small one story houses. We have lost both our light and privacy as lot maximizing two story homes have been built on both sides.


33 people like this
Posted by anon
a resident of Community Center
on Jul 29, 2016 at 12:11 pm

What happened to civil discourse? What has happened to community where people could be civil and discuss differences without attacking each other? I pity the future with all this nasty, backbiting horrible discourse.

Yes, people are entitled to their opinion. You may not agree - but don't attack. Please bring back some level of sanity to this community.


87 people like this
Posted by Matthew
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 29, 2016 at 12:16 pm

I have some special standing to comment. I lived as a tenant (with my family) renting the very house in question for over 5 years.

I now live elsewhere in Palo Alto, and I have no "skin in the game" but for the betterment of our community.
--
The project as outlined should NOT be allowed. The new owners should be required to propose reconstruction that is consistent with and respectful of the wonderful neighborhood in which they bought their property.

The shared space in that four-plex of cottages should be deeply respected. It was beautiful when we were there. They are small lots, small structures, but they are big on character, community, and warmth... the shared space is integral to that. Our kids played in the yards and driveway (which is shared by all, used by all, but crosses into each of the four property spaces). Our kids played with the back-neighbors' cats who would wander forward. The warmth of the space became a valuable part of our lives and experience as residents.

Most importantly, those four properties share an over-arching Feel, Use, and Purpose that makes them intrinsically intertwined. It is clear in the history of their initial development, but also in the respectful re-designs that both of the back neighbors have executed.

Sure, they need to rebuild the structure. But not as proposed. Ultimately it will be in their best interest, too.


4 people like this
Posted by Uncalled for
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 29, 2016 at 12:17 pm

[Post removed due to deletion of referenced comment.]


84 people like this
Posted by neighborhood walker
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 29, 2016 at 12:25 pm

As someone who has walked by this cottage cluster for year and years, I welcome people, especially "uncalled for" and "Community?", to swing by this location and see it for themselves. Its a lovely, quaint, and communal cluster and the thought of big 2 story house that actively isolates itself from its neighbors is upsetting.


46 people like this
Posted by Member
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 29, 2016 at 12:33 pm

I understand. I too live in a cottage in Crescent Park. It was great until one of the tenants decided to commercialize her unit and turn it into a school. Now out shared quiet driveway is now a loud parking lot. The city does nothing about it. All they care about is getting tax money. It's a disgrace that quiet neighborhoods can't keep their simplicity.


35 people like this
Posted by hah
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 29, 2016 at 12:41 pm

"Economically diverse community" - are you kidding? The article says these homes go for $2.5 million. Is your diversity all about letting poor millionaires mix with billionaires?

People, if you want control over neighboring property, then you should buy that property. Get together with your neighbors and buy these people out. If this set of homes should be grouped together and decisions should be made together, then they should have been sold that way, as a set, not individually. But I find a lack of sincerity here because everyone knows that a condo designation would lower the value of these homes and increase people's mortgage rates. You can't have it both ways folks, wherein you don't want the financial hit but then you still insist on trying to control the people around you.

Times change. People's housing needs change. How people want to live has changed. [Portion removed.] Whenever there are people who come to protest "monster homes" or ask for single story overlays, they are always always white old people who live alone or with just a spouse. It's never young people with growing families.


8 people like this
Posted by Jill
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jul 29, 2016 at 12:46 pm

[Portion removed.]


35 people like this
Posted by neighborhood walker
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 29, 2016 at 12:52 pm

"hah", if you took the time to read and think, you would see that "Matthew" just a few comments above you lived in this very home, is against this construction, and fits precisely into your category of "young people with growing families".


14 people like this
Posted by jh
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jul 29, 2016 at 1:03 pm

jh is a registered user.

Isn't a 5000 square foot property considered substandard in this area and therefore any new building can only be 24" at the gable, with the normal setbacks and a garage?


29 people like this
Posted by Why is this a story
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jul 29, 2016 at 1:22 pm

Not sure about the racism part, but Hah nailed it in the first part of his comment. If you want joint ownership, make it so, like a condo complex. If it's independent pieces of land, you can't control what someone else builds. It's just entitled to want to control them. If one paid $2.5m to buy the property and the lot, they sure as hell should be able to do what they want with it. Its just the market. What if the cottage doesn't suffice for their family needs. And who appointed this woman the neighborhood building style police. Palo Alto online is full of stories like this. Where someone doesn't want their neighbors building what they need and want. Why is this even a story?


67 people like this
Posted by fatherof3
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 29, 2016 at 1:28 pm

Hah: "...because the people who want larger homes come from cultures that value intergenerational living that's not possible in a 900 sq ft home." You do realize that a number of those people you claim value intergenerational living, after a couple of years waiting period is over, help their elderly parents plead poverty and apply for subsidized senior apartments, thus taking up the preciously few senior apartments that could be inhabited by needy seniors who don't themselves have children who can afford to buy 2.5+ million dollar homes, and had previously promised to support those same parents when they applied for residency from abroad. Or is this a subject that is too personal and controversial to be discussed at this time.


28 people like this
Posted by HJA
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 29, 2016 at 2:20 pm

I understand the conflict that arises in the property value / contextual design polarity. People pay a lot of money for the dirt under the house that they buy or build in Palo Alto. AND well established neighborhoods (the ones that make the dirt so expensive) are organic and reflective of the relationships that encourages a level of mutual respect into the architectural decisions that create a sense of community.

Because of the cost of living here, the value of "home" is transitioning from an expression of a place in a Community into a periodically traded Commodity where responsive design is subjugated to the consideration of resale value of the marketplace. One result of this is a fear that living in contextual agreement with neighbors may not net the return on the considerable investment buying into Palo Alto requires. It encourages market driven cliché's that seem as though they've dropped from the clutches of a tornado - taken from some other place. So I understand the “Taco Bell on steroids” comment in that light.

The pressures on the owners of the new house in the cottage cluster are great in that context, yet I suggest that in an established neighborhood, an offering of faith be presented to the neighbors they are joining. Faith that the desirability of their home is as important in the long term friendships they build, and that this quality will not only enrich their lives, but also will be recognized by future buyers.

A solution exists in the give and take of design which may allow a less massive presence in this established neighborhood. The new owners, planning department and the neighbors may just offer revisions that encourage community cohesiveness. It’s worth a try.


35 people like this
Posted by Matthew
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 29, 2016 at 2:24 pm

To "Why is This a Story" --- Respectfully, the idea you are promoting of "independent control" of what one can do with one's parcel of land in a community has no basis in prevailing code, law, tradition, or reason.

It can be complicated to wade through the nuances of review boards, architectural guidelines, and there are many "grey" areas. There are projects that seem like they should be "no brainer" exceptions to prevailing rules. But we have processes to address these openly. Sure, it can be tedious and expensive, but on the whole we are far better to have these processes.

I grew up in a small midwestern town that expanded rapidly without sensible zoning laws or review processes. That results in a nightmare for long-term community welfare and economy that makes this process look like a walk in the park.


58 people like this
Posted by Paco
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 29, 2016 at 2:25 pm

Thanks again to City Manager Keene for bringing in and hiring his East Bay friends as managers and discarding 20 year+ local managers and employees, many with institutional knowledge on Palo Alto history, so that he could create a "yes man" staff. And so you can see what direction Palo Alto has taken since he was hired. Any meaningful change can only be accomplished with a manager that is competent and who understands Palo Alto history.


49 people like this
Posted by Hermia
a resident of Triple El
on Jul 29, 2016 at 2:32 pm

Defenders of two-story homes in one-story neighborhoods might consider what it will feel like when the houses on both sides of theirs are replaced by four story condo and apartment complexes that run the full depth of the yard, peer down into their backyard, and block both the sun and wind. That is the next stage, and it's really not far in the future. It'll be a cold comfort, though, when this softer community is gone, gone, gone.


Like this comment
Posted by Hulkamania
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 29, 2016 at 2:35 pm

[Post removed.]


13 people like this
Posted by Why is This a Story
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jul 29, 2016 at 2:45 pm

Matthew, I agree that people can't build in a vacuum. I agree that respecting building codes, guidelines etc. is what makes our communities so livable. But there is nothing in this story that points to the 2-storey building not having implemented those laws and codes. Its just that this neighbor has expectations beyond that. Sure, I can expect whatever I want from my neighbors too. I just should not be disappointed if those expectations don't come true. Still not sure why one person's expectation of their neighbors is a story.

Maybe these folks should have got together and done something - such as converting to a condo complex, before this sale happened.


53 people like this
Posted by Reader
a resident of another community
on Jul 29, 2016 at 4:22 pm

The Palo Alto ARB has bad taste.


48 people like this
Posted by Conay in Palo Alto
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 29, 2016 at 4:25 pm

Conay in Palo Alto is a registered user.

fatherof3, Right on!! Thank you for voicing this problem. I am a senior who has lived and worked in Palo Alto for 60 years and now has to leave because there is no affordable senior housing available. Sigh!


32 people like this
Posted by Someone with kids
a resident of Professorville
on Jul 29, 2016 at 4:34 pm

.. and guess what, but if we did with our kids what our parents did with us, it seems like child services would come and take them away.

Today's kids *have* to be more protected than they were before.
This means, practically, that the house and the yard is all they can play in for a substantial part of their younger years.

.. and that means that the houses need to be larger, since that is the effect of these stupid policies, because kids need a place to play.

The building code right now forces people to build more sprawling houses, because you can't move the building closer to the sidewalk, and you can't build near the property line (Mediterranean/courtyard-style housing, can't happen thanks to code), nor can you build tall thanks to code. You can't build down because of code either. I've lived in places where it was perfectly OK to have two levels of basement. Not here, though.

It strikes me that most people I've met who complain about this have no need to live in a larger house. They don't have kids, or have been here long enough that both parents don't need to work.

Not all of us are that lucky.


59 people like this
Posted by Prof. Marni Barnes
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 29, 2016 at 4:47 pm


Amazing what animosity this article is engendering! Even to the point where people are responding without really reading it. The article states that redress is being sought through the City process. And indeed if you check with the PA Planning Dept you will find that, since the writing of this article, the plans have been sent back to the drawing board because of a number of issues of non-compliance with the Individual Review Guidelines.

Interesting too that readers are projecting their own emotions onto the people involved. The facts are that everyone is cordial and openly reviewing the plans (yes, the new young family and the "old white people" ARE actually talking).


16 people like this
Posted by Prof. Uncalled for
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 29, 2016 at 5:01 pm

Marni- you engendered this animosity by insulting people's homes. Just because you do not like a home does not make it a "taco bell on steroids". Yes I know the taco bell insult is bandied about quite often in the city but that does not mean you should denigrate someone's dream home.


6 people like this
Posted by Loc
a resident of Stanford
on Jul 29, 2016 at 6:14 pm

[Post removed.]


27 people like this
Posted by Camb
a resident of Mountain View
on Jul 29, 2016 at 6:59 pm

A two story house is not the issue as much as the big fence, dividing a two-car garage.
The new owners did not consider the property well to imagine that this construction would be erected without comment.
Look at these plans in the context of the "cluster". It could be your little flag lot or cluster next.
Keep some semblance of real Palo Alto intact. PS: the Taco Bell on steroids is very apt.


34 people like this
Posted by Paly mom
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 29, 2016 at 7:07 pm

Why go up when you can add a basement, keeping the cute cottage above? Save Palo Alto from So Cal Spanish stucco Stepford Wives facades.


18 people like this
Posted by HJA
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 29, 2016 at 9:15 pm

BTW, there are accommodations in the zoning ordinance that would mitigate the 2 story scale issue. Paly Mom suggests a basement but it would not be allowed in this case because the property is in a flood zone. However I believe the ordinance would allow a 45% lot coverage if the building were restricted to a single story. True, this takes up more yard area but one of the charms of the cottage cluster is that the shared common space could be agreed upon as a great playspace for children or borrowed landscape zone. I'm not offering remedies here, simply pointing out that good design thinking can move beyond formulaic assumptions by opening up the solution space to include options not considered in a restricted problem statement. There is apparently a respectful dialog taking place between residents, so contribute your ideas not your rants.


2 people like this
Posted by FadedMessiah
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 29, 2016 at 11:07 pm

LOL. You're all arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. The wheels have come off the bus in case you haven't noticed. Neither the size of your house or the size of your debt associated with it is going to matter much longer.


66 people like this
Posted by AEH
a resident of another community
on Jul 30, 2016 at 7:34 am

To hah. I am an "old white" person living alone, but I wasn't always. My husband and I managed to raise our "growing family" in a small Palo Alto house, including two dogs and visiting grandparents without making our house into an eyesore. And, how dare you suggest that I am not entitled to live in the community that has been my home for over 30 years? Where would you like me, and my wonderful friends, to go?


73 people like this
Posted by EMS
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 30, 2016 at 10:09 am

EMS is a registered user.

I have lived in College Terrace with my husband and two children (now adults) for over 30 years. In the 80's the neighborhood was full of small little charming cottages owned and rented by seniors, students, and couples with young school age children. So many different kinds of people managed to live happily in these small afordable homes. Today most of these charming little starter houses have been torn down and replaced with gigantic 4 and 5 bedroom homes complete with full basements. The one story homes on both sides of our house have been replaced with looming 5 bedroom homes completely blocking out the light in my kitchen and bedrooms. So the point I am trying to make is that yes, people have a right to build what they want but the sense of community I once experienced is now pretty much gone, especially with neighbors. People buy these homes for investment and perhaps the good schools, not really for the sense of neighborhood. I never see or hear my neighbors or their kids. I do hear their leaf blower at 7:30am on a Saturday morning though. Maybe in their country noise was not a problem? Anyway, I understand how Marni feels and hope that the family who bought the cottage can build a wonderful and beautiful house with a design that can also maintain the nice sense of community in that cluster.


16 people like this
Posted by Marc
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 30, 2016 at 10:59 am

@EMS,AEH and all the other folks that have the fantasy that nothing should ever change.

So much of this controversy about housing, traffic, noise, etc seems to be between people who want the world to be what it was 30 - 50 years ago and the realities of today.

Bread isn't a nickel, gas isn't 25 cents a gallon, the women don't stay home and bake bread and get dinner ready for their husband that works in town.

/marc


22 people like this
Posted by Hopeful
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 30, 2016 at 11:10 am

This new house can be built to fit into this cottage cluster community and complement the existing homes. Both houses in the back have been tastefully expanded to accommodate their unique family needs and done it well. There is a respectful conversation going on. It will be a benefit to this new family to preserve the shared areas which they and their children will also enjoy and use.

This article was not just about one cottage cluster. It is really about the value of retaining any of these unique mini neighborhoods and the human value they bring to their residents and the community at large. Sadly, the monetary pressures encourage builders, architects and owners to maximize size. The hope is that this family will resist that pressure and build the house their family will love but also fits in the scale and design of the small community they are joining.

Forget about the "Taco Bell" reference! It is just a description term for houses that are too big for the space they occupy. Wishing amicable resolution to all the Boyce cluster neighbors, including the new arrivals.


58 people like this
Posted by AEH
a resident of another community
on Jul 30, 2016 at 11:54 am

@marc

I do hear tell that there be old folks in these here parts that oh, I don't know, understand change, embrace the good and (crazy ain't it?) attempt to prevent the bad. All change is not good, and all stasis is not bad. Now, if you don't mind, I'm going to climb into my horse-drawn wagon and head out to the back 40.

@hopeful. Thank you for your calm, sensible, logical words.


57 people like this
Posted by EMS
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 30, 2016 at 2:58 pm

EMS is a registered user.

Hey Marc, my husband and I both worked full time until retirement. (He still works full-time) No staying home baking bread and waiting for the hubby for me! We had to pay for our extremely expensive house (even back then) and still have a big mortgage today due to many upgrades and improvements. We could never afford to move or downsize because there are no small cottages to buy. They all get snapped up, torn down and replaced with a gigantic house that only rich people can afford. Anyway, keep up the good work being judgmental toward anyone who doesn't agree with you. Most people posting here are giving constructive opinions. Your blanket assessment that older residents only want to live in the past is TOTALLY off. I would love to see affordable housing and apartments in Palo Alto! This little cottage was an affordable choice for someone that does not have the money to turn right around, tear it down, and build new.


24 people like this
Posted by Marc
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 30, 2016 at 5:40 pm

If Marni Barnes and her neighbors had really wanted to keep their homes affordable and the cottage-like atmosphere why didn't they add covenants to their deeds restricting what could be done to the homes? That would have been the simple solution. No need to go crying to the city.

But Marni's neighbor that sold didn't and I'm guessing that Marni won't put any restrictions on her property. Is it because it will cause a significantly dropped the value of the homes?

All of those who have posted here that you have lived in small homes, why are you not putting covenants on your homes to keep them affordable and retain the small town feel? Is it because you don't really want to give up the money you will lose? You have to walk the talk.

You don't need the city to do anything, each of you can put whatever restrictions you want on your property and see what effect it has on the value.

/marc


78 people like this
Posted by Fatherof3
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 31, 2016 at 12:06 pm

Many of those "old white folks" alluded to helped make Palo Alto Public Schools and Stanford University the prestigeous places of learning that newbies will pay $3million for a house so that their kids can go there today.


27 people like this
Posted by Jara
a resident of Southgate
on Aug 1, 2016 at 9:38 am

Welp. With a $2.5 million price tag, I now know I won't even be able to afford a cottage one day... And that's coming from someone with a very respectable white collar job. The housing market in Palo Alto is already out of control-- this article just catalogs one symptom.


13 people like this
Posted by Me
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 1, 2016 at 10:57 am

This is choice: "But how many others might have historical significance, either on a state or national level or even locally, remains unknown"

Unknown? How about NO historical significance. This isn't Rome or Paris. Give me a break. A shack is a shack is a shack. Tract housing is tract housing. I even laugh at the "historical significance" of Victorians in SF that could be ordered on Sears catalogs.

Old != historical. Old is old.

"Many of those "old white folks" alluded to helped make Palo Alto Public Schools and Stanford University"

Not for a long time. They have been underpaying their fair share of property tax for many years.


65 people like this
Posted by MYOB
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 2, 2016 at 8:33 am

@Me: Before Prop 13, elderly people often lost homes, fully paid for, because they were unable to pay the property tax. People were given notices of increases in their property tax every six months! Some young people at the time lost their homes to excessive property taxes.

Even now, if you put any improvements into your home, you will get a notice of an increase in your property taxes, and a bill for that increase, within two weeks of completion of that project!

Elderly people who have been in their homes for decades and no longer have children in the school system, and are living on limited income SHOULD NOT have to pay the same rate as younger, gainfully employed homeowners with two incomes!

One day, excluding misfortune, you may be elderly and living on a reduced, limited income--and be glad for prop 13 and the fact you have a roof over your head.


8 people like this
Posted by Shedding no tears
a resident of Walter Hays School
on Aug 2, 2016 at 9:04 am

@MYOB

I will shed no tears for the elderly people who are "losing" their homes. No one is becoming impoverished and living on the streets. The reason they can't pay their property taxes is because their house has become insanely valuable. If they don't want to pay property taxes, then they can sell their insanely valuable property and use the INSANE amount of money to buy anything they want outside of Palo Alto. Stop asking all the young two-income families to foot the entire property tax bill of Palo Alto. What happens to those young families when they become older? They will still be paying the high property taxes based on the high valuation of the property when they bought it. Ridiculous!


54 people like this
Posted by Overpopulation
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 2, 2016 at 9:53 am

It isn't politically correct to refer to the ugliness of so many new mansions. That people are rich does not give them the right to destroy a charming neighborhood.

And it is not politically correct, but it is true, Asian investors have taken over the real estate market for years. Just look at the daily listings of homes sold.

Overpopulation is too sensitive to mention, but it is the cause of so many problems. We are not allowed to imply disagreement with right wing religions.


10 people like this
Posted by Me
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 2, 2016 at 3:17 pm

"Elderly people who have been in their homes for decades and no longer have children in the school system, and are living on limited income SHOULD NOT have to pay the same rate as younger, gainfully employed homeowners with two incomes!"

I didn't know that property was part of some form of Social Security.

Of course, that's a patently funny assertion, given what the property tax pays for. It's not just schools, but your fire, police, streets, etc. In fact, given that there's a higher chance of older folks needing more medical care, maybe they should pay more for fire to ensure we have the ambulance services that, oh, by the way, have nice roads to transport them to the hospital!

In other words, just because you're old doesn't mean you aren't using government-provided services and infrastructure paid by property tax. In fact, you may be using more of it.

Also, Prop 13 has exacerbated the pricing increases. It keeps older folks artificially tied to their homes, which reduces inventory, which then causes prices to increase even more for what is actually on the market. It also inhibits the traditional flow and evolution of a neighborhood to where people who've been there for 30 years expect absolutely no change from when they moved there (which is silly).


40 people like this
Posted by The Greater Fool
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 2, 2016 at 4:22 pm

Me "In other words, just because you're old doesn't mean you aren't using government-provided services and infrastructure paid by property tax. In fact, you may be using more of it."

I agree with your apparent underlying theory. I think that property tax should be based upon ones proportional usage of city services - like you appear to suggest.

If I'm single with no kids and live in a $20M home I should pay less in property taxes than a family of 6 (A married couple with four kids) that live in a $500k house.


44 people like this
Posted by Baloney
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 2, 2016 at 5:07 pm

What is keeping older folks in their homes is that stupid tax you pay whether you buy another house or not. The IRS steals 25%, then the state takes a cut.

That leaves too little to buy a mortgage down to affordability for a senior .

However, the property tax rate is transferable if you are over 55 and downsizing your house.




54 people like this
Posted by The Greater Fool
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 2, 2016 at 5:13 pm

@Shedding No Tears: "they can sell their insanely valuable property and use the INSANE amount of money to buy anything they want outside of Palo Alto."

perhaps you failed at basic economics.
In 2006: Consider a $1M home sold in Palo Alto.
Today (2016 - ten years later) it is worth $2.3M (according to Zillow).

Sell for $2.3M
Pay to paint/repair/stage it: $30k
Pay real-Estate Agent 5% commission = $115k
Pay bank back the $1M interest only loan you had.
Profit 2.3M-1.0M-0.145M = $1.155M
Pay Taxes on profit from sale: 0.33*($1.155M - $500k)=$216K
Net before cost of ownership = $1.155M- $0.216M = $939K

Property Taxes for 10 years = ($12K average X 10years) = $120k
Mortgage (interest only at 4%) = ($40k x 10years) = $400k
Net walk away = $419k (= 42% profit Net from the investment of $1M)

So for 10 years you carried a $1M risk and made 42% on your money after taxes and investment costs are subtracted. That's an annual compound rate return of 3.6%.

You'd have done better investing $1M in the S&P500 index in the stock market. The 10 year return for the S&P was 62.5%

Houses are not good investments.





53 people like this
Posted by Baloney
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 2, 2016 at 6:00 pm

We had neighbors who very nearly went bankrupt trying to sell their home!

Their agent INSISTED they "had" to move out and stage the house. They rented another house, in Santa Clara, for $6500/month, while paying nearly $10,000/month for the house they were no longer living in. staging is priced according to the size of the house. The house they were selling had five bedrooms, so it cost them $5000/month to stage It! They also had to pay to re-landscape it with drought-friendly plants, $ 10,000 (included labor), paint inside and out ($15,000), refinish hardwood floors ($20,000). It took two months to get the house ready, and because they thought the rental would be temporary, they paid to store a lot of their furniture (400/month). Even though the husband was an economist and his wife a pathologist, their outlay per month to sell this house $21,900!The prep was $45,000--their agent told them it would never sell "as is" in Palo Alto, although that was what they had intended to do.

On top of this, they had a daughter at Yale, so they were also paying her living expenses in Connecticut, plus an outrageous tuition.

It took six months to sell the house (too close to Alma for most buyer, bad fengshui for the Chinese buyers). Despite the fact that both spouses were highly paid, the monthly output was more than they were making, after taxes, and they defaulted on the sixth month, sold the house short just to get out from under the burden, and stayed in the rental house in Santa Clara because now, their credit was ruined, so they could not buy another house.


6 people like this
Posted by Shedding no tears
a resident of Walter Hays School
on Aug 2, 2016 at 7:12 pm

@Greater Fool

You suggest that I must have failed basic economics. Actually, I got an A+ in econ. Your analysis isn't bad, but I would give it at best a B-.

First of all, your assumptions are completely off. We are talking about the elderly. They are NOT buying houses in 2006 for 1M with an interest only loan, as you suggest in your flawed model. They more likelybought it in the 1970s for less than 100k and have already paid it off. Therefore, your big capital gains calculation is flawed. There should be no significant loan expense at this point, and they have been paying significantly lower property taxes over the course of decades.

You also claimed a much higher cost basis than appropriate. Capital gains is offset by closing costs, improvements to property, and commissions, all of which you used in your argument, and none of which you used in your tax calculation.

Also, how can you use property tax over the last 10 years as an expense? Compare that to rent for an equivalent property, and then subtract the difference. That's how the calculation is fairly done.

Obviously, you also forgot to factor in the tax deduction for the mortgage interest and property taxes, if the person was working. If the person was not working, I don't know why they would take out a 1M dollar interest only loan in 2006 at age 70.

[Portion removed.]


50 people like this
Posted by EMS
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 2, 2016 at 8:35 pm

EMS is a registered user.

I have to disagree with, Shedding no tears. Why do you assume all older, long time home owners are in such
great financial shape? Some of us still have mortgages and if we sell our homes will have to move out of the city
to someplase even you would not want to live. Why not blame all the foreign buyers and rich investors, corporate and individual, for what is happening in the Palo Alto housing market? The seniors here did not cause this problem!! Many of us want to continue to live here where we have friends and children. Why is that a problem for you? There are tons of corporate and rich investors snapping up houses left and right and turning around and charging gigantic rents for people like you! Please do your research and stop picking on older long time residents! We did not cause this crazy housing market!!!


37 people like this
Posted by The Greater Fool
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 2, 2016 at 9:14 pm

@ Shedding No tears : " Capital gains is offset by closing costs, improvements to property, and commissions, all of which you used in your argument, and none of which you used in your tax calculation. "

Read it again. Its subtracted from the cap gain - you just missed it.

"how can you use property tax over the last 10 years as an expense?"

Because it is an expense counted against the rate of return.

"If the person was not working, I don't know why they would take out a 1M dollar interest only loan in 2006 at age 70. "

Why not ? If they have the cash flow, it's cheap money. Large sums of cash on hand come in handy if you have medical expenses. Who cares why ? Have you ever actually owner property ?

"Obviously, you also forgot to factor in ..."

Add all the fidelity you want. I have provided you the framework. Do your own homework. You can include hazard and liability insurance, landscape maintenance, repairs, roof replacements, water heaters, etc. to whatever detail level you want. Go back 20 or 30 years if you want, do a P+I loan if you want with a down payment. Make it an 80 year old. Whatever makes your best case for your argument. Knock yourself out. The results lead to the same conclusion: "Houses are lousy investments".

We look forward to, and will enjoy seeing your analysis.







9 people like this
Posted by Me
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 3, 2016 at 7:58 am

"I agree with your apparent underlying theory. I think that property tax should be based upon ones proportional usage of city services - like you appear to suggest."

No. That's the opposite of my point. My point is that his/her point of not having kids in schools and being old are not excuses to reduce a tax burden. They're still using services paid by taxes, and in fact people who have purchased their own home more recently are in fact subsidizing their use of services because of Prop 13 dynamics.

"In 2006: Consider a $1M home sold in Palo Alto. "

That's the fallacy in your argument. We're talking about folks that have been in their house since the 70s or 80s. Their purchase price was in the tens (or low hundreds) of thousands, not $1M. They're the ones only paying hundreds or single digit thousands of dollars in property tax while more recent owners are paying 10-100x that and receiving ostensibly the same services.

One calculation you're missing is the cost avoidance of not paying rent. That should be factored in your return as well.

Baloney: "On top of this, they had a daughter at Yale, so they were also paying her living expenses in Connecticut, plus an outrageous tuition."

And you are trying to make us feel bad for this couple?

"(too close to Alma for most buyer, bad fengshui for the Chinese buyers)"

Location. Location. Location.

Baloney, your example is lacking specifics. When was this? When did they buy the house? What kind of mortgage did they have? Without this information, it's hard to use this as an "example" to support your argument.




33 people like this
Posted by Baloney
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 3, 2016 at 10:13 am

WOW, Me! You're a cold one! Were my neighbors supposed to make their daughter stop going to college? Or come home and go to Foothill?

She is very talented, a gifted musician, linguist, historian, and opera singer who received a partial scholarship to Yale. She was accepted at age 16.

They were trying to downsize from a five bedroom house to a three bedroom one. The cost of selling the house nearly killed them, but they had no more children at home and simply didn't need such a large home. They didn't foresee the tax issues, because neither their banker nor their realtor volunteered any information, even when asked directly.


25 people like this
Posted by Conay in Palo Alto
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 3, 2016 at 10:26 am

Conay in Palo Alto is a registered user.

@me

"Unknown? How about NO historical significance. This isn't Rome or Paris. Give me a break. A shack is a shack is a shack. Tract housing is tract housing. I even laugh at the "historical significance" of Victorians in SF that could be ordered on Sears catalogs."

Historical significance as compared to what: China?

It's a good thing California now allows euthanasia: an option for us "old white people" of Palo Alto.


3 people like this
Posted by Me
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 3, 2016 at 12:37 pm

"WOW, Me! You're a cold one! Were my neighbors supposed to make their daughter stop going to college? Or come home and go to Foothill?"

Many people not making "good money" have to make that choice. It's very elitist to presume that they have a "right" to send their kid to Yale.

"They were trying to downsize from a five bedroom house to a three bedroom one. The cost of selling the house nearly killed them, but they had no more children at home and simply didn't need such a large home. They didn't foresee the tax issues, because neither their banker nor their realtor volunteered any information, even when asked directly."

Now we're getting into specifics. They actually tried to do what normal people do elsewhere, but because of market dynamics here (and yes, Prop 13 is involved here), it's screwed they up financially. Also sounds like they didn't pick the right people to help them out either. Maybe they should report their realtor to the state.

"Historical significance as compared to what: China?"

Did you not read? "Rome or Paris" Where did China come from?


25 people like this
Posted by Baloney
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 3, 2016 at 12:44 pm

@Me: I don't have all the specifics, but what I do know about my neighbors' house is that they bought it in 2004, and got it for a below-market rate because the previous owner had died suddenly. His children just wanted to get rid of it quickly because all of them lived in other states.

I do know that they did NOT have they usual 30-year mortgage, because they had a healthy down payment, so I assume they had a 20-year mortgage. I do not know what they paid for the house, but they sold it in 2014 for $1.7 million, although it had been appraised at $2.15 million. They initially asked $2.3 million on their agent's recommendation. I don't know the dimensions of the house, but the lot size is 6,000sf.

Does THAT help you understand the example???


6 people like this
Posted by I'm a PollyAnna
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 4, 2016 at 10:01 am

I think the article was creating a set-up to compare the possibility for quaint community over ego-filled/profit-driven "McMansions". Probably a cluster of "cottages" designed for cooperation and shared space does attract a certain type of person. But McMansions don't HAVE to be fortresses for just a couple with grown children living elsewhere. "McMansions" can be a large shared household with intergenerational, multi-class, multi-culture, persons and a shared haven. I think the spirit of appreciation, care, respect, and a healthy interdependency is what we're talking about in the end...not the size of the container of one's "box" or phase in life. What HOUSES us is spirit. Esprit de Corps are found under a freeway bridge if love lives there. Do you agree?


9 people like this
Posted by fatherof3
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 9, 2016 at 11:32 am

"The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread."
Anatole France, The Red Lily, 1894, chapter 7.


11 people like this
Posted by fatherof3
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 9, 2016 at 11:45 am

Stevenson House on Charleston near Middlefield just opened their waiting list for needy seniors for the first time in years since their current wait list got down to 25-50 applicants. I just spoke with someone involved in management there and confirmed that many applicants came down with their children to help them fill out the forms because of being language-challenged. It was a madhouse of applicants. Nice that the kids could get some time off from Apple, Google, PAMF, Stanford Hospital, startups etc. to help their dear parents move out of the kid's Palo Alto homes and into subsidized housing. Just what those units were made for.


18 people like this
Posted by fatherof3
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 9, 2016 at 11:53 am

@SheddingNoTears: We should adopt the 15% purchase tax Vancouver, BC has placed on all purchases by foreign buyers. This will slow down the rapid rate of appreciation (and thus assessments) which should slow down the property tax increases you are worried about.


23 people like this
Posted by Annoyed
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 9, 2016 at 12:47 pm

Annoyed is a registered user.

We should adopt the 30% " nuisance tax" that most of the countries who allow foreign buyers charge.

Either that, or, like most other countries, and all of Asia, simply not allow non-citizens to buy homes here.

That will certainly level the playing field!


4 people like this
Posted by Be Positive
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Aug 24, 2016 at 3:56 pm

Be Positive is a registered user.

Just looked at the drawing for this house, it doesn't appear to have a garage in the new plans and the existing garage seems to be half in their property and half in the lot to the rear. I thought houses need to have covered car parking spaces.


3 people like this
Posted by Mr. Neighbor
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Aug 29, 2016 at 11:20 pm

Rules are rules. You either follow them, or change them.

As stated in the story, 821-877 Hamilton Ave and 920-928 Addison Ave implemented the two-story new homes already. It is not fair to ask more restrictions for the new owner at 844-850 Boyce Ave. You should protest the former two at the first place.

To be honest, the cluster cottage houses are very common and a little shabby; I don't see any historical value from them.


4 people like this
Posted by Puzzled
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 30, 2016 at 10:40 pm

I guess this is the only part about "historical significance" about cottage clusters:
"The existing cottages were built mainly as income properties and rented to professors and students, according to Palo Alto Historical Association Historian Steve Staiger. Barnes said that one of the Boyce cottages was constructed to make a home for a disabled veteran after World War II. He was the husband of the property owners' daughter; the other cottages generated income for the owners, she said."
Is it really "historical significant"? To prove that Palo Alto people knew to generate income from rent? I am so very puzzled.


4 people like this
Posted by Jeff
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 31, 2016 at 12:07 am

Jobs are what are causing Palo Alto home prices to increase, not old white people, not foreign buyers. Put a 30% tax on salaries so that people wanting to move into Palo Alto have to pay the cost of building additional infrastructure. If there aren't any new jobs the housing market will stabilize or maybe even fall.

Of course you if you want the jobs and houses to be affordable to you, then you try to find away to take someone's house away from them.


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

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