Among the many consequences of Palo Alto's extraordinary high housing prices and the region's housing shortage is a growing divide between new owners of Eichler homes and those who have lived in them for decades.
Eichlers, which were largely built during Palo Alto's housing boom in the 1950s, feature open floor plans, floor-to-ceiling windows and the integration of indoor and outdoor spaces. They were largely built as single-story homes and therefore created privacy between next-door neighbors.
Over the last decade, the value of these Palo Alto homes, like the rest of Palo Alto real estate, has soared, but Eichlers have been among the most affordable in the city. As a result, they have attracted buyers who see these homes for their expansion potential, generally by adding a second floor with additional bedrooms.
While that same pattern has occurred throughout the city over the last four decades, the Eichler design makes second-story additions much more intrusive because upstairs windows enable views directly into neighbors' windows and backyards, undermining the most appealing architectural features of Eichlers and, over time, changing the character of the neighborhood.
Over the last few years, several south Palo Alto neighborhoods have erupted in controversy as some home owners sought City Council approval of an "overlay" zone prohibiting second stories through a procedure of obtaining the support on petitions of at least 60 percent of the residents. In several instances, after achieving this required threshold, support had eroded by the time the petition was heard by the council, and in two instances in 2016, the petition ended up being denied. Prior to these rejections, several restrictive overlay zones had been approved and are still in place.
Disturbed by the neighborhood vitriol that was surfacing with these proposals, in 2016 the City Council wisely decided to step back and engage a consultant planning firm to develop draft design guidelines for the expansion of Eichler homes. The hope was that such guidelines could be the best way to balance the desire of those wanting to expand their homes with a second story (or a complete re-build) with the privacy interests of immediate neighbors and would help preserve the design integrity of Eichlers.
On Monday night, the council will discuss the draft Eichler Neighborhood Design Guidelines, a 126-page document that "is intended to assist property owners, city staff, the design community ... to sustain the architectural character of Eichler neighborhoods and ensure that changes to the built environment will be sensitive to the community's design legacy."
The guidelines are described as "voluntary," but the staff is asking for direction from the council on whether to prepare zoning-ordinance amendments or modify single-family-home design standards that would enable enforcement of the design guidelines during the city's review process.
Currently, any property owner in the city proposing a new two-story home or the addition of a second story to an existing home, including in Eichler neighborhoods, must go through a process called "individual review" that utilizes a similar but more generic, design handbook and addresses privacy, building mass and streetscape issues but not architectural style.
That process was adopted when a wave of tear-downs and second story additions was sweeping across north Palo Alto in the 1990s and residents demanded a process for public review and for requiring conformance with design guidelines. Until this was implemented, there were no restrictions on what a home owner could build as long as it was within the lot-coverage, set-back and floor-area-ratio requirements in the zoning law. The individual-review process, conceived by a small citizens committee appointed by the council, has been hugely successful at getting developers to work with neighbors and has drastically reduced conflict and prevented inappropriate intrusions on neighbors.
The new draft Eichler guidelines are intended to go further by addressing neighborhood compatibility specifically for Eichler neighborhoods. The guidelines provide a useful and comprehensive overview of how homeowners should design their Eichler additions to preserve their home's design integrity while protecting neighbors.
After completing this ambitious effort to create these design guidelines, we see no benefit to making them voluntary. If established as only optional, neighbor conflicts will continue and bad design will gradually undermine neighborhood character.
As recommended by the staff and a unanimous Historic Resources Board, we urge the City Council to adopt the draft guidelines and direct the staff to develop the needed changes to the zoning ordinance and single-family-home design standards so that the guidelines can be utilized in the individual-review process and when evaluating requests for variances and home-improvement exceptions.