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.