New rules aim to promote architectural harmony in Palo Alto

City moves ahead with Eichler design guidelines; revises 'architectural findings'

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.


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18 people like this
Posted by TorreyaMan
a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 15, 2016 at 10:22 am

TorreyaMan is a registered user.

Two-story overlays over existing one-story Eichler (and other) residences is an important issue. To me, however, replacement of or additions to existing residences in uniformly designed subdivisions like Torreya Court and adjacent Loma Verde, Holly Oak, etc, with architecturally unrelated styles is a greater concern. We fear that someone may purchase one of our neighborhood Eichler residences and replace it with, perhaps, a gaudy Mediterranean style. Will this study and potential new rules address this issue?

27 people like this
Posted by Stew Plock
a resident of Triple El
on Nov 15, 2016 at 10:52 am

When developing new remodeling or replacement guidelines for Eichler communities, a good test of an idea might be to say "what would Mr. Eichler say about this?" One key aspect of keeping Eichlers single story is the amazing ability to sit in one's own courtyard or living room and see nothing but trees and blue skies in all directions. Eichler designed these homes in Palo Alto so that, even though they are on modest sized lots, you get the feeling when you are inside or outside that you are surrounded by nature. And that's compared to staring at a very tall(up to 17 feet)or a second story. The 360 degree view from our property is unobstructed and that's the genius of the Eichler design...let's preserve that as we reconsider how Eichlers are modified or replaced.

22 people like this
Posted by Wright Fan
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 15, 2016 at 12:46 pm

What would Frank Lloyd Wright, whom Eichler studied under, think about all of this?

My guess is that he would be nauseated by what they have allowed to happen to the Eichler neighborhoods!

9 people like this
Posted by Oldster
a resident of Professorville
on Nov 15, 2016 at 5:34 pm

Eichler was a developer, not an architect. He studied and greatly admired Frank Lloyd Wright but he never studied "under" him. Here is a link to a great story about Eichler and Eichler Homes from the LA Times Web Link

Robert Anshen of Anshen + Allen was Eichler's architect and he did a wonderful job of translating Wright's aesthetic into a cost effective mass market housing product. I suspect that with time the Eichlers in the protected neighborhoods will come to command a higher price than the ones in the neighborhoods that allow two story additions. Square footage isn't everything.

19 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 15, 2016 at 5:48 pm

I don't have an Eichler but my house has as much
glass surrounding a backyard patio. It's not
just in Eichler neighborhoods that we need to respect privacy, as well as style, scale. The
problem is the Single-Family Individual Review process and it's objectives is not even close to being fully implemented and respected by the staff. Combine this with too-narrow setbacks in the zoning code, and the disastrous impacts keep growing. Combine this with traffic and parking issues, sign clutter and street paint and
Palo Alto is falling well below even the norm in Bay Area communities let alone what it once was.

8 people like this
Posted by Be_Truthful_and_Unbiased
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Nov 15, 2016 at 7:38 pm

It is important that professional (and even semi-professional) journalists be truthful and unbiased.

In this article, the author should have included the actual support levels to justify the word "just" in the statement below. As per the background information I know, this word does not reflect the whole truth 100% accurately. In addition, in all fairness, the article should have provided the actual data, and leave the judgement to the readers.
"In two others -- Faircourt and Royal Manor -- the support level fell just short of the needed threshold."

In the following sentence, the word "succeeded" undermines the author's supposedly neutral stance, if there is one to begin with.
"Two of these neighborhoods, Los Arboles and Greer Park North, succeeded in getting the "single-story overlay" zoning."

CAUTION: Don't try to subtly manipulate the public opinion to fit your hidden agenda.

1 person likes this
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 16, 2016 at 12:33 pm

It's not that that "architectural harmony" is a bad idea. Especially for
those of us who have grown up in Palo Alto or been here for a very long
time the increasing pace of change and real estate turnover is a lot to
have forced on us, and promises only to get worse and more complicated.

It's in the trying to decide what "architectural harmony" is and implementing
it that is problematic. Try to tell me that mainly it is not the rich and well
connected that get protection, while many others are forced to endure
long construction disturbances and permanent blights on their views
and the amount of light they receive.

It doesn't seem fair to those who live adjacent to built up their houses
that only now there is regulation. There is actual monetary harm done
already, and if the City is going to undertake this effort, should it be
liable for losses incurred to people already living next to perceived
monstrosities. What were perceived as monstrosities before are
now all over Palo Alto.

Why is it only Eichler owners are considered distinctive enough to
receive regulatory protection by the City? I like Eichlers, and
I do not find them to be ugly or offensive in any way, but they are
almost by definition single story and in this area for what you pay,
mostly for the land, do not allow buyers to get the value from
their land, meaning that those in these neighborhoods are keeping
people stuck here because the prices of their houses is artificially
low. I can understand it, and if I was in that situation would probably
want to do the same, but ONLY EICHLERS, and can the City promise
this will last forever? It's a tough call.

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

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