In Professorville, builders are urged to look to history for guidance

Palo Alto prepares to adopt new guidelines for construction in historic downtown district

Professorville has always held a special place among Palo Alto's dozens of neighborhoods -- a thriving section of downtown that doubles as a national historic landmark.

The area, which is roughly bounded by Emerson Street, Addison Avenue, Cowper Street and Embarcadero Road, harkens back to the city's earliest days in the late 19th century, when Stanford University faculty began settling the area. When the Professorville Historic District won its spot on the National Register of Historic Place in 1979, the nomination credited it with reflecting "the unique background or the area's origins and its early ties to the founding of both the University and Palo Alto itself."

Now, the City Council is embarking on an effort to protect Professorville's special status. On Monday night, the council will consider adopting a new set of design guidelines for Professorville, a document that has been five years in the making and that lays out in detail what type of construction is allowed in the neighborhood and what type is frowned upon.

The goal of the new Professorville Historic District Design Guidelines is to help manage new development in the area. A report from the Department of Planning and Community Environment calls the document "a tool for members of the community to evaluate the compatibility of proposed development with the historic character of Professorville." For homeowners, the document will provide "advice on everything from ordinary maintenance and repair of existing buildings to major new construction." For architects, it will aim to reduce the "guesswork" involved in designing architecturally compatible improvements, the report states.

"The Guidelines will also give the public a basis for understanding how decisions are made regarding the appropriate treatment of properties in Professorville," the staff report states.

Created by the consulting firm Page & Turnbull, the document does not advocate for any particular architectural style. That's largely because of the eclectic nature of Professorville's architecture, which includes Queen Anne, Spanish Colonial and Craftsman styles.

Nor is it intended to be the final arbiter of architectural decisions. The guidelines, according to staff, are intended to be suggestions rather than decrees. Unlike development standards or zoning codes, which set clearly defined rules, guidelines are intentionally squishy. The staff report calls them "a starting point for a conversation about historically compatible development." The reason staff is proposing guidelines rather than the more prescriptive development standards is to "allow for interpretation and flexibility in decision making, based on specific circumstances."

At the same time, many of its proposals are fairly clear-cut and leave little room for discretion. For example, the guidelines plainly prohibit the demolition of any homes built before 1930, calling the early homes the "critical components of the historic district." If an early residence is heavily altered or damaged, an attempt should be made to rehabilitate it or repair it rather than pursue demolition and replacement, the guidelines state.

Similarly, residents are discouraged from demolishing any building that, while not itself historic, is "complementary to the district" by reinforcing historical development patterns.

Where a building or accessory-dwelling unit is constructed in Professorville, it should be placed on a lot with a similar location, setback and orientation as nearby residences, the document states. The new home's distance from the street, for instance, should be similar to that of surrounding residences and its primary facade should also face the street, according to the new document.

Furthermore, the new guidelines encourage architects and builders to construct new residences in such a way that these structures "are not more prominent in the district than properties built during the historic period." Additions to existing buildings should be "subordinate" to the historic buildings when it comes to location, scale and detailing. And features of existing buildings that are deemed to be "character defining" should be retained and rehabilitated whenever possible, with an emphasis on those elements that can be seen from the public right-of-way, according to the guidelines.

The dominant underlying theme of the new document is compatibility. Though it acknowledges that change is inevitable and, in many cases, desirable, new construction should not detract from the historical feel of Professorville. Thus, it offer tips for installing solar panels (they should be placed on roof slopes that are less visible from the public right-of-way), encourages "muted colors" for primary exterior walls and encourages residents to "recreate" historical features on buildings where they once existed and were later removed.

The document also discourages residents from introducing new stylistic elements "based on conjecture rather than research" and states that a residence should not have "new features added that represent a different historic period or architectural style than existing property."

At the same time, the guidelines stop well short of encouraging uniformity. Its chapter on altering existing structures in fact encourages "differentiation" features that allow new construction to be distinguished from the original buildings so as to avoid creating "a false sense of historical development."

"New construction should not be radically different in style or materials; however, minor differences can be used effectively to distinguish new from old," the guidelines state.

One way to achieve this, according to the guidelines, is to use "similar but simplified decorative details at the addition, which would allow the addition to read as subordinate to the historic building." And if the addition has the same number of stories as the original structure, the builder is encourage to place the eave heights of the addition slightly lower to indicate the beginning of new construction and to indicate the primacy of the original residence."

For new homes (a rare occurrence in the mostly built-out neighborhood), builders are challenged to balance the overarching mandate for "compatibility" with this call for differentiation.

"As opportunities for new residential construction arise, it is critical to design buildings to be compatible with the neighborhood's early residences, yet also differentiated in some way in order to continue the physical record of historical development in the district," the guidelines state. "The most important considerations for compatibility include site placement, general form and massing, size and height, and fenestration patterns."

"Designing a home that takes into consideration these aspects of the historic character of surrounding homes would ensure that the overall appearance and feeling of Professorville remain distinguishable."


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8 people like this
Posted by Ugly
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 10, 2016 at 11:49 am

This is too funny. Professorville is an ugly area. [Portion removed.]

5 people like this
Posted by Be Positive
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Sep 10, 2016 at 12:51 pm

Be Positive is a registered user.

So if your house was built before 1930 it can't be torn down - that just seriously devalued all those homes.

13 people like this
Posted by Allen Akin
a resident of Professorville
on Sep 10, 2016 at 5:01 pm

I've been involved with Professorville Design Guidelines in one way or another for nine years now. (I even paid for the first version myself.) This is the third attempt to create them.

Back in 2011 Planning put together a committee of architects and residents to develop guidelines as additions to the Individual Review process. I was on the committee, so I'm biased, but I liked this set the best -- it was short (about 10 pages) and did a decent job of balancing property-rights issues and preservation issues as well as simplifying the review process to make it faster. Those Guidelines made it through their final public hearings. Unfortunately, the people in Planning who were shepherding the project either retired or left for other cities, so they were never submitted for Council approval.

Last year Planning revived the project, but started a new set of Guidelines from scratch, using a consultant to develop them. This is the set that's up for approval on Monday. Planning says these are a continuation of the second set of Guidelines, but they're based on an entirely different concept and seem to be missing the text and pictures from the previous version. :-)

I'm opposing these. I believe there are some fundamental errors in the approach; for example, contributing and non-contributing houses are intentionally treated the same, which means non-contributors are restricted in the same way as historic houses. There's no improvement in the review process, which was one of the goals of the second set of Guidelines. Planning seems uncertain about whether these "voluntary" Guidelines are going to stay voluntary or in some way eventually become mandatory. Oh, and they're more than 100 pages long.

There are plenty of other issues. I've written extensively about them and discussed them with Planning, without much success. You can find the last few things I've written on the subject in the emails to Council. (The last one just went out today, so I'm not sure whether it will appear on the City website before the meeting.)

Anyway, if you have time, it's worth reading the proposed Guidelines and sending your opinion to Council. You can find them here: Web Link

@Ugly: Professorville started out as a small "point of historic interest", but it's been expanded a couple of times into the current Historic District. The current District is much less consistent, and includes a bunch of non-contributing houses, but I particularly like the original area (built almost completely before 1911, and site of the vast majority of early professors' houses).

@Be Positive: Devaluation like you describe certainly can happen, but I don't think it's likely in this case. There's too much demand in the area. Possibly the smaller, older houses won't appreciate as much, and the new/remodeled/larger houses will appreciate more (because they won't have as much competition).

7 people like this
Posted by Over 100 pages
a resident of Professorville
on Sep 11, 2016 at 2:03 pm

When the city doesn't want us to read a document, they make it very long. City Council packets have ballooned into hundreds, yes hundreds, of pages.

Not long ago I went through the packet frequently. Now I don't even try.
This is one of the downsides of everyone having computers. It's so easy to attach prior documents without even looking at them.
Lots of repetition and long, unnecessary explanations.

Good example here: 10 pages turned into 100 pages.
The City Manager has succeeded. Fewer people read city documents now.

11 people like this
Posted by Litgal
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 12, 2016 at 12:25 pm

My mother lived in Professorville as a little girl while her father, Prof. Bolton, taught history at Stanford & before leaving Stanford to teach at Cal in 1911. I love Professorville and support maintaining Professorville's unique character as much as possible.

4 people like this
Posted by Oldster
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 12, 2016 at 1:25 pm

So, 100 pages of staff and consultant "guidelines" - so much paper some think it will pass and be implemented without a nasty boomerang once the details hit the wall of reality when homeowners try to work with said 100 pages as they want to remodel or update their homes in Professorville.

The last time this historic papering-over happened in Professorville - and shortly thereafter all over town, too - we had an architectural historian on staff who strictly interpreted the historic guidelines all over town for anything over 50 years with the support of an appointed historic board. When she refused to allow a homeowner to replace 1960s aluminum windows with more original wood windows on an old Art Deco/Spanish house from the 1930s because that wouldn't honor the whole history of the house I decided then and then if someone at City Hall wants to "preserve" the history of a house or neighborhood they better pay for it by eminent domain and not back-door cementing in administrative procedures their own tastes for old architecture. Alternatively, anyone owning an older house can use the Mills Act to avoid lots of taxes if the house is truly worthy of historic preservation. (And good luck once the Mills Act in on something to sell it fast for top dollar. See the example of the Squire House in town.)

This town about 20 years ago was split down the middle with the last historic preservation ordinance implemented so badly which was tossed by voters. If the City Council passes this Professorville history preservation dealmtonight we can all meet again at the ballot box.

12 people like this
Posted by slopoet
a resident of Professorville
on Sep 12, 2016 at 1:27 pm

I'm cheating by selecting Professorville as my neighborhood, as I now live in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. However, I DID live in Professorville during the years from 1973 to 2008, so I still feel very connected to the area. A friend sent me this article today, and I have just looked through the guidelines. I was very pleasantly surprised. What I read gave me hope that Palo Altans might actually appreciate the historic architectural treasures that have survived the onslaught of demolitions. The guidelines appear to be extremely carefully worded not to offend anyone(!) but I hope that as guidelines, their prescriptions would hold weight. I wish this process a speedy conclusion, and a yea vote for adopting the guidelines.

6 people like this
Posted by Oldster
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 12, 2016 at 1:47 pm

Thanks for the weblink to the packet, Mr. Akin. It's hysterical how there seems to be no mention at all in 188 pages of the Measure G fiasco in 2000. The last time the voters spun up on this issue was after the City tried to backdoor historic guidelines in what was thought by many to be a voluntary Professorville area. If this new "guidelines" passes, an Old Palo Alto Historic District will be next or maybe the Downtown Historic District.

Here is Measure G in all its glory:
Web Link

4 people like this
Posted by Apparently a minority voice
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 12, 2016 at 4:56 pm

"The goal of the new Professorville Historic District Design Guidelines is to help manage new development in the area. A report from the Department of Planning and Community Environment calls the document "a tool for members of the community to evaluate the compatibility of proposed development with the historic character of Professorville.""

I wish "Professorville" had been replaced with "Palo Alto" here and throughout. Wouldn't it have been nice if all of Palo Alto had been protected by guidelines such as this a few years back? Oh wait ... there were some once, right?

5 people like this
Posted by voice of reason
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 12, 2016 at 9:22 pm

TO Apparently a minority voice:

Actually, there are still guidelines. The Planning Dept just routinely ignores them.

6 people like this
Posted by Me
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 13, 2016 at 6:27 am

Just because a bunch of Stanford profs lives there, this district is historic?

I find that ironic given the history of friction between Palo Alto residentialists and Stanford when it comes to development.

Also, given the need to (lamely) reinterpret views on people whose names grace our schools (i.e. Jordan), I bet a bunch of those profs also held views that are no longer deemed "acceptable" by today's standards.

It's time to fire up the research to see if those profs believe in eugenics too. Maybe that'll just wake everyone up on how stupid it is to deem everything "historic" when it's just simply old.

5 people like this
Posted by Miriam Palm
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 13, 2016 at 10:55 am

Miriam Palm is a registered user.

One of the attractions, I assume, of people wanting to live in Palo Alto, is the lovely old, architecturally interesting, well-kept homes with attractive yards on leafy boulevards in many parts of our town. If we allow these homes to be demolished, this charm will be diminished.

Many of these homes are described and documented on the Palo Alto-Stanford Heritage website Web Link Preserving our history is important to many of us so we know where we came from. New members of our community are interested in it too.

7 people like this
Posted by Allen Akin
a resident of Professorville
on Sep 13, 2016 at 11:52 am

Well, nothing was concluded last night. There were last-second changes that weren't available to the public and Council couldn't agree about. Final decision postponed to a date TBD.

My reading of the situation is that the Guidelines eventually will be approved, and it's likely they'll be made mandatory (rather than advisory) at some point in the future.

I think this is unfortunate. These Guidelines aren't based on a principled definition of the historic district, so they force more conformity on the houses than actually existed historically. If they're made mandatory, they'd restrict many owners in ways they've never been restricted before, and without much justification.

4 people like this
Posted by Over 100 paages
a resident of Professorville
on Sep 13, 2016 at 1:14 pm

No one is forced to live in Professorville. There are any number of nice neighborhoods into which people can move and buy.

I don't think it is fair to move into an area and make major changes to OTHER people's environment. Changing the inside of a structure is perfectly ok. Even adding on. But what incompatible construction does, it changes the neighbors environment, so that trendy me, me, me gets what it wants.

5 people like this
Posted by Allen Akin
a resident of Professorville
on Sep 13, 2016 at 2:38 pm

@Over 100 paages: If you want a neighborhood that prohibits change altogether, those are available, too; you can move there rather than telling OTHER people they can no longer make changes they were previously allowed to make. :-)

A more nuanced view is that people should agree about the type and extent of the changes that are allowed, and also agree not to alter that too drastically or unilaterally. Like zoning.

Professorville was settled in part because Stanford wouldn't give his faculty the property rights they wanted if they built on campus. Professorville has the character it has today in part because people built what they chose: Some houses are mansions, some are cottages; some are Colonial-style, some are Spanish; and so on.

A balance between stasis and change is what's needed. Personally, I think some neighborhoods in Professorville benefit from stasis, and in others the old houses can hold their own against newer ones. After all, that's the way the district developed.

2 people like this
Posted by Oldster
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 19, 2016 at 2:44 pm

Nice to have seen a City Council majority last week send this scheme back to the public comment drawing board after last minute edits were inserted by the consultants and some - but not a majority - of the Council members who wanted homeowners to have less wiggle room. It will be interesting to see which City Council runners say what on ths issue.

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

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