Nothing disrupts neighborhood harmony like new buildings that don't seem to fit in.
Whether it's in Eichler neighborhoods, where residents complain about "two-story teardowns" looming over their homes, or on University Avenue, where a developer's quest for a four-story building was recently foiled by a neighbor's appeal, architectural compatibility remains a contentious topic throughout Palo Alto.
On Monday, the council took two actions aimed at calming the tension and bringing some clarity to residents, applicants and city staff. It approved a consulting contract for a firm that will develop architectural design guidelines for Eichler neighborhoods, which are distinguished by one-story homes with glass doors, ample windows and spacious backyards.
Then, in a separate vote, the council revised the "architectural findings" that staff and the Architectural Review Board use to evaluate new developments. Together, the two votes aim to bring some order and simplicity to a what has been a cumbersome and, at times, highly controversial process.
The Eichler study was prompted by a series of neighborhood disputes. Over the past year, residents from four Eichler neighborhoods had petitioned to ban new two-story homes altogether, controversial proposals that pitted neighbors against one another. Two of these neighborhoods, Los Arboles and Greer Park North, succeeded in getting the "single-story overlay" zoning. In two others -- Faircourt and Royal Manor -- the support level fell just short of the needed threshold.
In every case, supporters of the overlay zone argued that two-story buildings violate their privacy and disrupt the harmony of their neighborhoods. Opponents counter that banning two-story buildings would violate their property rights and prevent them from future expansions of their homes.
The new guidelines are, in a sense, a compromise. Once adopted, they would spell out the rules for building two-story homes in Eichler enclaves while ensuring that these buildings are designed in such a way that their owners won't be able to look inside neighbors' homes or overshadow their yards.
According to a new report from the Department of Planning and Community Environment, the new effort may include changes to the Individual Review program, with "specific Eichler guidelines for second floor additions and new two-story homes for design and privacy compatibility with nearby homes in Eichler tracts."
The guidelines for Eichler neighborhoods will be prepared by the firm Page and Turnbull under a $105,930 contract that the City Council unanimously approved Monday. The effort will also include “developing an understanding of the different Eichler neighborhoods, outreach to residents and owners about these neighborhoods and future redevelopment, and to establish guidelines and a review process to evaluate future new home construction,” according to the report.
While the new guidelines would apply specifically to homes in Palo Alto's 21 Eichler neighborhoods, the newly revised "architectural findings" pertain to developments every part of the city. As part of the revision, city staff pared down the list of 16 findings to six, in hopes of reducing redundancy and make the lengthy review process more efficient.
The ambiguous nature of these findings became a problem during several recent episodes in which residents filed appeals against new developments, prompting the council to assume architectural-review duties. In one recent case, a four-story development proposed for 429 University Ave. (former site of Shady Lane) won the approval from the Architectural Review Board, only to be appealed and then rejected by the council on the grounds that it wasn't compatible with the surrounding buildings.
"We've seen these compatibility requirements not ignored but subject to interpretation of the ARB," Councilman Tom DuBois said Monday night.
Though the revised findings don't represent any significant policy changes, they have been the product of more than a year of staff work and three reviews by the council before the Monday adoption. The goal of the revision, according to a report from planning staff, is to "facilitate easier review, reduce writing and reading fatigue, and improve analysis." The new findings also aim to "provide applicants a better understanding of how projects will be evaluated" and "improve the standing of the projects in court."
The streamlined list of findings calls for zoning compliance and neighborhood compatibility; a "unified and coherent design" that creates an "internal sense of order and desirable environment"; high aesthetic quality; a functional design that facilitates easy and safe bicycle and pedestrian traffic; a landscaping plan that utilizes regional indigenous, drought-resident plants; and sustainability in areas related to energy efficiency, water conservation, building materials, landscaping and site planning.
The council had previously reviewed the findings in April and in September, with members offering fresh recommendations on both occasions. On Monday night, the council was generally pleased with the product and voted 7-0, with Marc Berman and Liz Kniss absent, to approve the revised findings.
"If it won't change policy, the important thing to do is to make it cleaner and less work for staff," Vice Mayor Greg Scharff said.